Wednesday, May 22, 2024

BTRTN: Campus Protest, Rafah, Netanyahu, and the Law of Intended Consequences

The “law of unintended consequences” leads to embarrassing and counterproductive outcomes. But the “law of intended consequences” can lead to worse.  As the tinderbox burns, Steve reflects on the quiet wisdom of Joe Biden.

My favorite example of the “law of unintended consequences” is the story of the legislators who originally wanted to name the most northwestern state in the lower 48 after the grand river that flowed through it. But there was concern that if the state was named “Columbia,” it would be confused with the “District of Columbia.”

So they decided to name it “Washington” instead.

You see my point.

A recent example: Donald Trump blocked the passage of a bipartisan immigration law because he wanted the issue to remain an unresolved nightmare for the Biden administration right up until election day. But in blocking the measure, Trump neutered the issue: now Biden can say that he was ready to sign the exact bill that Republicans wanted – and that it was Donald Trump who didn’t want to solve the border problems.  Not exactly the outcome Trump intended.


Thousands of students across our land expressed outrage about the massive death toll and human suffering in Palestine due to the scale and manner of Israel’s war to destroy Hamas. They rose in protest, made demands that college endowments divest of Israeli companies, and threatened to sit out the November election, believing the Biden administration significantly to blame for the carnage in Gaza.

But if these students – whose politics tend to lean Democratic -- sit out the election, they will increase the likelihood that Donald Trump will be elected. Then, the students would quickly discover that Trump will be far worse for innocent citizens in Gaza than Biden. The students appear unaware that Trump wouldn’t put up any objection to Bibi Netanyahu’s policies. Donald Trump generally doesn’t care about collateral damage as long he gets elected, makes money, and stays out of jail.

So, please, all you bright, young, progressive-leaning college students, go to school on the law of unintended consequences. If you do care passionately about the innocent civilians in Gaza, vote. Specifically, vote for Joe Biden. If you sit out the election, you may bear responsibility for the election of Donald Trump, for causing even greater calamity in Gaza, and possibly living the rest of your lives under authoritarian rule.

Yep, that’s what we call the law of unintended consequences.

Here are a couple more examples.

Israel, justifiably outraged by the October 7 attacks, announced its intention to eradicate Hamas. To destroy Hamas, it embarked on a campaign of such epic carnage and civilian death that Israel is likely to have turned many previously politically uninvolved Gazans into Hamas supporters and perhaps even into Hamas soldiers. In the long run, the Israeli war may very well be increasing the scope of Hamas rather than eradicating it.

Beyond Gaza, their are the unintended consequences to Israel's relations with the global community. Whether Israel wants to hear it, acknowledge it, believe it, or accept it, it has managed to take a horrible situation in which they were immediately buttressed by the unwavering, unconditional support of democratic nations around the world ...and turn it into a situation in which Israel is distanced and isolated, having alienated many nations.

Unintended consequences.

Now, today, a still greater risk lurks. Israel’s war to eradicate Hamas may be driving a very serious wedge between Israel and its greatest ally and supporter.

It’s not clear whether Israel will proceed with a full-bore military offensive in Rafah that the Biden administration has refused to condone. Joe Biden went on CNN to firmly state the United States is holding up shipment of the 2,000-pound bombs that “had been historically used to deal with the cities.” For months, Bibi Netanyahu had pointedly ignored the requests from the Biden administration to wage war against Hamas in a manner more mindful of collateral damage and civilian casualties. Joe Biden finally put his foot down. With a million Gazan refugees in Rafah, Biden drew the line. No plan to minimize civilian casualties, no 2,000 pound bombs.

Israeli leaders quickly reacted to Biden’s CNN interview. Israeli U.N. Ambassador Gildan Erdan said that Biden's decision "can encourage the enemies of the State of Israel." Miki Zohar, a senior official in the Likud party, said it was “amazing to discover that the world has forgotten what happened in Israel on October 7.” That’s quite an accusation to make about a country that has put its full measure of backing for Israel, and about a president who has absorbed a substantial political hit for his unqualified support.

Back in the U.S., Republican opportunists like New York Congressman Mike Lawler immediately tried to smear Joe Biden as weak in his support for Israel by saying “So what the president is doing here is capitulating because of electoral politics, because he's concerned about the vote in Michigan and Minnesota. And that is taking precedence over eliminating a terrorist threat. And to me that's unconscionable.”

Leave it to hucksters like Lawler to conflate principled humanitarian conditions on arms shipments with pandering for votes. Mike, you can disagree with the principle, but it’s so cheesily disingenuous of you to accuse Biden of acting solely for political gain when the President has already absorbed a huge political penalty for the principled stand he has taken to date. And, oh, by the way, wasn't that your candidate for President who so recently blocked that border bill in a pure political ploy for votes? Here's the biggest irony: you have to figure that Lawler is unaware that in 1982 Republican icon Ronald Reagan ordered Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin to halt an attack because of the carnage it was causing to civilians. Begin ended the attack immediately. Yes, Mike, your own hero put conditions on weapons to Israel.

As barbed as Zohar’s statement was, Bibi Netanyahu managed a still more gratuitous comment.

Upon learning of Biden’s CNN interview, Netanyahu said that “If Israel is forced to stand alone, Israel will stand alone.” Axios reported that in a security cabinet meeting the next day, Netanyahu “went on a rant,” culminating with the proclamation that “we are not a vassal state of the United States!” If the United States puts conditions on military aid, that means we are treating Israel like a vassal state?   

In times of crisis, over-heated and self-involved rhetoric is rarely helpful.

Since World War II, Israel has received $312 billion dollars in U.S. support… more than any other country, and that by a margin of over $100 billion. In 2022, the number was $3.3 billion. The $95 billion dollar spending package recently approved by Congress includes another $26 billion for Israel.

For Netanyahu to imply that ignoring Biden yet again meant that Israel's incursion into Rafah was “going it alone” is un peu de trop. “Going it alone?” That would be to forgo all United States support. Bibi Netanyahu would be wise to think about what would happen to Israel if he truly acted on the words he is saying.

It is worthwhile to analyze Netanyahu’s tantrum through the lens of political self-interest. There has been much reporting on the idea that prolonging and intensifying the combat reinforces Netanyahu’s stature as a “wartime leader,” which solidifies his shaky hold on power in Israel.

And then there is the consideration that in ignoring Biden’s wishes and warnings for six months, Netanyahu must be aware -- and not particularly concerned -- that he is embarrassing Biden and making him appear weak on the domestic front. This, too, increases the possibility that the far more malleable and manipulable Donald Trump will be elected. Perhaps that is in the back of Bibi’s mind.

It may be helpful to consider a pointed analogy: for the full duration of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Joe Biden has refused to provide Ukraine with F16 fighter jets out of concern that this would result in a huge escalation of that war. Ukraine President Volodymyr Zelenskyy has never publicly scolded the President of the United States for a decision that one sovereign nation makes about the aid it provides to another.

Before Bibi Netanyahu continues to ignore Joe Biden's wishes and launches “shock and awe” in Rafah, he might want to study the “law of unintended consequences.”

For one thing, he may have missed the point that Donald Trump and his band of MAGA numb-nuts espouse the most isolationist political stance since Joe Kennedy wanted to keep the United States out of World War II. If Trump gets back in the White House, Secretary of State Marjorie Taylor Green will pull every U.S. military asset out of Ukraine, ignore Israel, and put it all toward the task of sealing the southern border.

Moreover, Netanyahu should know that Donald Trump has absolutely no hard and fast political belief system other than self-aggrandizement. Trump would abandon Israel in a heartbeat if it would enhance his own political or financial fortune. 

Netanyahu may not like Joe Biden’s principles, but he is going to have a very rude awakening if he must deal with a president who has no principles… a president who would sell Israel down the river in a heartbeat if the price was right and the money went straight into his own bank account.

Which brings us back to the law of intended consequences.  “Unintended consequences” is when a specific outcome is sought, but the result is chaos. “Intended consequence,” however is when a malevolent actor uses chaos to trigger a specific outcome.

In other words, terrorism… the terrorism that Hamas committed on October 7.

For all the fury, hatred, sickness, and violence of October 7, it seems likely that Hamas had a game plan: to commit such horrifying atrocities that it would bait Israel into blind rage, uncontrolled vengeance, and military overreach. The intent was that Israel’s overreaction would spur conflict among its allies, erode its global support, test its friendships, and that the overall diminution of support would leave an isolated Israel to “go it alone.”

Joe Biden saw it all very clearly in remarks directed to Israel on October 18, 2023… eleven days after the horrific terror attacks.

“Justice must be done. But I caution this: While you feel that rage, don't be consumed by it. After 9/11 we were enraged in the United States. While we sought justice and got justice, we also made mistakes.”

Hamas unleashed the law of intended consequences. And it has managed to succeed, breeding chaos in the middle east, sowing domestic division in the United States, and driving a wedge between two of the greatest allies in world history.

All this criticism of Joe Biden?

It seems to me that right about now would be a good time for people to finally listen to Joe Biden.

He has been the calming, even, steady presence throughout this horrific period.

He’s the one who warned Israel not to overreact.

He’s the one who has willingly borne the political price of supporting Israel even as he urged Netanyahu to pursue a more humane policy.

Now, he’s the one who finally put his foot down.

He’s the one who is attempting to manage the very intentional chaos that Hamas set loose upon the world.

It is time to stop triggering unintended consequences. It is time for everyone to stop acting without thoughtful anticipation of the likely unintended outcomes. 

No, protestors, don’t sit out the election. The only consequence of that is the abdication of your input. To abstain is to make the choice to be a person of no consequence.

Bibi Netanyahu, maybe you should listen to Joe Biden, too. Don’t wreak the same civilian carnage in Rafah that you have done in Gaza City, and isolate Israel on the global stage. Don't let Hamas succeed in driving a wedge between you and your most important -- and loyal -- ally. That can't be anyone's idea of a desirable consequence.

My fellow citizens, don’t miss the big point, the endgame. Some of you may think Joe Biden is too old, or that gas costs too much, or that you wish you had a different set of choices.

In an election of this magnitude, that's all small ball, all so much staring through the wrong end of the telescope.

There is a choice before us all. Our decisions, our actions -- and inaction -- all have consequence.

To allow Donald Trump to be elected in November is to have the intended consequence of unfathomable chaos. 

Which is to say: it is no longer enough to simply vote for Joe Biden.

It is time to get out and get to work to re-elect Joe Biden. Roll up your sleeves, all hands on deck.

It is the only acceptable consequence.











Friday, May 3, 2024

BTRTN: On Johnson’s Political “Courage”, Trump’s Pouty Contempt and Biden’s Polling Comeback

Tom with the April 2024 BTRTN Month in Review.

APRIL 2024

Much has been made of the legislative triumph of the month, the passage of a $95 billion package which in four separate bills provided badly needed and long overdue aid to Ukraine, plus support for Israel and Taiwan, and an anti-TikTok sop to the hard right.  There has been strong bipartisan praise for Speaker Mike Johnson for steering the package through the House; much homage has been paid for his political “courage” in facing down the crazies, led by Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who threatened to end his speakership if he went through with, in particular, the Ukraine bill.

“Courage” is a strong word and, in this case, misplaced.  One definition of “courage” is to take, quite consciously, a course of action that benefits the greater good but also results in personal detriment or harm. This does not describe Johnson -- he simply behaved rationally, as politicians are wont to do, given the set of circumstances he faced. 

Political courage is, too say the least, hard to come by.  Almost every politician is hardwired to the quest for re-election, at minimum, and also, often, ambition for higher office.  Every action is measured through the prism of what course will best achieve those ends.  Political calculation is endless, spin is reflexive and other considerations – such as doing the right thing -- are secondary at best and nonexistant as the norm.  Politicians have a lust for self-preservation and are heat-seeking missiles for the option that will best advance their careers.  I have often said that, because of that, politicians, even when they seem to be at their craziest, actually are the most rational humans of them all. Matt Gaetz does what he does because he was reelected in 2022 by a 68%/32% margin.  His constituents love him, and they are all that matter.  Ditto Marjorie Taylor-Green (66%/34%).  These people are not crazy.  They do what they do because that maximizes their self-interest, and their lopsided wins validate their choices.

Mike Johnson displayed more logic than courage in his calculus.  While the threat to his speakership was, on the surface, a real one (see:  Kevin McCarthy), the rest of the equation easily overcame that consideration.  Most importantly, Johnson had Trump’s backing, which is worth almost everything in GOP politics, particularly in the House. Johnson knew that Trump was unhappy with the threat of another speaker dump, which would underscore the GOP's inability to govern, an impression (or fact) that Trump clearly wants the GOP to avoid in an election year.  Johnson also knew that the funds were necessary for Ukraine’s survival – Biden ensured he was amply briefed -- and if Russia overran them it would reflect poorly on both him and the GOP come Election Day.   He also knew that the votes were there for Ukraine, if only he brought the bill to the floor.  He probably could also envision that, far from damaging him, the passage of the Ukraine bill would bring him bipartisan plaudits.  

The calculus was thus simple – the outcome was more likely to help him than hurt him.  So he brought the bill to the floor; it passed; the Senate passed it; Biden signed it; and Mike Johnson was the hero.  Taylor-Greene’s forthcoming motion to vacate is now dead in the water and the Dems have vowed to protect Johnson with their votes, keep this de facto coalition government in place and see what else they might be able to enact.  The real hero here is Hakeem Jeffries, not for his courage, but rather for his creativity and ability to properly read the situation and work it for the benefit of the country.

We have seen examples of political courage of late, most notably, perhaps, by Lynn Cheney and, to a lesser extent, Jeff Flake and Adam Kensinger, all of whom forfeited their political careers to publicly oppose Donald Trump, and swiftly paid the price.  Cheney lost her re-election attempt, Flake and Kenzinger stepped down, and, unless they are playing a very long game indeed, none has a future in electoral politics.  These people faced the demise of their political futures squarely, did what they felt was right, and paid the price.  Now that’s courage.

The Trump “hush money” trial began in New York City, and quickly became a riveting spectacle.  Long decried as the weakest of the criminal cases against Trump, it now is viewed in a different light.  First, it is the only Trump criminal trial likely to be completed – or perhaps even started – before the election.  Second, it is the most lurid of the trials, featuring affairs with porn stars and playmates, hidden hush money payoffs, and sleazy tabloid deals.  That makes it, in our sorry society, the most salacious and thus intriguing trial of them all, the one most accessible to the masses.  The charges, that involve 34 counts of fraudulent bookkeeping, may be rather banal, but the witnesses are colorful, and the testimony is certainly sordid.  It is also the trial that Trump hates the most, as it exposes his seamiest side, which is saying something, in a setting he cannot control and belabors to spin.

After the jury selection came the opening statements and the astonishing testimony of David Pecker, the former CEO of American Media (AMI), publisher of the National Inquirer, and practitioner-in-chief of the infamous “catch and kill” gambit of buying and burying stories to protect celebrities.  Pecker testified to doing this twice for Trump, and then begging off a third time when the Stormy Daniels threat arose, because Trump, characteristically, had welched on paying Pecker back for the first two.  Pecker suggested that Trump fixer Michael Cohen instead pay off Daniels himself, which Cohen did on Trump’s behalf, and was repaid in a trail of journal entries that clearly were false. 

Most on point, Pecker completely demolished the defense’s crucial contention that Trump was acting, in the Daniels case, solely to protect his family, instead making clear that the entire, er, affair, was designed explicitly to protect instead Trump’s 2016 presidential election prospects.  This is the heart of the defense.  Pecker made clear that every payoff, including the ones to Trump’s doorman and Playboy playmate Karen McDougal, was designed to protect the campaign, and that Pecker was the “eyes and ears” for such potential extortion attempts based on Trump dalliances.  The falsification charges are reliant on linking the payoffs to the campaign, which would make them in violation of election law, and, in this regard, Pecker’s testimony could not have been more damning.

The prosecutors are building the case essentially without Michael Cohen, using evidence developed independently of him.  When Cohen finally testifies, it will be to corroborate what others are detailing, others who have more credibility than a convicted perjurer.  Pecker, however seamy his business, has been granted immunity and has never lied to a jury, and that is also true of other witnesses to the crime, including the various financial players who played roles in the obfuscation.

Trump has been a very pouty spectator, venting in his whiny post-appearnce rants and Truth Social posts.  He has used the latter to rip into future witnesses (like Cohen and Daniels) in clear violation of a court-mandated gag order.  The judge finally slapped Trump with nine counts of contempt of court citations, which cost Trump a measly $9,000.  The judge also made what is likely to be a very empty threat to incarcerate Trump if he continues to violate the order.

While a conviction is important – if Trump is exonerated before the election, that would be an unhappy and perhaps even devastating blow to Biden’s campaign – the trial has other ongoing adverse consequences for Trump.  Most notable is how this trial is sucking all of the oxygen out of Trump’s campaign.  He is spending so much time strenuously pegging the trial as a “witch hunt” that he has no airtime left with which to actually attack Biden’s policies and make a case for his own return to the White House.  The effect is much the same with his fundraising, the proceeds of which are largely being squandered on defending Trump in court(s), a fact that his larger donors are tiring of, and perhaps soon smaller ones as well.  It is striking how few Trump supporters are protesting the Manhattan trial in person, even as Trump has called for them to come in force.  Just days into the trial, the number of Trumpsters standing vigil outside the courtroom had dwindled down to a paltry few, literally numbering in the single digits.

As for Biden, there is clear evidence that he is making slow but steady progress in closing the gap with Trump in election polling.  Just a single point now separates Trump from Biden in the national polls, as the charts below demonstrate.  This is true whether considering either “two-way” polls that pit Trump versus Biden head-to-head, or “five-way” polls that include the minor candidates, Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., Cornel West and Jill Stein.  Also worth noting is both RFK Jr’s diminishing support over the last two months, which has been underreported.  RFK Jr. is clearly picking up increasing support among voters otherwise inclined to vote for Trump, which is making the Trump camp very unhappy.

To that point, the collective impact of the minor candidates appears to be about the same on both Biden and Trump, which was clearly not true in January, when Trump led Biden by five points in five-way polling, but only 1.4 points in the two-way (indicating the other candidates were hurting Biden a great deal).  Overall, Trump’s support has leveled at 42% while Biden’s has grown from 37% to 41% in the five-way race.

The evidence also points to a tightening race, since Biden’s State of the Union, in the swing states, where it matters.  Biden is just about even with Trump in the Big Three industrial states, Pennsylvania, Wisconsin and Michigan, while lagging in the two western and two southern states (though they are hardly out of reach).  Barring any change in Nebraska’s delegate allocation process (which awards delegates at both the statewide and district level), Biden only needs to win the Big Three to win the presidency, albeit by a 270-268 margin. 

Gaza and the campus protests, along with the Trump trials, have overwhelmed the April news cycle.  Remember immigration?  The number of illegal border crossings have dropped precipitously since the Mexican government began vigorously turning migrants back at their own southern border, threatening to turn the immigration issue into a cause not supported by facts, a la the fictional “rise of violent crime.”  How can there be a “border crisis” if the numbers crossing illegally drop to levels even with those seen during Trump’s time in office?

But Gaza continues to defy a solution, and Biden at this point desperately needs one that ends the conflict, at least temporarily, and shows progress on hostage release and humanitarian aid.  Negotiations proceed, but Netanyahu’s insistence on a Rafah invasion “with or without a deal” is the looming crisis, a red line that Biden has drawn.  The campus protests are a clear sign of the political stakes, clear evidence of the Democrats’ dilemma in supporting Israel’s military.  Biden, for his part, has ambition not only of stopping the fighting, but also securing a long-sought Saudi-Israeli normalization agreement, which has been delayed by the war and would not only contribute to a lasting Mideast peace but would be a key element of Biden’s legacy.

Biden continues to seek other ways to court the youth vote, by forgiving more student debt, his presumed support of the DOJ’s announced plans to reclassify marijuana as a less dangerous drug, and increasing his personal focus on abortion, where Kamala Harris has been the leading administration voice.  New news on abortion continues to roil campaign dynamics in his favor, with a new 6-week ban announced in Florida and the reinstatement (and now likely repeal) of an 1864 anti-abortion law in uber-swing-state Arizona.  Abortion will now be on the ballot in Florida, as the same judges who authorized the ban also allowed Florida voters to determine whether it shall stand come November.  Abortion is now officially on the ballot in Florida, New York and Maryland, and a dozen other states are in the process of qualifying for ballot status on either pro- or anti-abortion referendums.  

Biden is also contending with an economy that, while strong, continues to show just enough edginess (with inflation sticking in the 3%+ range and jobs continuing to roar) to keep the Fed from lowering interest rates just yet.  Barring another external shock, this election will hinge on key issues such as the economy, abortion, immigration, foreign policy and the threat to democracy.

On the latter issue, Trump himself continues to be Biden’s best asset on the campaign trail.  Trump’s interview with Time Magazine revealed in some detail his second-term plans, and they make his 2016-2020 first-term look like ‘Morning in America.”  First comes the elimination of all potential guardrails, the senior administration officials and career civil servants who stood in the way of Trump doing his worst.  Then comes an unencumbered imperial presidency that, as Trump might say, “has never been seen before.”  Among the many promises Trump made in the interview were mass deportations of the 11 million undocumented immigrants in this country, using the military to round them up; prosecuting women who have abortions in violation of state laws; pardons for those convicted for their actions on January 6, 2021; and abandoning NATO allies who have, in his view, insufficient military budgets.  Trump also trumpeted his claim to be a “Dictator for One Day,” and when challenged by the interviewer as to whether he recognized that such language scared Americans who understood it violated the underpinnings of our democracy, he breezily said that he thought the people liked it.

Stay tuned.


Joe Biden’s approval rating in April remained at 40% for the fifth straight month, and his net negative remained at -16 percentage points.  His issue ratings were also relatively unchanged.

The Democrats now enjoy a very modest +1 advantage in the generic ballot.

The "Bidenometer" dropped significantly from +47 to +33, driven by negative movement on every measure except the unemployment rate.  But the +33 level means the economy remains in far better shape under Biden than the disaster 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 +33 for April 2024 means that, on average, the five measures are 33% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +33, 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 much higher, the GDP is MUCH higher.  Only the price of gas is higher, which is a proxy for general inflation.

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 +33 under Biden.

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