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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