Memoirs of the Addams Administration 8 May 2019.

Can President Donald Trump be re-elected in 2020?

Well, according to a recent poll, 55 percent of voters claim that they will not vote for Trump.[1]  So, no, Trump can’t be re-elected.      Democracy may do what the Democrats could not: force Donald Trump out of the White House.  Still, count no man happy until he is dead.

There are “Never Trump” Republicans.  A recent poll reported that 15 percent of self-identified Republicans claim that they won’t vote for Trump in 2020.  These dissident Republicans can’t turn a Senate election, but “en masse” they might help to provide a margin of victory in a presidential election.  Arguably, the Democrats will need to mobilize every anti-Trump vote to win back the White House.  What if these Republican dissidents sit-out the election in disgust?  Many Republicans did just that in the special election held to replace Senator Jeff Sessions (R—Alabama).  A Democrat won.  Where is that sweet spot between winning some Republican votes and not driving many of them off the sidelines into the arms of Trump as the least-worst alternative?  Right hard to say at this moment.

One issue might be health-care.  About 160 million Americans have private health insurance.  According to one poll, a substantial majority of them (58 percent) oppose eliminating private health insurance in favor of Senator Bernie Sanders’ “VA for All” campaign platform.[2]  However, leaving aside my cheap shot at Sanders, the problem may be with the messaging.  Sanders needs to explain that co-pays and deductibles will disappear in return for tax increases.  He needs to explain that a national health insurance system will be able to drive down costs by bargaining with pharmaceutical companies, medical device manufacturers, and—most of all—doctors.  IF voters can be persuaded that government control will lead to better outcomes at lower cost, then they might well go for it.  IF government can stick with its plan, then voters might well stick with it.

Another might be the economy.[3]  One poll reported that better than to-thirds (71 percent) of people “rate the nation’s economic conditions favorably.”  In Spring 2019, it is booming.  Both inflation and unemployment are low, wages are finally rising, the trade deficit has narrowed, and productivity has started to increase.  In some minds, this promises rising living standards and low inflation.  The stock market is one, not very reliable, measure of economic conditions.  It has been rising.  Obviously, many facts and statistics can be interpreted in different ways.  Thus, the rise in housing prices is bad for buyers, especially first-time buyers, but it’s good for sellers.  Many of those sellers will be older Americans looking to down-size while realizing their capital gains.  These are the very people most likely to be put off by the leftward shift among some Democrats.

Divisions within the Democratic Party have opened between its “progressive” wing and its mainstream.  Which group better represents the mass of Democrats and is most likely to pull independent voters in a general election?  Joe Biden, but he has to get through the primaries.  By then his own positions may have become explicitly “progressive” as the price of admission.[4]

[1] “Poll Watch,” The Week, 10 May 2019, p. 17.

[2] Richard North Patterson, “Single-payer could doom Democrats,” The Week, 10 May 2019, p. 12.

[3] “Economy: A business boom defies the forecasts,” The Week, 10 May 2019, p. 34.

[4] “Biden: Democrats’ best hope to beat Trump?,” The Week, 10 May 2019, p. 6.

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The Boston Massacre.

In 1768, the British government sent army troops to Boston, Massachusetts, to support the civil authorities in enforcing unpopular new laws.  The troops were equally unpopular as the laws.  On 5 March 1770, a crowd harassed a lone British sentry posted in the street before Boston’s Old State House.  An officer brought other soldiers to his support.  The crowd grew in size and emotional mobilization.  Long story short: the soldiers fired into the crowd, killing five.  We remember this tragedy as “The Boston Massacre.”

The bloody events came at a moment of intense political polarization in Massachusetts.  The political middle ground had disappeared as the people of Massachusetts divided into a large majority opposed to the policies of the Crown and a minority who supported those policies.  By the end of March, the British soldiers and four civilian employees of the Customs House—who were alleged to have fired into the crowd from the windows of the building—were indicted for murder.

A pamphlet campaign—part of the larger pamphlet war that preceded the American Revolution—told strikingly different stories about the Boston Massacre.  That media war was full of curiosities.  For example, one of the most inflammatory—and untrue—portrayals of the events came in an illustration by Henry Pelham.  The illustration showed the British officer ordering his men to fire into the crowd and a musket fired from a window.  Paul Revere copied that illustration and presented it as his own.  Pelham himself turned into a Loyalist who left Boston with the British troops and the other Loyalists in March 1776.

John Adams, a future signer of the Declaration of Independence and future President of the United States, defended the British soldiers when they were tried for murder.  Adams argued that the soldiers had the right to fight to defend themselves against the mob.  If any of the soldiers were provoked but not actually in danger, then they were guilty of manslaughter.  His argument persuaded the jury.  The officer commanding and six of his men were acquitted; two soldiers were convicted of manslaughter.  They escaped the death penalty by pleading “benefit of clergy” (i.e. they could read and write, which was enough to escape the gallows in literate-deficient colonial America.)  Instead, they were branded.  On the thumb.

The four civilians who were alleged to have fired from within the building were tried later.  All were acquitted and the man who had testified against them was later convicted of perjury.

In retrospect, Adams concluded that “The Part I took in Defence of Cptn. Preston and the Soldiers, procured me Anxiety, and Obloquy enough. It was, however, one of the most gallant, generous, manly and disinterested Actions of my whole Life, and one of the best Pieces of Service I ever rendered my Country. Judgment of Death against those Soldiers would have been as foul a Stain upon this Country as the Executions of the Quakers[1] or Witches[2] anciently.”

I butcher History in this fashion because Deputy Attorney General Rod Rosenstein recently analogized his handling of the Trump-Russia investigation to John Adams’ defending the British soldiers.[3]    The related analogies will suggest themselves.

[1] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boston_martyrs

[2] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Salem_witch_trials

[3] Katie Benner, “Rosenstein Answers Critics In an Impassioned Speech,” NYT, 27 April 2019.

My Weekly Reader 6 May 2019.

Surveying the current “winter of our discontent,” one cannot but wonder what turned political differences into polarization.[1]  If we take the Sixties as the starting point, then the story might run something like the following.  John F. Kennedy beat Richard Nixon in the presidential election of 1960 by a razor thin majority.  However, the Kennedy Administration pursued no divisive polices.  Abroad it remained within the mainstream of Cold War foreign policy.  At home, it kept the Civil Rights movement at arm’s length and could not muster legislative support for any other major initiatives.

The assassination of Kennedy brought Lyndon Johnson to the White House.  Johnson seized the opportunity to shift government policy at home and abroad.  Formed by his youthful encounter with poverty and injustice, and a determined supporter of the New Deal, Johnson sought to “complete” the New Deal to address the needs of a different time.  Johnson won passage of the Civil Rights Act (1964), then crushed his Republican rival in the 1964 election.  Secure in victory and backed by a powerful shift to the left in Congress, Johnson’s legislative program created the “Great Society” structures.  Many of these are with us still.[2]

Catastrophically, however, to win election, Johnson had closed off Republican charges that Democrats were soft on Communism by using the Tonkin Gulf incident (or non-cident) to begin committing American ground troops to combat roles in South Vietnam.

Furthermore, no one in Washington foresaw the huge social upheaval when the “Baby Boom” passed through the Sixties.  “Sex and drugs and rock-and-roll,” demonstrations in the streets and on campuses, and the further development of the Civil Rights movement demanded a response.  Many Democrats embraced these causes, while many Republicans reacted against them.  (In California, the backlash made Ronald Reagan—a former Goldwater supporter—governor and a polarizing national political figure.)  The Vietnam War poured fuel on the fire.  Then the Pentagon Papers (1971) and Watergate (1972-1974) created a distrust of Washington.  That distrust fed a longing for “outsiders”: Carter, Reagan, Clinton, Obama, Trump.

These events set the pattern as policy issues have divided Americans.  Abortion, gun control, gay rights and marriage equality, forced busing for school integration and affirmative action, drug policy, taxation, and welfare all became embattled.[3]  There is something to be said on both sides of most of these issues, but now no one is listening to the other side.

What made each of these issues so bitterly divisive has been the conflict between federal and state power.  Most of the Bill of Rights was “incorporated” during the Sixties, while the Warren Court delivered a series of other decisions that rocked state preferences.  Republicans have opposed this universalizing of rights on the grounds that it amounts to an imposition of Democratic beliefs on Republicans by court decisions and executive actions.  The courts themselves are as embattled as the rest of us.  Except those who have checked out in disgust.

[1] For a contrary view to what follows, see: Kevin Kruse and Julian Zelizer, Fault Lines: A History of the United States since 1974 (2019).

[2] Julian Zelizer, “The Fierce Urgency of Now”: Lyndon Johnson, Congress, and the Battle for the Great Society (2015).  Marvelous book.  Excellent scholarship, but written for the “intelligent general public.”

[3] The case of Roy Moore in Alabama is illustrative.  Allegations of sexual misconduct dogged Moore and caused many Republicans to sit out the election, but many other Republicans voted for Moore because his opponent supported “choice”—which is, in their minds, “baby murder.”

Couple of Factual Points.

First, so far as I can tell at the moment, the first use of the term “collusion” came on “Meet the Press,” on 18 December 2016.  The person who used the term was John Podesta, a major figure in Hillary Clinton’s shambolic presidential campaign.  Did Podesta not want to use the term “conspiracy”?  Later that week, Senator Harry Reid (D-Nevada)—who may have been watching “Meet the Press”—also used the term “collusion.”[1]  From there it entered the lexicon of both Democrats and the media.  Then, apparently, it became the term of choice for the President and his supporters when asserting his innocence.  Then it became a term roundly denounced by Democrats and the media as meaningless and an obfuscation.

Second, firing James Comey as “obstruction of justice.”  On 14 February 2017, Trump reportedly told FBI Director James Comey that “I hope you can see your way clear to letting this go, to letting Flynn go.”  After all, “he’s a good guy.”  On 4 December 2018, a sentencing memorandum from Special Prosecutor Robert Mueller said Flynn “deserves credit for accepting responsibility in a timely fashion and substantially assisting the government.”  As a result, Flynn should receive little or no jail time.  What’s the diff?

Third, the Mueller Report “did not identify evidence that any U.S. persons knowingly or intentionally coordinated with the IRA’s interference operation.”  More emphatically, “the Special Counsel’s report did not find any evidence that members of the Trump campaign or anyone associated with the campaign conspired or coordinated with the Russian government in its hacking operations.”

Fourth, “as the Special Counsel’s report acknowledges, there is substantial evidence to show that the President was frustrated and angered by a sincere belief that the investigation was undermining his presidency, propelled by his political opponents, and fueled by illegal leaks.”[2]  His actions should be seen in this light.

Watching the “analysis” following Attorney General William Barr’s press conference this morning, I couldn’t help but be reminded of President Obama’s remark that he had to hold on “until the fever breaks.”[3]  Many people seem to have behaved badly in this mess.[4]  What to do?

I’m “concerned” (i.e. worried, frightened, angry) that Republicans will NOT let it go.  We don’t need a “reckoning” or a bloodbath or a counter-vailing “witch hunt.”  All of us—liberals, conservatives, and independents–would be lucky if the perpetrators of the “witch-hunt” calmly reflected on what went wrong.  The New York Times did so admirably after the Jayson Blair[5] and Judith Miller[6] events.

Calm reflection is difficult when the hounds are baying at your heels.  So, hounds, lay off.  Much as “they” need to be on the next thing smoking to Guantanamo, just lay off.  America’s democracy is at stake.

[1] See: https://www.nytimes.com/2017/11/02/opinion/collusion-meaning-trump-.html

[2] Quotes from https://www.politico.com/story/2019/04/18/transcript-barr-press-conference-1280949

[3] See his equally shrewd statements that “the Cambridge police were stupid”; that ISIS is “just the JV team”; and that “Russia is only a regional power.”

[4] See: “Ace in the Hole” (1951), “Absence of Malice” (1981); “Network” (1986); “Shattered Glass” (2003).  These are among the real origins of the belief in “fake news.”

[5] See: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jayson_Blair

[6] See: http://nymag.com/nymag/features/9226/

Mueller Report.

OK, this is a first-twitch response.  Probably have to eat it–and my hat–soon.

So far, and we’ll have to wait a while to b sure, Robert Mueller has not objected to Attorney General William Barr’s summary of his findings. The BBC’s Anthony Zurcher opines that the one sentence quote from the Mueller report on “conspiracy” is as close as lawyer-speak allows to a complete exoneration. Without an underlying crime, it is difficult to distinguish between simply defending oneself against a loose-cannon investigator and obstruction of justice.

Mueller reports that the Russians tried to “collude,” but the Trump campaign wouldn’t cooperate. This was clear a year ago in the testimony of Papodopoulos.  Also, there’s plenty of evidence that the Russkies tried to help Trump. Just no evidence that a) the Trump campaign cooperated or–so far as I know–b) it made any difference. Jane Mayer will disagree with that latter remark.

I think that we’re still waiting on a Department of Justice Inspector-General’s report on how the Trump investigation began. The same IG evaluated the work of James Comey on the HRC investigation, and then evaluated the behavior of Peter Strozk. So, we’ll know more then.

Bear in mind that the Russians could have identified Christopher Steele as an American government agent during 2015-2016.  At the behest of the Department of Justice, Steele took a pass at Oleg Deripaska.  Deripaska probably grassed to Putin.  I don’t recall seeing Steele’s expenses for things like massive payments to Russians in exchange for state secrets.  (I’m assuming that revealing state secrets when Vladimir Putin tends to kill–in gruesome fashion–anyone who  leaks information required monetary compensation.  But what do I know?  Perhaps there are many Russian government officials so deeply concerned that Donald Trump might become president that they were willing to get Putinium added to their tea.  Or perhaps Steele got his “dossier” under the Old Pals Act.)  Failing those alternative possibilities, anything Steele got from the Russians after that may have been a Russkie plant intended to mess with the 2016 election. Mueller did not investigate that possibility. I wish he had.

Curmudgeon Me 2.

Nancy Pelosi rules out impeachment as “not worth the trouble” unless Robert Mueller’s investigation found evidence of actual high crimes and misdemeanors.[1]  Mueller has not yet filed his report or possible final indictments.  He might report evidence of impeachable offensives by President Donald Trump, although Department of Justice opinion seems to hold that a sitting president cannot be indicted.  Attorney General William Barr might release the report or a summary of it, or he might not.  Not releasing it would make me suspect that Mueller reported impeachable offenses and Barr sought to cover for him.

On the other hand, Attorney General Barr is a long-time mainstream Republican, as are most of the Republican Senators.  What would damage the long-term interests of the Republican Party more, impeaching Trump and replacing him with Mike Pence or covering-up impeachable offenses and then having them revealed as soon as a Democrat becomes Attorney General?

What Speaker Pelosi may have been doing is trying to warn fellow Democrats that she doubts that Mueller will report either “collusion” between the Trump campaign and the Russkies or “obstruction of justice.”[2]  What Mueller has achieved so far has been to get the National Security Agency to tell him who were the Russian hackers, then to indict them; to convict George Papadopoulos for lying to FBI agents about his contacts with Russians; to convict Paul Manafort for financial crimes committed before he became Trump’s campaign manager and for tampering with witnesses to avoid subsequent prosecution; to indict Rick Gates, Manafort’s assistant in the financial crimes, and Roger Stone, and Michael Cohen; and to get Michael Flynn to co-operate.  So, it looks like we are waiting on what has been learned from Flynn and anything that Cohen said in secret that he did not say in public testimony.  I don’t know what that will be.

 

Brenton Tarrant, the accused New Zealand gun-man, was a fat boy child of divorced parents who lived with his father, didn’t like school, and acted out in non-violent ways.[3]  Apparently, he was bullied in school.  Also, “he was a heavy-metal fan.”[4]  In short, pretty run of the mill kind of victim-kid in any high school.  They rarely turn into mass murderers.  If they did, most of us would already be dead.  Then, he changed.  After escaping high-school, he remade himself physically.  He lost a lot of weight through changes in diet and exercise, and became a personal trainer at a local gym.  Again, nothing extraordinary here.  Men’s Health is full of stories of similar constructive transformations.[5]  No one recalls him as violent or white nationalist.  Then he went off to travel the world.  Yet again, nothing extraordinary.  British and European youth hostels are full of young Australians and New Zealanders come from the far side of the world.  Same is probably true of Asia.

It looks like he was “radicalized” during his travels.  This will take more digging than ordinary journalists can do.  Wait a year for the story in the New Yorker.

[1] Peter Baker and Emily Cochrane, “Ruling Out Impeachment May Set Far-Reaching Precedent,” NYT, 13 March 2019.

[2] JMO, but it would be hard to call defending yourself against James Comey “obstruction of justice” if there is no underlying crime.  I’m sure that I’m wrong, but there it is.

[3] Isabella Kwai, “Shock and Disgust in Christchurch Suspect’s Hometown,” NYT, 17 March 2019.

[4] Aha!

[5] Look at the “Belly Off” series for numerous examples.

Just the Facts, Ma’am 2 11 February 2019.

Second, three tax proposals have been offered to raise more revenue from the rich.[1]  Congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez has suggested raising the tax on incomes above $10 million from the current 37 percent to 60 or 70 percent.  This would return upper-income tax rates to the level that prevailed during the 1970s.  In the regime of the 1970s, many deductions and exemptions existed which do not exist today.  The effective tax rate on high incomes under the Ocasio-Cortez proposal would be much higher than the one of the 1970s.  However, the top rate in the 1970s applied to the contemporary equivalent of $800,000.

Senator Elizabeth Warren has proposed a “wealth tax,” not merely an income tax.[2]  People with a net worth between $50 million and $1 billion would pay 2 percent per year[3]; people worth more than $1 billion would pay 3 percent per year.[4]  According to the calculations underlying Senator Warren’s proposal, this tax would generate $2.75 trillion over ten years.

The Warren proposal may not be constitutional.  The 16th Amendment to the Constitution created a tax on income, not a tax on all assets.  Apparently, the courts have held that taxes on estates and gifts are excise taxes on the transfer of assets, rather than a tax on the assets themselves.  The tax also might be a logistical nightmare to apply.

Senator Bernie Sanders has proposed revising the estate tax.  Until 2009, the tax applied to estates of more than $3.5 million.  A 2017 tax change raised the threshold for individuals to about $11 million and the threshold for couples to about $22 million, with a standard tax rate of 40 percent.  Senator Sanders would return to the 2009 level of $3.5 million.  In addition, he replaces a single tax rate with multiple rates.  From $3.5 million to $10 million, the rate would be 45 percent; on estates of $1 billion or more, the rate would be 77 percent.

[1] Paul Sullivan, “Taxing the Rich Sounds Easy.  But It’s Not,” NYT, 2 February 2019; Sydney Ember, “Sanders Unveils a Plan To Increase Estate Taxes,” NYT, 1 February 2019.

[2] Senator Bernie Sanders also supports the idea of a wealth tax, if not necessarily Senator Warren’s version of such a tax.

[3] Apparently, there are 39,735 people worth between $50 million and $1 billion in the United States today.

[4] Apparently, there are 680 billionaires in the United States today.