Thursday, May 12, 2022

BTRTN: Roe v. Wade, and Collins v. Kavanaugh

Among the countless indignities along the road to the now seemingly inevitable undoing of Roe v. Wade is the curious saga of Senator Susan Collins of Maine, who claimed that she voted for Brett Kavanaugh’s confirmation to the Supreme Court based on his supposed assurances that he would not overturn the landmark precedent. Last week, Collins reiterated that Kavanaugh made such assertions. If Kavanaugh deceived Collins in order to secure her vote, shouldn't there be consequences?


Senator Susan Collins of Maine has become a punchline.

Nowadays, if someone falls for a dumb prank or proves to be exceptionally gullible, they’d be accused of “pulling a Collins.” Here’s an example in context: “I told my teacher that I completed my homework, but that my printer cartridge was empty. She told me I could turn it in on Monday. Man, she is such a Susan Collins!”

Yes, when Susan Collins finally retires after decades of worthy service, she will be remembered for two things, and two things only.

She was the gullible apologist who did not find Donald Trump guilty in his first impeachment trial because she thought he had “learned a pretty big lesson.” Yes, Senator Collins, the “pretty big lesson” he learned is that the best way to avoid future impeachment is to instigate a violent insurrection to overthrow the government of the United States.

While still wiping the egg off her face from her naïve misreading of Donald Trump, the Senator is now being excoriated for her misplaced trust that Brett Kavanaugh would not overturn Roe v. Wade, which was supposedly the basis for her decision to vote for his confirmation to the Supreme Court. 

In September, 2018, the Senate confirmation hearings on the nomination of Brett Kavanaugh were extraordinary drama, as Christine Blasey Ford publicly accused the nominee of having sexually violated her in high school. All eyes were on the three "undecided" Republicans  -- Collins, Lisa Murkowski, and Jeff Flake. With 48 Democrats lined up against Kavanaugh, he needed at least one of these three votes to at least achieve a tie that could be broken in his favor by VP Mike Pence.  Susan Collins’ support was crucial -- you might even say that when it came to Kavanaugh’s confirmation, this particular woman had the right to choose.

Even as questions about Brett Kavanaugh’s honesty swirled under the credible allegations of sexual misconduct, Collins voted to confirm, largely based on a personal interview she conducted with Kavanaugh.  A supporter of a woman’s right to choose, Collins claimed to have grilled Kavanaugh before emerging assured that he had no intention of reversing Roe. So strong was the interest in Collins' vote that she took the unusual step of making a speech on the floor of the Senate to explain the full reasoning behind her decision to support Kavanaugh, which essentially ensured his confirmation.

It was an interesting political move. With her 2020 re-election in a swing state bid looming, Collins may have simply been pursuing a strategy to placate both sides in her highly polarized state: she would please the hard right in her state by voting to confirm Kavanaugh, but she would mollify moderates by claiming that she had secured Kavanaugh's agreement that Roe was not to be overturned.

Now, with the leak of the Alito draft, it is clear that Collins' faith in Kavanaugh was every bit as misguided as her faith that Trump had "learned a pretty big lesson." She has once again been made the fool.

But is that fair?

To this day, Collins believes that Kavanaugh -- and Gorsuch before him -- misled her in order to secure her confirmation votes. Read the statement her office issued on May 3, 2022, after the leak of the Alito draft:

If this leaked draft opinion is the final decision and this reporting is accurate, it would be completely inconsistent with what Justice Gorsuch and Justice Kavanaugh said in their hearings and in our meetings in my office. Obviously, we won’t know each Justice’s decision and reasoning until the Supreme Court officially announces its opinion in this case.”

Wow. We can infer that "completely inconsistent" is merely an uber-discreet way of saying "those dudes lied to me." If Kavanaugh lied to Collins about Roe v. Wade in order to secure her vote... well, shouldn't there be consequences for that? 

Or -- did Collins ever really get a rock-solid assurance from Kavanaugh? Did she make a completely incorrect inference from what he said? Or did she simply say she did in order to navigate a tricky political issue with re-election looming? In short, did Collins mislead her own state voters in order to please both factions? 

 And if she did that, well, shouldn't there be consequences for that?

It's instructive to go back to Brett Kavanaugh's Senate hearings and read exactly what Susan Collins said in her public remarks about her decision at the time she voted to confirm. Let's examine the verbatim transcription of the portion of Collins’ remarks that pertained to Roe:

“There has also been considerable focus on the future of abortion rights based on the concern that Judge Kavanaugh would seek to overturn Roe v. Wade.  Protecting this right is important to me. To my knowledge, Judge Kavanaugh is the first Supreme Court nominee to express the view that precedent is not merely a practice and tradition, but rooted in Article III of our Constitution itself.  He believes that precedent ‘is not just a judicial policy … it is constitutionally dictated to pay attention and pay heed to rules of precedent.’  In other words, precedent isn’t a goal or an aspiration; it is a constitutional tenet that has to be followed except in the most extraordinary circumstances.

The judge further explained that precedent provides stability, predictability, reliance, and fairness.  There are, of course, rare and extraordinary times where the Supreme Court would rightly overturn a precedent.  The most famous example was when the Supreme Court in Brown v. Board of Education overruled Plessy v. Ferguson, correcting a ‘grievously wrong’ decision--to use the judge’s term--allowing racial inequality.  But, someone who believes that the importance of precedent has been rooted in the Constitution would follow long-established precedent except in those rare circumstances where a decision is ‘grievously wrong’ or ‘deeply inconsistent with the law.’  Those are Judge Kavanaugh’s phrases.

As Judge Kavanaugh asserted to me, a long-established precedent is not something to be trimmed, narrowed, discarded, or overlooked.  Its roots in the Constitution give the concept of stare decisis greater weight such that precedent can’t be trimmed or narrowed simply because a judge might want to on a whim.  In short, his views on honoring precedent would preclude attempts to do by stealth that which one has committed not to do overtly.

Noting that Roe v. Wade was decided 45 years ago, and reaffirmed 19 years later in Planned Parenthood v. Casey, I asked Judge Kavanaugh whether the passage of time is relevant to following precedent.  He said decisions become part of our legal framework with the passage of time and that honoring precedent is essential to maintaining public confidence.”

Finally, in his testimony, he noted repeatedly that Roe had been upheld by Planned Parenthood vs. Casey, describing it as a precedent. When I asked him would it be sufficient to overturn a long-established precedent if five current justices believed that it was wrongly decided, he emphatically said “no.”

Woah!  Read what Susan Collins wrote at the time, and you realize that she was no lightweight making a cursory review of Kavanaugh's beliefs. She went to considerable lengths to pin Kavanaugh down on his opinions about Roe, "settled law," and the role of precedent.

It certainly seems clear, as one reads Collins' official statement, that Kavanaugh created the impression both in the private meeting and in public testimony that he had no intention of overturning Roe. 

But hold the phone...

Someone determined to defend Brett Kavanaugh would point to one phrase -- "except in the cases where a decision is grievously wrong." That, the logic goes, is all the wiggle room Kavanaugh needed. He apparently told Collins that the only time a Supreme Court precedent should be overturned is if the prior decision was "grievously wrong," but never bothered to mention that he thought Roe v. Wade itself was "grievously wrong." 

The language here is all the more amazing, in that Alito's draft uses the similar phrase "egregiously wrong" as the basis for his majority opinion that Roe be overturned.

So now we ask the obvious question: Is it possible that in a private meeting with Collins, Kavanaugh said that the only reason to overturn an established precedent is if it is "grievously wrong," and Susan Collins failed to ask Kavanaugh whether he thought Roe was "grievously wrong?" 

Perhaps she did ask, and Kavanaugh stiff-armed her with the standard "I can't react to a hypothetical," as he effectively did during Senator Diane Feinstein's aggressive interrogation about Roe v. Wade during the public confirmation hearings. There, too, Kavanaugh seemed to wax poetic at the sanctity of precedent, "settled law," and the fact that Planned Parenthood v. Casey confirmed Roe. But when Feinstein tried to coax the nominee into an opinion specific to Roe, Kavanaugh went full rope-a-dope, floating like a butterfly while invoking a time-honored strategy to refuse to comment on "hypothetical cases."

Of course, in just about any reading of this, it is cynical that Kavanaugh heard what Collins said on the Senate Floor and made absolutely no effort to correct her inference that the nominee had told her that he would not overturn Roe. He allowed her to stand up and tell the world that she had been assured that he would not overturn Roe, and he let her interpretation stand, unchallenged. 

The worst in all of this? In her press release last week, Susan Collins was not in any hurry to confront Brett Kavanaugh on this incredibly important "misunderstanding." Again, from that May 3 press release: "Obviously, we won’t know each Justice’s decision and reasoning until the Supreme Court officially announces its opinion in this case.”  

Obviously what? Does Susan Collins think she doesn't have the right to demand that Kavanaugh square his private comments to her with his endorsement of the Alito brief now, before the vote is taken? Or is her patience simply a convenient way for Susan Collins to avoid the issue of her --or Kavanaugh's -- deceit until the decision is out and it is all a moot point?

Good people of the State of Maine: don't you think you are owed an explanation for this hugely consequential "misunderstanding?" 

If Susan Collins had concluded that Kavanaugh did plan to overturn Roe, isn't it entirely possible that would have influenced the votes of Jeff Flake, who voted to confirm, and Lisa Murkowski, who voted "present?" 

That is to say: Trump would then have had to nominate a different judge to the court... one whose position on Roe actually might have actually satisfied Collins' requirement.

And if you take that to its logical conclusion, that would mean that the leaked Alito draft was the minority, not majority, opinion -- and Roe would have survived another challenge, reinforcing its standing as "settled law" yet again.

Only two people know what happened in the private meeting between Susan Collins and Brett Kavanaugh. The irony is hard to measure: once again -- as with Anita Hill and Christine Blasey Ford -- we are left to try to figure out the truth in a case that the men will all insist is just another example of "he said, she said."

Senator Collins, if only to avoid drifting into history as a punchline, you'd be wise to take the time now to tell us exactly what Brett Kavanaugh said to you behind closed doors to convince you that he would not overturn Roe v. Wade.

Because if Brett Kavanaugh actually lied to you in order to get confirmed to the Supreme Court, you should not be standing by and waiting for Roe to be overturned to act.

If Kavanugh and Gorsuch lied to you about Roe to win their place on the bench, shouldn't you lead a charge demanding that they recuse themselves from ruling on Roe?

But let us be fair to Kavanaugh: what if it is true that he never gave Collins any assurance that he would preserve Roe? What if Collins took her public stand simply to navigate a tricky political issue in anticipation of a tough re-election campaign?  Well, in that case, Senator Collins, you should resign, because you deceived the voters of your state on one of the most important societal issues of our time.

In the end, there is some poetic justice in the fact that you if put two Republicans in a room and shut the door, and the only thing you know for certain is that one of them will lie to the other -- and it is entirely possible that they both lied to all of us. 

The carnage of how it came to pass that Roe was overturned will be one for the historians. And if the only gripe we had with the overturning of Roe v. Wade was one judge’s representations to one Senator in a private conversation, perhaps that could be dismissed. But the path to the destruction of Roe v. Wade required an appalling combination of Republican deception, deceit, and malevolent violation of honored norms in our democracy. Kavanaugh’s behavior was symbolic of a system repeatedly undermined and perverted for the purpose of overturning this landmark decision.

Kavanaugh was not alone in deceiving America – and Collins -- about his true feelings about Roe during the confirmation process. Both Amy Coney Barrett and Neil Gorsuch feigned deep respect Roe as “precedent of the Supreme Court,” while parsing their answers with enough legal caveats, cautious equivocation, and double-speak to allow for the wiggle room they’d need down the road when they would inevitably dump Roe.

There’s the fact that an overwhelming majority of American citizens believe that their government should preserve the right for a woman to get an abortion and do not want to see Roe v. Wade overturned.

Do not forget that this decision could only have come about because Mitch McConnell defied two centuries of tradition by blocking Barack Obama’s right to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, putting the very legitimacy of the current Court in serious doubt. Were that pick to have been filled by a left-leaning Obama-appointed Justice, and with John Roberts very likely advocating for honoring Roe as “settled law,” the current challenge to Roe would have likely resulted in a complicated, divided, messy decision – but it is very unlikely that Roe would have been overturned.

Then there are the millions of Republicans who “held their nose and voted for Trump” for the sole reason that Trump promised to deliver judges who would overturn Roe v. Wade. Above and beyond seeing Roe undone, we realize that Republicans willingly embraced the shame, incompetence, illegality, corruption, unnecessary Covid deaths, and the big and bigger lies of the Trump administration just so they could get rid of Roe. It has been estimated that hundreds of thousands of Americans died needlessly of Covid because of the failures of the Trump administration. Talk about the right to life. 

We will all have to live with the fact that this decision will pour gasoline on the ever-widening chasm that separates Red State from Blue State. A procedure that is supported with tax dollars in one state will be considered homicide in another. And you call these states "United?"

For all the deceit, deception, and duplicity that got us here, there are two questions at hand today. One is whether there is any possibility of stopping Alito’s draft from becoming the law of the land… and the second is whether there is any accountability for Justices -- or Senators -- who misled America for personal ambition and political gain. 

Chief Justice John Roberts professes grave concern about the fact that the Supreme Court is now perceived as excessively politicized. 

Yet he has done absolutely nothing to use his bully pulpit to attempt to mitigate this politicization. He has stood on the sidelines tolerating the racist behavior of Republican Senators during the confirmation of Justice Ketanji Brown Jackson. 

Now, a sitting U.S. Senator is claiming that two recent nominees lied to her during their confirmation hearings to secure her confirmation vote. You would think a Chief Justice who was concerned about the reputation of the Supreme Court would want to investigate such a consequential allegation.

Instead, the milquetoast John Roberts only wants to investigate how the Alito document was leaked.  

Senator Collins, you cannot and should not wait until the official vote on the Alito vote is taken. You must fight now.

If I were a betting man, I'd wager that you are the aggrieved party here. After reviewing  materials from the Kavanaugh hearings, it seems you had reason to believe that Kavanaugh was vowing to leave Roe intact. But if heard even more in private  -- a statement from Kavanaugh that was direct, comprehensive, and unequivocal -- speak now. 

It's up to you, Senator Collins. You can choose to raise your voice about this injustice, and you can choose to defend yourself against being made a laughingstock by some of the most senior misogynists in American government.

You are a United States Senator with a powerful bully pulpit, and you have every reason to be furious at being disrespected, lied to, and made into a punchline for your trust.

You are a woman with the right to choose

On behalf of all those women who soon will not have the right to choose, shouldn't you choose to do something about this?

 

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Tuesday, May 3, 2022

BTRTN: Biden’s Very, Very Modest Comeback Stalls

Tom with the BTRTN April 2022 Month in Review.

A few months ago we posited that Biden, though in the darkest hours of his relatively young presidency, was reasonably well-positioned for a 2022 comeback that just might save the midterms.  The keys were to manage well what was in his control, and to get a little bit of luck on the rest.

There have been nascent signs of such a comeback over the past few months, a few crocuses scattered here and there, largely driven by the massive decline in new COVID cases from the Omicron surge, and the surprisingly positive developments in the Russia/Ukraine war.  But as of the end of April, those crocuses have withered and the Biden comeback – as measured by his approval rating and other key data -- is in full stall mode, with few potential catalysts on the near-term horizon. 

Before we review the specifics, let’s make clear the political implications of the stall.  Without a comeback of some kind, the Democrats will certainly lose the House.  The key metric here – nearly infallible as a prediction tool -- is the generic ballot.  Right now the GOP is up +2 points (44% to 42%) in that hypothetical race, which does not sound like much.  But the Democrats have to get to +3, or better yet +5, to have a real chance to keep the House. That GOP +2 advantage has been as unmovable as Biden’s own approval rating, which has remained stubbornly at 43%.

And the more unlikely a Democratic hold on the House looks, the more money and resources will be shifted, on the margin, to holding the Senate, which at this juncture is just about a 50/50 proposition.  Senate races are far more driven than House races by the candidates themselves, rather than the macro political environment, and the Democrats have a solid shot at keeping the Senate despite the lack of positive momentum in the Biden comeback.

Below, in italics, was the BTRTN articulation, back in early February, of the presumed Biden Comeback Plan.  Each point is followed by a review of the current status -- through the month of April -- of each point.

COVID on the decline.  The Omicron surge will likely be over in a month; the mask wars will be over; life, with prudent precautions, will come roaring back in a summer of fun.  All Biden needs here is good luck:  no new deadly variants. 

The Omicron surge did end, and new cases dropped sharply, but alas, the new variant did arrive.  The Omicron BA.2 variant is more transmissible as the original Omicron, though not as deadly as Alpha or Delta, has resulted in an uptick of new cases in the last month, and the potential for a larger surge.  The Biden Administration has matched this mixed scenario, which is neither a “crisis” nor “the end,” with (more) mixed messages.  For example, Dr. Anthony Fauci announced, a few days ago, that “we are certainly, right now, in this country, out of the pandemic phase  -- and then, almost immediately after, said that he would not attend the White House Correspondents Association Dinner due to COVID concerns.  

The Gridiron dinner was another fiasco, as any number of Democratic luminaries who attended sans mask got infected, and this was followed by the couldn’t-be-worse optic of Kamala Harris getting COVID not long after she received her second booster shot.  All in all, the decline of COVID, such as it is, has helped Biden – but the pandemic  simply is not over, and that creates a messaging muddle, and COVID messaging was already (and remains) a Biden Administration weakness.

Continued robust economic growth.  With the infrastructure bill beginning to find its way to local projects, the Biden Administration can take credit for the 4% GDP growth expected in 2022, well above that of the pre-pandemic Trump years, and the Obama years as well. 

Despite last week’s announcement that the economy contracted by 1.4% in the first quarter, Biden has done well here.  The GDP blip was caused by inventory issues by and large, with the good news being:  1) that underlying consumer demand remains strong, and 2) unemployment has dropped further to 3.6%, the lowest in 53 years.  But all of that evidence of economic vitality has been overwhelmed by continued bad news on inflation.

Taming of inflation.  With a new report showing inflation up to 7.5%, and gas prices at a peak, this may be the toughest at all, a classic “kitchen table” issue difficult for presidents to influence.  But the Fed is expected to use fiscal instruments, in the form of interest rate hikes, to begin to put the brakes on the boom…that and the easing of the supply chain issues could at least show progress on managing inflation by November. 

Inflation continues to roar, and is now up to 8.5%, and while Biden is pulling out all the stops to influence it, including tapping the national reserve and allowing more oil leases, there is no short-term escape from a misery that he did not cause.  Gas prices did fall in the last month, but by and large, controlling inflation without triggering a full-blown recess is up to the Fed now. 

Breyer and Roe:  Biden will benefit greatly from being able to deliver on his promise to name a Black woman to the Supreme Court, and there will be a huge spotlight on the announcement and confirmation hearings.  On top of what is clearly going to be some kind of adverse ruling by the Roberts Court on Roe v. Wade, and Biden’s strong federal judge appointment track record, these issues will energize Democrats to a voting frenzy in the midterms. 

Biden’s appointment of DC Federal Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the bench was a clear win, and it passed the Senate with three GOP votes to boot.  But the “huge spotlight” on this clearly this historic announcement never happened, as the events in Ukraine overshadowed it and every other political development in that time frame.  The abortion wars will dominate the news in June when SCOTUS renders its decision, but with Ukraine, COVID, inflation, immigration and even the January 6 Commission hearings all in the mix, who knows whether the abortion wars will land the punch the Democrats really need. [Note: This was written before the stunning May 2 publication by Politico of Judge Samuel Alito’s draft opinion that strikes down Roe.]

Russia/Ukraine.  Biden has been lauded – on a bipartisan basis by politicians, and, in surveys, by Americans of both parties as well – for his management of the Ukraine crisis thus far.  He seems to have positioned himself into an unlikely “win/win” position.  If the Russians invade Ukraine, he will be seen as leading a unified NATO in exacting demanding economic sanctions while supplying the Ukrainians with sophisticated weaponry and aid.  And if Putin blinks, all the better.  Either way, U.S. leadership has already been acknowledged, prestige restored, and Biden is benefitting greatly. 

With the onset of the actual invasion, Biden’s response in Ukraine continues to be largely flawless.  The Russian abandoned their Kyiv siege, the Ukrainians sank a Russian battleship, and the new Donbas offensive is running into the same stiff Ukrainian opposition that stymied them in Kyiv.  Putin’s ruthless genocide has been condemned worldwide.  Weapons are flowing in from the West, and Biden just asked Congress for a mammoth $33 billion aid package – half the size of Russia’s defense budget -- underlining his commitment.  Europe is now considering a ban on Russian oil and gas imports, following the US move, demonstrating yet again the unity and depth of western support.  A nuclear disaster has thus far been avoided.  Overall, what more could anyone ask of Biden?  And yet, while Biden’s ratings on foreign policy have edged up a bit, even some Democrats believe he is not doing enough.

ISIS.  Knocking off the ISIS leader did not hurt on that front, either. 

A minor win that certainly did not hurt, but nor did it really help, and now is long forgotten.

Trump, January 6 and “reasonable political discourse.”  The self-inflicted wound the RNC just dealt the GOP can hardly be underestimated, putting January 6 right smack back on the table, deflecting attention from Biden just when he was at this lowest.  And that term – “reasonable political discourse” – when repeated over and over by Dem candidates atop insurrection footage, will be the gift that keeps on giving, defining today’s GOP much the way Kellyanne Conway’s “alternative facts” defined the Trump White House.  The January 6 Commission’s hearings and findings, plus the Trump court cases in Georgia and New York, will continue to keep Trump front and center for the GOP, and effectively once again “on the ballot” in November

The Commission hearings, now scheduled for June, will be “must see TV,” and the nuggets being leaked out, including the McCarthy Tapes, are explosive.  But one has to be extremely skeptical that they will change anyone’s mind at this point.  Despite the tapes, McCarthy marches on, as Trump chose to view McCarthy’s hypocrisy as a sign of Trump’s own power, his deathgrip hold on the GOP, rather than exposing McCarthy as a traitor. 

Bonus #1: Inoculate the vulnerabilities:  All that would go a long way toward setting the tables for success in the midterms, but it would sure help if Biden and the Democrats could find a way to talk about three issues that the GOP will try to force into all campaign conversations:  crime, immigration and education (that is, Critical Race Theory).  Biden has already disavowed “Defund the Police” and embraced new New York City Mayor (and former cop) Eric Adams, so he is making progress on crime.  He needs reassuring talking points on the others as well. 

Immigration has become an albatross for Biden and coming to grips with it is no longer a “bonus,” it is a “must.”  His decision to end the public health authority, a.k.a. Title 42 in late May (put on hold by a federal judge), while laudable, is causing a great deal of pain for moderate, battleground state Democrats in an election year.  The end of Title 42 is expected to greatly increase the flow of immigrants fleeing to America across the southern border, an issue on which Biden already has vulnerability.

Bonus #2:  Soft Infrastructure Bill.   The soft bill may be too toxic, at this point, to take on in the middle of an election year.  But if a scaled down bill – say $750 million – could be cobbled together with the most popular elements of the old bill that Manchin could support – say, the climate change provisions and the Childcare Tax Credit with some needs-based test (assuming they could be passed within reconciliation rules) – the passage of such a bill would be a winner. 

Manchin has indeed expressed some openness to a scaled-back BBB, but at this point it seems unlikely to be resurrected.  If there is to be a mini-BBB, Schumer needs to make it happen soon before the crowded Senate calendar and the campaign trail render it impossible.

Down below you will see the net effect of all of this over the past three months as measured in key polling data, and the answer is:  not much.  While Biden has shown modest improvement since January on some key issues – notably foreign policy and COVD management – it has not been enough to move the overall needle, as his approval rating remains stuck at 43%.

There is still an opportunity – perhaps -- for Biden to make some headway between now and Election Day.  Fed actions could slow inflation; the Ukraine story could continue to provide positive fodder on his foreign policy chops; the SCOTUS abortion decision [See note above] and January 6th Commission output could each both outrage and inspire the Democrats, and maybe a mini-BBB bill gets done.  But the window to truly upend the current narrative in time to rescue the midterms is closing, and fast.


MADNESS

Sarah Palin is running to Congress, for the House seat no vacant with the death of long-term Alaska representative Don Young. 

Need we say more?

 

APPROVAL RATING

Joe Biden’s approval rating for the month of March remained stagnant at 43% for the third consecutive month, with a net negative of -8 percentage points. 


 

HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES

Biden’s ratings had shown material improvement since January on both COVID management and foreign policy, but with no further uptick this month, that momentum has stalled. 









GENERIC BALLOT

In April polling, on average the GOP continues to lead the Democrats on the generic ballot by a 44/42 margin.  Using BTRTN’s proprietary models (which have been extremely accurate in midterm elections), if this lead was still in place on Election Day in 2022, the GOP would pick up about 20 seats and take over the House with some room to spare, though hardly in the magnitude of the losses experienced by Bill Clinton in his first midterms (-54 seats) or Barack Obama (-63), or even Donald Trump (-40).





 

BIDENOMETER

The “Bidenometer” took a tumble from March to April, from 59 to 12, driven mostly by the contraction of the economy in Q1 of this year, and a 5% drop in the Dow.  Gas prices actually decreased this month, a positive sign, as did unemployment, while consumer confidence remained the same (and still surprisingly high given all the adverse economic headlines.)

As a reminder, this measure is 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.

This exclusive BTRTN 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 +12 means that, on average, the five measures are 12% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below).  With a Bidenometer of +12, the economy is performing better under Biden compared to its condition when Trump left office.  Unemployment is much lower, the Dow is much higher, as is consumer confidence.  Only gas prices have moved in the wrong direction under Biden.  Even the recent GDP blip is better than the -3.5% that marked Trump’s last quarter.

Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, you can see from the chart below that under Clinton the measure ended at +55.  It declined from +55 to only +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 to +12 under Biden.




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Notes on methodology:

BTRTN calculates our monthly approval ratings using an average of the four pollsters who conduct daily or weekly approval rating polls: Gallup Rasmussen, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist. This provides consistent and accurate trending information and does not muddy the waters by including infrequent pollsters.  The outcome tends to mirror the RCP average but, we believe, our method gives more precise trending.

For the generic ballot (which is not polled in this post-election time period), we take an average of the only two pollsters who conduct weekly generic ballot polls, Reuters/Ipsos and You Gov/Economist, again for trending consistency.

The Bidenometer aggregates a set of economic indicators and compares the resulting index to that same set of aggregated indicators at the time of the Biden Inaugural on January 20, 2021, on an average percentage change basis. The basic idea is to demonstrate whether the country is better off economically now versus when Trump left office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.

Saturday, April 23, 2022

BTRTN: Kevin McCarthy, Mariupol, and the Demise of Principle in American Government

Kevin McCarthy probably has no sense of the shame he should feel when reporters from The New York Times finally laid bare his hypocrisy, his weakness, and his lack of an ethical compass. At least we can still find examples of the best of human character and principle in brave soldiers in Mariupol.

There are times when two news stories hit the front pages on the same day and create a jarring juxtaposition… a stark contrast of two simultaneous events that put an issue in sharp relief.

Consider this amazing example: on February 10, 2015, two stories appeared on the front page of The New York Times. One reported that Brian Williams was suspended without pay by NBC for exaggerating his exposure to danger while on a combat assignment. The other announced that Jon Stewart was leaving The Daily Show after turning it “into an influential platform for news and media commentary, both in the United States and around the world.” The “real news anchor” was leaving in disgrace for lying about his reporting exploits, while the “fake newsman comedian” was exiting a hero, lionized for his gutsy, uncompromising truth. Epic irony, geometrically multiplied when it arrived in our newsfeed on the same day.

Flash forward to this past week. CNN shows video clips made inside the steel mill in Mariupol that has become the Alamo of Ukraine, the astonishing last stand in which hopelessly out-manned and outgunned Ukrainian soldiers refuse to surrender to the barbarian Russian butchers who have invaded their homeland. The Ukrainians display steely resolve to see the mission through, at whatever cost.

In that very same week, we learn from a new book written by reporters from The New York Times, Jonathan Martin and Alexander Burns, that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell were keenly aware in the days following the January 6 insurrection that Donald Trump's actions warranted that he be removed from the Presidency immediately. Initially they appear full of resolve to take Trump on, but soon assess that the course of action they advocate would put their own careers and power at risk. They cower, retreat, spin on a dime, and abandon their efforts to effectively rebuke Trump. 

In the very same week, we see, on the one hand, ordinary Ukrainian soldiers in imminent grave risk, yet are ready to die to protect their homeland's freedom and democracy.

And, on the other, the most senior leaders in the Republican Party, revealed to be frightened, easily intimidated, and unwilling to defend our freedom and our democracy lest it come at a cost to their power and ambitions.

The book, “This Will Not Pass,” goes on sale May 3, but the tidbits released in advance interviews alone are explosive. Reporters Martin and Burns assert that McCarthy said that he intended to go to Trump and suggest that Trump should resign. They report that McCarthy discussed the twenty-fifth amendment with Liz Cheney, and that Mitch McConnell said “if this isn’t an impeachable offense, I don’t know what is.” The reporters say that McCarthy claimed that he had spoken to Trump and that Trump himself had acknowledged being responsible in some measure for the insurrection.

Any of these bombshells in isolation is shocking. Taken together, they are an open-and-shut case that the two top Republicans in Congress thought Trump should not be allowed to remain in office even for the scant days that remained in his administration.

But here’s where it gets just too perfect. Immediately after the story about the new book broke this week, Kevin McCarthy claimed that the reporting was “totally false and wrong,” and his spokesman announced that “McCarthy never said he’d call Trump to say he should resign.”

The two Times reporters then immediately produced a recording of McCarthy saying exactly that, simultaneously letting it be known that have plenty of delicious audio recordings still under lock and key. These guys knew McCarthy’s MO – lie, deny, pivot, and accuse -- so well that they baited their trap brilliantly. They initially only released the written quote, and then waited for the predictable McCarthy to lie about its veracity. Then, boom! The reporters immediately produced the audio recording, instantly cementing their credibility and revealing McCarthy to be a brazen liar.

There is no doubt that McCarthy, Fox News, and the Republican Party will scramble to discredit this reporting, but those darn audio tapes will make that task daunting.  Do we believe The New York Times and its reporters? Uh, yeah.  The New York Times understands that if it lied or distorted the truth, its income stream would evaporate, just as surely as Fox News knows that its income stream would evaporate if it ever started to tell the truth. 

The bottom line is simple: Kevin McCarthy’s initial reaction to the January 6 insurrection was exactly right. In his public statements following the insurrection, McCarthy said “The president bears responsibility for Wednesday's attack on Congress by mob rioters. He should have immediately denounced the mob when he saw what was unfolding. These facts require immediate action by President Trump." He went on to say that Trump must “accept his share of responsibility, quell the brewing unrest and ensure President-Elect Joe Biden is able to successfully begin his term.” For good measure, McCarthy added “Some say the riots were caused by Antifa. There is absolutely no evidence of that. Conservatives should be the first to say so.”

Now, we learn that in private, McCarthy was even more adamant about Trump’s malfeasance. Here are some particular juicies: “What he did is unacceptable. Nobody can defend that and nobody should defend it.” “I’ve had it with this guy.” Again, in private, Mitch McConnell appeared still more outraged by Trump’s behavior, saying “the Democrats are going to take care of the son of a bitch for us.”

And yet, in the days that followed, McCarthy and McConnell rapidly came to understand that their outrage and eagerness to dissociate themselves and their party from Trump was not playing well among the party faithful. They suddenly realized they were holding a losing hand. So they quit. 

Rather than stand up, stick to their guns, and lead based on their own understanding of the gravity of Trump’s actions, they cowered, retreated, and completely abandoned any notion of principle, any recognition that now was their moment to stand up and defend American Democracy against an act that McConnell openly acknowledged was a certain impeachable offense.

Threatened with a loss of standing in their party, they ran for cover. McCarthy famously made a pilgrimage to Mar-a-Lago to kiss Trump’s ring, which ended with an embarrassing photo op in which Trump appears to be laughing at McCarthy's obsequiousness.

It is a startling contrast to Ukrainian soldiers stand unflinchingly at their posts, facing death, but refusing to capitulate.

What happens to our nation when the people making the decisions that either protect or weaken our democracy are themselves weak, frightened people who run from “principle” the moment it threatens to cost them something?

That last phrasing was intended to invoke the one of the most astute comments about the concept of principle, made by the great advertising man, Bill Bernbach. The creative legend who founded the great Doyle Dane Bernbach ad agency once observed that “a principle isn’t a principle until it costs you something.” Indeed, I once had the opportunity to personally experience exactly what Mr. Bernbach meant.

Back when I was in the advertising business, our biggest client dropped us due to a merger, and the loss of that revenue threatened the viability of our company. It seemed entirely possible that we would go out of business. Several days later, we got a call from a cigarette company inviting us to compete for their account, which would have instantly replaced all the lost revenue and then some. My business partner and I turned the offer down flat without a moment’s thought. We would rather not have a company than have one that hawked a deadly product to vulnerable people.

Sure, that principle cost us money, and it could have even cost us our company and our jobs (it didn’t, we scrambled and survived). But it was an easy decision. There are times and situations when it is better to get fired, better to resign in protest, better to accept the risk of defeat in the next election than to abandon an important principle. And -- to paraphrase Mitch McConnell -- if defending our Constitution, our democracy, and our freedom aren't important principles, then I don’t know what is.  

You see, Kevin McCarthy, it is actually better to lose your job than to lose your soul.

We are once again reminded of the immensely powerful words of Dr. Martin Luther King: “The ultimate tragedy is not the oppression and cruelty by the bad people but the silence over that by the good people.”

Am I saying that Kevin McCarthy and Mitch McConnell are “good people?” Well, yes, in this narrow sense: the recordings  prove that these two Republicans know right from wrong. They totally understand what Trump was trying to do, and they vigorously condemned it. So they qualify as “good” in Dr. King’s usage simply in the fact that they truly did understand that Trump’s behavior was reckless, destructive, and worthy of impeachment or forced resignation.

But – to Dr. King’s point -- they cowered from acting on their knowledge, preferring to hide in “the silence of the good people.”

What are we doing wrong as a country that we are producing so many unprincipled leaders?

It used to be that liars like McConnell and McCarthy would pay for their weakness. When Ben Franklin said “honesty is the best policy,” he was actually not making a statement about ethics or morals. It is simply practical advice – honesty is simply a better policy, let alone a better philosophy. If you develop a reputation for being a liar and a cheater, people don’t trust you, and you lose value as a human being… as someone to hire, as someone to trust with an important task, or as a friend, and as a spouse. You are devalued. Old Ben was simply saying that it makes no sense to be revealed as a chronic, inveterate liar.

Today, however, developing a reputation as an efficient and effective liar earns you regular gigs on Fox News. Today, millions of Americans tune in at 8:00 to hear the freshest, best lies on the market.

Of course, Kevin McCarthy is not a particularly adept or intelligent liar. The recordings now in the possession of The New York Times reporters were of conference phone calls attended by many Republican lawmakers. McCarthy is apparently just stupid and naïve enough to have failed to realize that in the era of the iPhone, everything is recorded.

McCarthy is living proof of the veracity of Ben Franklin’s adage. It's a fair bet that once the book and the rest of the quotable quotes are released by the Times reporters, McCarthy will be the walking dead even in his own party... scorned by the vengeful Trump, viewed as a traitor by the right wing of his party, worthless to his own constituents, and not much to look at in the mirror.

In fairness, it must be said that this level of ethical depravity is not unique to the Republican Party. It was the Democrats who nominated weapons-grade philanderer John Edwards for the Vice Presidency in 2004. And the parade of allegations stamping Democratic New York Governor Mario Cuomo as a sexual predator prove that repugnant misogynistic behavior and abuse of power are among of the few remaining bipartisan practices in our government.  Yet in defense of Democrats: they took their own bad guy down. Once upon a time, Republicans took down Nixon. Now they destroy people like Liz Cheney, who have the guts to speak the truth.  

It is certainly time to ask how we expect each succeeding American generation to maintain a sense of morality and ethics when so many of the major politicians in positions of power are so transparently hypocritical and so lacking in principle. How do we teach young people that lying is wrong when lying is the overtly obvious behavior of leading Republican contender for Speaker of the House of Representatives?

How do we teach young people that there are such things as matters of principle? That there are decisions to be made that can come with a cost, but that cost is worth paying in order to preserve our sense of integrity, our dignity, and peace in our soul?

It is certainly time to ask our institutions of higher learning to examine how they manage to hand out fancy degrees to people who clearly lack any sense of morality, ethics, or conscience. Hey, Harvard and Princeton – would you like to stand up and take credit for Ted Cruz? Yale and Stanford, you both had a crack at Josh Hawley.  Perhaps our vaunted institutions of higher education should evaluate what steps they are taking to ensure that their graduates are grounded in ethics, principle, and human decency, because for every Barack Obama Harvard claims credit for, they have unleashed a Mark Zuckerberg and a Ron DeSantis as Johnny Appleseeds of the new American hyper-hypocrisy.   

Maybe the real answer, Harvard, is to invite guest lecturers from a steel factory in Mariupol.

If, God willing, they live to tell the tale.

Yes, a twenty-five-year-old Ukrainian soldier knows more -- and understands more -- about principle, about democracy, and about freedom than the man who could well be the next Speaker of the House of Representatives in the United States Congress.

Maybe that’s why the Ukrainians are shocking the world with their ferocious defense against an overwhelmingly well-armed authoritarian thug.

And maybe that is why the United States is sinking ever closer to the risk of authoritarian rule.

All of you who wonder whether Joe Biden was the right choice for President, or who somehow feel disappointed in his administration, or who worry about his age and his physical stamina should understand one thing: the only good news in this whole story is that in 2020, the man of character and principle won.

Given all that we knew, it was far too close, but in the end the American people opted for the man of principle over the charlatan huckster whose core skill set is ignorance, deceit, and moral depravity.

Whether than remains true in 2024? Well, that could well be our Mariupol.

Our battle to fight to the end, with our freedom and our democracy on the line.

But here's the good news, Democrats. We can beat a party of ethically rudderless people like Kevin McCarthy,

All we have to do is be as ferociously principled as the brave Ukrainians in a steel factory in Mariupol.

 

 

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