Thursday, February 1, 2018

BTRTN January 2018 Month in Review: As Showdowns Loom, Can We Measure Up to the 1970’s?

Tom looks back at January with an eye to history.

THE MONTH

It’s a bit of a shock to find myself longing for the early 1970’s, when Richard Nixon was prowling the halls of the White House, bantering with portraits of his predecessors.

But January, 2018 was an unusually dispiriting month, even by modern standards.

All of our institutions were sharply tested in the 1970’s, and they responded brilliantly. 

I spent the summer of 1973 – at age 15 -- watching the Watergate hearings nearly every day, spellbound by the drama of our democracy in action.  I took it for granted that the Select Committee on Presidential Campaign Activities (aka, the Senate Watergate Committee) had but one objective: to follow the evidence wherever it led.  It never really occurred to me that other agendas may be in play, or that the very public (gavel-to-gavel) live coverage might influence the lawmakers.  Frankly, it was hard to tell the Republicans from the Democrats; Republican Senator Lowell Weicker from Connecticut was far more liberal than crusty old North Carolina Democratic Senator Sam Ervin, the committee Chair.  Oh sure, GOP ranking minority Senator Howard Baker may have been back-channeling with the White House, but the Senate Watergate Committee was not an exercise of using your mic time to get your party's talking points beamed to your own true believers.

Nixon was a louse, to be sure, a bigot and a racist, directly responsible for 21,000 of the 58,000 deaths in Vietnam that occurred on his watch, in a war he prolonged for years after campaigning that he had a “secret plan” to end it swiftly.  And he exploited racial and generational fissures in our country at that time by recognizing and energizing a “Silent Majority” that he claimed (with some accuracy) stood with him, a quiet group of conservative Americans who supported the war, craved law and order in the face of race riots and anti-War demonstrations, and desperately wanted to, yes, make America white again.

But while Nixon raged, somehow he signed some remarkably progressive legislation crafted by bi-partisan congressional leadership, including the creation of the EPA and OSHA, a raft of Keynesian-inspired wage and price controls, the Clean Air Act, an Emergency Employment Act to create public service jobs, and others.  Despite the war and a seemingly inextricably divided nation, there was no gridlock in Washington.

The media of the time – CBS, NBC, ABC, Time, Newsweek, the New York Times and the up-and-coming Washington Post – were the mostly unquestioned voices of the truth, a time when the fate of a presidency could hang on the words of the most trusted person in America, Walter Cronkite.

The Supreme Court was reshaped by Nixon after Earl Warren retired in 1969; he made four new appointments in short order, Chief Justice Warren Burger and associate justices Blackmun, Powell and Rehnquist.  In those days, justices were far less predictable in their judicial philosophies, and Blackmun in particular leaned further left as the years went by.  There was no single swing vote on the Court, no Sandra Day O’Connor, no Anthony Kennedy. 

How did these institutions perform their massive duties?  The Senate Watergate Committee did indeed get to the bottom of the scandal, when routine questioning of a minor White House official, Alexander Butterfield, revealed the existence of the tapes.  The Times and the Post published the Pentagon Papers and pushed relentlessly on Watergate.  The Court played its role, ruling that no President was above the law, with three Nixon appointees joining the five Warren Court holdovers (Rehnquist had to recuse himself) to rule unanimously that Nixon had to release the tapes.  They also backed the media on the Pentagon Papers, Hugo Black thundering that “…to find that the President has 'inherent power' to halt the publication of news ... would wipe out the First Amendment and destroy the fundamental liberty and security of the very people the Government hopes to make 'secure.'

And when Nixon fired Special Prosecutor Archibald Cox over the tapes, the people did their job, too.  The outrage was so swift and palpable – over 450,000 telegrams sent to the White House over the weekend of the Saturday Night Massacre – that Nixon was forced to promptly name a new Special Prosecutor, Leon Jaworski, who received an even stronger mandate (and thus greater independence) than Cox had enjoyed, and who finished the job Cox started.

What a time!  Nixon’s disgrace, and how our country disgorged him, was a riveting live civics lesson, to say the least, to an impressionable young politico.

And where are we now?  In January, 2018, these same institutions stand in stark contrast to their 1970’s predecessors.

Various Congressional committees allegedly investigating the Russia fiasco flounder along, largely ignored, toothless by choice, failing to use their subpoena power, holding private interviews with the key players, utterly failing their test against the standards of Ervin, Baker, Weicker, Inouye, Montoya, Talmadge and Gurney.  As the month ended, the GOP House Intelligence Committee Chair voted to release a notorious (and selectively slanted) staff memo purporting to reveal that the Department of Justice and FBI had wrongfully obtained a FISA warrant on suspected spy Carter Page, a thinly-veiled attempt to discredit the DOJ/FBI/Mueller brigade.  The memo is now in the hands of the Trump White House, awaiting release.  Devin Nunes, Trump-stooge, you are no Sam Ervin.

Despite controlling all branches of government, the GOP was unable, yet again, to pass a spending bill for the fourth month in a row, unable to win over the nine Democratic votes it needs to do so, unable to craft a package sufficiently attractive to get those nine votes from a Democratic Senate that is far from united.  This despite general bi-partisan agreement (and Trump as well) that something should be done to protect the dreamers.  This is what Congress does, this is what politics is – it’s about compromising to make deals, and this GOP leadership does not know how to get it done, and neither the President nor his senior staff has the foggiest idea how to play this game.  And around and around we go.  Paul Ryan, you are no John McCormack, and Mitch McConnell, you are no Mike Mansfield, much less an LBJ.

In a slow motion version of the Saturday Night Massacre, it was revealed that Trump did indeed decide to fire Robert Mueller last summer, only reversing himself under the threat of resignation by White House Counsel Don McGahn.  We also learned that he asked Deputy AG Rod Rosenstein if he was “on his team” last December, yet another loyalty test.  After months of public harassment, Trump finally managed to force out the #2 FBI official, Andrew McCabe.  Trump is in a direct showdown with Wray over the Nunes Memo at this very moment, as Wray went public with “grave concerns” over the veracity of the memo, and made a public request that Trump not release it.  The ultimate question is whether Trump will do the full Nixon and fire Mueller himself.  Hapless Jeff Sessions, you are no Eliot Richardson.

Trump has embarked on a strategy so breathtaking that even Nixon would not have dared, or even conceived of it – the de-legitimization of every American institution perceived to be opposed to him:  the FBI, the DOJ (both headed by his own appointees), the Courts and the media.  And Trump has managed to convince somewhere between 25-40% of the country that a “Deep State” exists and will stop at nothing to upend him.  Nixon would have been envious.

These are the very same institutions that stood up to Nixon, not because they hated Nixon (though they might have), but because they sought the facts, and the truth, and when they inescapably led to impeachable offenses, Nixon had to go.

Will our institutions prove resilient and perform as they did in Nixon’s day? 

Congress is failing, both as an impartial investigative body and as a bi-partisan legislative body.

The media is divided, splintered in a million pieces, each reflecting the personal tastes of news “consumers” via the wonders of the Internet and social media.  There is no Cronkite these days, and while the Times and the Post still practice first-rate journalism, they have been tinged by hyper-partisanship, because it is far easier, it turns out, to simply label all contrary news “fake” rather than to spin it.  Nixon would be envious of this magic trick, too.

The Supreme Court is just another partisan gig, hinging on the mood of Anthony Kennedy.  It only takes a simple Senate majority to stuff an ideologue into an opening.  This Court fights for the rights of corporations while stripping those of the human beings.  John Roberts, you are not even Warren Burger, much less Earl Warren, or John Sirica.

As for Robert Mueller, he is still standing, resolute, bound by professional dignity to stay silent as Trump chips away at the integrity of his investigation with the steady onslaught of what is essentially a PR offensive.  Mueller may indeed be worthy of comparison to Archibald Cox and Leon Jaworski.

So while January was a morass of “shithole” comments, government shutdowns, “Fire and Fury” revelations and marches by millions opposed to Trump, the big picture is that we are barreling toward constitutional showdowns of the highest order, and we do not have our “A Team” on the field.


THE NUMBERS

Trump’s approval rating increased +2 points to 41% in January, likely attributable to the tax law “win.”  Clearly the “Fire and Fury” and “shithole” controversies did not make a dent, nor did the shutdown hurt him.  Having said that, Trump remains stuck at a dismal rating, which is -7 points below where he started a year ago.  He has yet to crack the 50% mark, and remains the least popular President at this point in time in his Presidency.

TRUMP APPROVAL RATING

2017
'18

J
F
M
A
M
J
J
A
S
O
N
D
J
Approve
48
47
44
44
42
41
40
39
40
40
39
39
41
Disapprove
46
50
51
52
53
55
56
57
56
56
56
56
55
Net
2
-3
-7
-8
-11
-14
-16
-19
-15
-17
-17
-17
-14

The generic ballot dropped from the Dems up by +8 to +6 in the wake of the tax law.  This is still an exceptionally healthy lead for the Democrats as the countdown to November begins.  Using our proprietary BTRTN regression model, this lead would suggest a 43 seat pick-up for the Dems in November (if this lead held), and even accounting for slippage due to gerrymandering, the Dems would be favored to retake control of the House.

GENERIC BALLOT

Apr
May
Jun
Jul
Aug
Sep
Oct
Nov
Dec
Jan
Democrat
39
38
40
39
40
40
39
40
41
40
Republican
33
36
36
34
34
34
32
32
32
34
Margin
6
2
4
5
6
6
7
8
8
6


THE TRUMP-O-METER

The “Trumpometer” dropped modestly from +18 to +14 in the last month.  The stock market rose yet again, and is now a full 33% higher than at the time of the Trump Inaugural.  The first reading of the Q4 GDP was 2.6%, down from Q3 (3.2%) and Consumer Confidence rose slightly from last month from 122 to 125.  The price of gasoline continued to inch up and is 12% higher now than one year ago.  All in all, Trump is sitting atop a good economic story, and is reveling as the new drum major in front of a parade that had been marching smartly long before he took his first step ahead of it.

(Note:  the Trumpometer was designed to answer the question of whether the country is better off, economically, than it was when Trump took office.  It is a single measure that measures how five key economic indicators -- the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline, and the GDP – have changed since Inauguration Day.  The +14 means that these indicators are, on average, 14% better than they were when Trump took over the presidency, as demonstrated in the chart below.)


TRUMPOMETER
End Clinton  1/20/2001
End Bush 1/20/2009
End Obama 1/20/2017 (Base = 0)
Trump 12/31/2017
Trump 1/31/2018
% Chg. Vs. Inaug. (+ = Better)

25
-53
0
18
14
14%
  Unemployment Rate
4.2
7.8
4.7
4.1
4.1
13%
  Consumer Confidence
129
38
114
122
125
10%
  Price of Gas
1.27
1.84
2.44
2.59
2.72
-12%
  Dow Jones
10,588
8,281
19,732
24,719
26,149
33%
  GDP
4.5
-6.2
2.1
3.2
2.6
24%


2 comments:

  1. very nice. you were a precocious 15 year old! I was already old and jaded by then and found nothing to learn from the Watergate hearings.

    ReplyDelete

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