Tom with the BTRTN 2021 May Month in Review.
On Memorial Day, Joe Biden delivered the defining statement of our times: “Democracy itself is in peril, here at home and around the world.” He chose to impart that message while honoring those who sacrificed their lives to protect democracy, a group that would have shuddered had they been able to hear his stark words.
In the month of May, it became abundantly clear that Donald Trump had decisively won the battle for the heart and soul of the Republican Party. Trumpism did not die with his electoral defeat; indeed, that defeat – or rather his refusal to accept it, the “Big Lie” – instead became the defining litmus test for the party. The question was called: to be a member of the GOP in good standing, you had to be with Trump, otherwise you were on the outs. Various votes – referenda on Trumpism -- were held, and in the end, it was not even close. And thus the peril to our democracy became even more apparent than ever, because, quite simply, the bedrock of our democracy – free and fair elections – is now at stake.
The GOP has had plenty of chances to rid itself of Trump, beginning, of course, with the opportunities afforded by the Big Lie itself, the January 6 insurrection and the second Trump impeachment. In each case, they backed Trump, but the cracks in Trumpism were exposed, and some powerful voices – heretofore aligned with Trump – began to emerge. GOP stalwarts Senator Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, Representative Liz Cheney of Wyoming, and even Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell broke with Trump in various ways. These were highly visible defections, because they came from leaders in the GOP, and resided in deep red states.
Their voices gave rise to some hope – certainly within mainstream GOP circles – that they could lead at least a good-sized chunk of the GOP rank and file away from Trump and back to bedrock conservative principles – limited government, strong defense, low taxes -- that could define a new era. But in the month of May, with four decision points, that dreamed was shattered.
The first decision point was the fate of Liz Cheney. Cheney is a brand in conservative circles, the daughter of the former Vice President, a formidable and ambitious GOP leader, ranked third in the House leadership after Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Whip Steve Scalise. Cheney made the transition from Dick Cheney-style conservatism to Trumpism with ease, voting with Trump 93% of the time and, early on, supporting his right to question the 2020 election results.
But the Big Lie and the Insurrection proved a bridge too far for Cheney, and she made that abundantly clear in a principled stand against Trump. There was a time when the GOP would have tolerated minority points of view within the party; McCarthy supported Cheney the first time the far right tried to oust her from her position as Chair of the Republican Party Conference, in February. But when she continued to bash Trump in the most straightforward terms, McCarthy dropped his opposition and she was gone in a simple voice vote. The most stunning sign of the times was that she was replaced by moderate Ellen Stefanik of New York, who voted with Trump far less often than Cheney but was a vocal supporter of Trump and proponent of the Big Lie. And, in the end, that was all that mattered.
The second decision point was the attempt to create a joint commission to investigate the January 6 Insurrection, a step that seemed assured in the aftermath of the impeachment vote. After all, 10 GOP representatives voted to impeach Trump, six GOP Senators voted to convict him of that impeachment, and McConnell, even while eschewing a conviction vote, excoriated Trump for promulgating the Big Lie and the Insurrection. That the Insurrection was inflicted directly on members of both houses of Congress while in session – including Vice President Mike Pence, a target of the mob -- seemed to ensure that a proper investigation, by an independent body modeled on the 9/11 Commission, would be a given.
In structuring the commission, Pelosi bent over backwards to ensure it was a credibly bipartisan body. When McCarthy made demands to ensure such an outcome, Pelosi surprised him by accepting them in their entirety. McCarthy’s designated negotiator, GOP Representative John Kasko of New York, then finalized the final deal on those terms. Except…Donald Trump spoke, and McCarthy simply threw Kasko under the bus, and reneged. The bill passed the Pelosi-controlled House anyway, with 35 GOP votes, but then was killed in a filibuster by the Senate when McConnell, essentially crawling back to Trump, lobbied intensively against the bill. GOP Senators barely hid that the rationale behind killing the commission was that the investigation would reflect poorly on them and adversely impact the midterms.
Then came more bizarre antics from Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, who equated Pelosi’s mask mandate with the horrors the Nazis inflicted on Jews in the Holocaust, a sickening and stupefying analogy. McCarthy had many options before him to punish Greene, a Trump favorite, including censure and/or and expulsion from the GOP caucus. Instead he chose the mildest of punishments, a simple denunciation of her statements, and it took him an unconscionable six days to even muster the appetite to do that. Once again, McCarthy chose to follow Trump.
And then came Texas. In the aftermath of the Big Lie, and citing it for justification, roughly a dozen states had passed highly restrictive voting suppression laws. Their legislative session had already passed laws to virtually eliminate whatever gun control laws remained on the books and ban abortions after six weeks, when many women do not even know they are pregnant. The voting law was blocked by a clever walkout among Democrats to prevent the quorum required to pass such legislation. But it will be back, and the Democrats do not have enough votes, or parliamentary tricks, to stop it.
Conservative dogma has become passé within the GOP. The only thing that matters is Trump. The votes were clear: Liz Cheney is out, Ellen Stefanik is in. Liz Cheney is reviled as an outcast, Marjorie Taylor Greene is slapped on the wrist but still a valued member of the team. The Big Lie is the only “principle” the GOP recognizes now, and despite that fact that GOP election officials in many states, including Texas, have testified under oath that their 2020 elections were smoothly run without any semblance of fraud, that lie is the basis for a monstrous wave of voter suppression.
But perhaps more alarming than these decisions by McCarthy and the GOP leadership is what they reflect – the increasingly bizarre and surreal views of their constituency. We have often reflected that politicians are the most rational, if hardly the most courageous, beings on the planet. They are heat-seeking missiles in taking actions they perceive will secure their next election, and it is a rare politician of either party who can make a crucial decision using any other lens. And thus they rarely exhibit any true leadership, they simply follow their political instincts, what they think their supporters want.
A recent poll by the Public Religion Research Institute has thus drawn plenty of attention. The only conclusion one can reach from the poll is that roughly one-quarter of the Republican Party is certifiably insane. One might smile to hear that 28% of Republicans believe that “a storm is coming soon that will sweep away the elites in power and restore the rightful leaders.” And one might be truly amazed that 23% think that “the government, media and financial worlds are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global sex trafficking operation.”
But what should truly alarm you is that 28% believe that “because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.” We are talking about roughly 30 million Americans who hold these views. These are QAnon true believers. They not only are larger in size that most organized religious sects, but they also have a communication network via the web, and access to enough military-style weapons to create a good-sized army. This is not a “fringe group” to be mocked, it is a giant threat that must be contained.
When I was a college senior, in the immediate post-Watergate era, I did my senior thesis on “political trust in America,” and concluded, using survey data, that while Americans’ basic trust in government had eroded dramatically, there was no threat to our democracy as a consequence. In fact, in some ways, our faith in our institutions was deepened, since Nixon had been removed and the press, Congress and the courts all asserted their proper authority to contain his excesses.
One cannot make the same statement today. When a large swath of our adult population takes on absurdist positions, egged on by quasi-respectable figures such as General Michael Flynn and, of course, Trump himself, and our GOP leadership refuses to denounce it, but rather enables and supports it, our democracy is indeed in peril. What we are learning – way too slowly -- is that the Trump “movement” has completed the takeover of the Republican Party. Trump has inflicted far more damage in losing, by undermining the sacred transition of power and faith on our electoral process, he managed in his four years in office.
With the lines thus drawn, the battlefield is clear: voting rights. The Trumpsters’ best weapon is their control of many state legislatures and state houses, and their ability to use their power there to pass restrictive anti-voting legislation and draw ridiculously gerrymandered districts. These are the tools of oppression and they have been wielded before, in the Jim Crow era, and they are being wielded now for the same reason – to keep persons of color, who are largely Democrats, from voting.
The Democrats’ best weapons are policies that appeal to the majority of Americans, an energized voting base that recognizes the magnitude of the threat, and demographic trends that are inexorably in their favor. But there is one more weapon they could use, and it is a massive one, and that is the ability to end the 60-vote cloture requirement in the Senate, thereby enabling, in theory, passage of national voting laws that would render local suppression laws invalid. If the Democrats went this route, they could far more easily carry future elections and thus limit the risk of losing power back to the GOP (where they could then reverse the progressive agenda and do much worse). It is both a giant club and a giant risk.
As of now, Biden has been cool to the idea, given his loyalty to the Senate after 36 years there mastering its ins and outs. Senators Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema have also expressed opposition to killing the filibuster, and the Democrats need every single vote to make it happen, all 50 in their caucus plus Vice President Kamala Harris. But if the January 6 commission vote was not a tipping for the doubters, it came close. And if they GOP continues to strip Americans of their basic voting rights, and support the Big Lie, the time may very well come.
One halfway measure that we hear little about is keeping cloture but reducing the requirement from 60 votes to 55. Not many people realize that the cloture requirement was not conceived by the Founding Fathers and was not written into the Constitution. Nor do they know that until 1972 cloture required 67 votes; it was reduced to 60 then due to growing polarization. If only 55 votes had been required to stop a filibuster, the January 6 commission might have passed, since six Republicans voted for cloture and would likely have supported the measure once it came to a vote. There are clearly a subset of “moderate” Republicans Senators who either oppose Trump or are willing to part with his wishes selectively. It is highly doubtful they would support the new voting law, but it might be a useful compromise, one that would also protect Democrats’ minority power down the road someday.
The month of May was consequential on many other fronts.
· COVID cases continued to drop significantly, from 1.7 million cases in April to only 800,000 in May. As the country reopened with varying degrees of caution, the CDC bungled its revised guidance, declaring that a mask-free world was safe for the vaccinated, without seeming to recognize that this gave license to the non-vaccinated to go mask free as well, without fear of reprisal. But clearly the country reached a new phase in the COVID drama, as full vaccinations topped 40% of the population, even while the virus raged in India and the Delta variant reversed promising trends in the UK.
· An ugly war broke out between Israel and Palestine, the first since 2014, only this time the cease fire that seems to be holding was reached after only 11 days of fighting, rather than 50 back then. Biden’s tack was to let others (France, Egypt and Oman) take the lead in public negotiations while working on Netanyahu privately, leveraging a decades-long relationship. With Democratic progressives openly critiquing Israel for inhuman treatment of the Palestinians, this was a delicate dance for Biden, but one he seems to have weathered. And at this writing, Netanyahu’s reign could be merely days from ending, as an unlikely coalition in Israel decided it agreed on one thing: Bibi had to go.
· Actual negotiations are underway on Biden’s $1.9 trillion infrastructure bill, a.k.a. the American Jobs Plan. While progress is at a snail’s pace and the gaps are still wide, the subtext is that Biden needs to demonstrate that he went full-out for a bipartisan deal in order to bring Manchin and Sinema along on a reconciliation deal. That is what his prolonged efforts with the GOP are all about. Whether Biden gets a smaller bipartisan deal focused on “hard” infrastructure remains to be seen, but either way he will ultimately need a reconciliation-driven process, and all 50 Democratic votes, including Manchin’s and Sinema’s, to get the job done.
· It is a sign of the times that a mass shooting in San Jose more or less came and went without even the ritualistic hue and cry from the left (for gun control) and the right (to protect gun rights by hiding behind the “mental health” issue). Biden may have said “enough,” but there was no sign that the outcome of this violence, and many other mass killings in the month, would move the political process forward one inch.
· And the various investigations into Donald Trump took a significant turn with the combining of New York City (criminal) and state (civil) investigations, and the empanelment of a grand jury in the city to determine whether indictments should be handed down to Trump, his family and associates and his business. It is expected that the jury will render its verdict by year end.
After Kevin McCarthy withdrew his support of Cheney, at Trump’s behest, he met with reporters and said the following, or should we say he actually said this with a straight face: “I don’t think anybody is questioning the legitimacy of the presidential election. I think that is all over with.” Oh, really, Kevin, aren’t you forgetting at least one person?
BIDEN APPROVAL RATING
Joe Biden’s approval rating remained in the same range in May that he has carried through his young presidency. He remains at a +11 net rating, which while declining steadily is nevertheless impressive. Trump never once was a positive net in his four years in office.
HOW BIDEN IS HANDLING KEY ISSUES
Biden is getting high marks across the board for his handling of the two largest issues on his plate, COVID and the economy. He is outperforming Trump’s final measure by 21 points on COVID management, is ahead of Trump on foreign policy by 7 points, and is even with Trump on the economy, which was Trump’s strongest suit by far.
The nation has responded to Biden’s leadership with a steady increase in those who feel the country is on the right track, more than doubling where Trump left it in the aftermath of the January 6 Insurrection and the Big Lie that inspired it.
The “Bidenometer” was virtually unchanged in the month, moving from +63 to +62. An uptick in the Dow offset a slight increase in the unemployment rate and a sharper increase in the price of gas.
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.
With a Bidenometer of +62, the economy is clearly performing much better since Biden took over.
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.
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 +62 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 Biden took over the office from Trump. The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.