Monday, July 5, 2021

BTRTN: Our Surfside Condo Democracy

Tom with the BTRTN June 2021 Month in Review.

If you squint hard enough, peering at Washington and the world through semi-focused slits, here at the end of June, 2021, you might think things were back to normal.  COVID-19 has shown strong signs of fading in the US, most of Europe and even India; milestones were met, masks disappeared and renowned venues reopened.  U.S. president Joe Biden held traditional confabs with world leaders, even a summit with Vladimir Putin, the former restoring a singlemindedness of purpose among allies, the latter sober, stern and strong, heavy with diplomatic nuance.  There was bipartisan comity on badly needed legislation, with all the usual bumps and grinds to get there, and the promise of more negotiations to come.  Heck, Biden even committed a major gaffe that he had to quickly walk back, just like old times.  We’re all good, now, right?

Wrong.  That veneer of normalcy is mighty thin, and the gaping cracks that run through it are hard to miss.  They are as glaring as the ones on those doomed pillars that failed to hold up the Champlain Towers South condo in Surfside, Florida, which finally collapsed upon itself after years of inaction.  We too are witnesses to the obvious signs of a badly damaged democracy.  But for all the cluck-clucking of dismay, time passes, our democracy continues to erode and we wait, seemingly helplessly, for disaster to arrive.  What happened in Florida is a pretty heavy metaphor for the state of our democracy, but one we ignore at our obvious peril.

The issue, in a nutshell, is the massive threat to the integrity of our electoral process.  The stench of the Trump Administration – and most importantly, its post-November election aftermath – has overwhelmed the sweet smell of a functioning democracy.  Fed by the mythical fraud charges at the heart of The Big Lie and the January 6 Insurrection, Republican legislatures have enacted wildly restrictive voting laws in 18 states with the goal, quite simply, of limiting access to voting by people of color, who tend to vote for Democrats.  This naked ploy to disenfranchise minorities does not just echo Jim Crow laws that dominated voting patterns in the South for a century, it reinstates a modern-day version of them. 

In June, these disenfranchisement efforts received two enormous boosts at the national level:  the failure of Congress to pass federal voting rights legislation (the “For The People Act”), and the failure of the Supreme Court, along strict ideological lines (six conservative justices outvoting three liberal ones), to find Arizona’s version of these restrictive voting rights laws to be unconstitutional.

The actions – or inactions – of Congress and SCOTUS could not contrast more sharply with their resolve in facing the last significant threat to our democracy, when the Nixon White House was engulfed with Watergate and its cover-up.  The congressional response then was equal to the challenge, ultimately forcing Nixon to resign in disgrace for his attempts to subvert the election (the Watergate burglars were after documents that might embarrass Democrats).  In this effort they were ably supported by the Supreme Court, which then, as now, was dominated by Republican appointees, who nonetheless voted unanimously that Nixon must release incriminating Oval Office tapes.  Nixon’s crimes, while serious and worthy of his fate, seem mild, even quaint, compared to those of Trump.  And yet, today’s Congress and Supreme Court are, essentially, protecting the Big Lie.

The Democrats’ weapons in this epic battle are either too small to be effective or too big, apparently, to use.  Republicans have mastered voting rights warfare using a panoply of effective, powerful and usable mid-range weapons, including down ballot election prowess, gerrymandering and, simply stated, an utter contempt for the truth.  Democrats, on the other hand, are fighting with an arsenal of cap guns, such as Merrick Garland’s admirable but toothless efforts to challenge state laws, and one nuclear bomb: eliminating the filibuster in the Senate to enable majority-only votes to enact sweeping voting reform.  At this point, the Democrats cannot muster the required 50 votes to kill the filibuster, as Joe Manchin, Kyrsten Sinema and doubtless a smaller, but silent group of other Democratic Senators are opposed to this ultimate nuclear option.  And so our democracy rots from within, while we watch the cracks widen. 

Biden’s European Road Show, which featured meetings with the G-7, NATO allies and the Putin Summit, was designed to undo as much of Trump’s “America First” foreign policy legacy as one could possibly do in the short span of four days.  Biden is certainly the right person for this job – he is, incredibly, the first U.S. President since George H.W. Bush, roughly 40 years ago, to have substantial – or any -- foreign policy experience before entering office.  Bill Clinton and George W. Bush, who made their marks as governors, Barack Obama, a one-term Senator (who did, at least, serve on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee), and, of course, Trump, a political neophyte, had virtually none. 

Biden’s sure hand showed in his glad-handing of our allies, his public appearances on the sojourn, and  his tough, direct conversations with Putin (which, oddly, earned public praise from the Russian leader).  Little of substance was accomplished in any of these meetings, but the optics were the thing.  Biden’s trip surely sent clear messages:  the U.S. has resumed normal relations with our allies, re-committed with them to common goals, reaffirmed the NATO alliance, and re-established Russia as an enemy to be neutralized.  The memory of Trump fawning over Putin (“strong and powerful”) in Helsinki, and choosing Putin’s word over his own intelligence agencies, will never be forgotten, but they are now firmly in the past.

The most recent economic report was also a boon to Biden, with over 850,000 jobs created, welcome evidence of the success of his $1.9 trillion COVID relief package in reenergizing the economy.  Less welcome was stalled progress in fighting COVID itself; while states flung open their doors and their citizens removed their masks, vaccination rates plateaued and cases began to grow ominously by the end of June, driven by the Delta variant.  While cases more than halved for the month, from about 800,000 in May to 344,000 in June, and deaths dropped to a pandemic monthly low of 10,000, new cases grew by 18% in the last week of the month, from roughly 70,000 the prior week to 82,000, with the highest growth (roughly +25%) exhibited in states with less than half of its population fully vaccinated.  The states with the highest vax rates, conversely, continued to show, in total, a decline in new COVID cases. 

Most frustrating to many, particularly the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, was Biden’s continued insistence on bipartisan legislation for his American Jobs Act, a.k.a. the infrastructure bill.  America has forgotten, in the wake of the highly partisan Obama and Trump eras, what a painfully long path most major legislation takes to craft (unless it is emergency driven, such as Obama’s first stimulus bill, Trump’s first COVID relief bill, and Biden’s own COVID relief bill).  Biden’s strategy was reasonably clear:  to demonstrate that he was going all out, first, for a bipartisan solution to his infrastructure goals, either to prove it could be done on some subset of his desires, or to prove that it could not be done at all despite his sincere efforts.  Either way, that deep push for a bipartisan bill would give Joe Manchin, the most conservative Democratic Senator and the all-important 50th vote, “permission” to support a second, broader bill that would provide for “human” infrastructure needs such as child care and home health care, via a reconciliation process that would not require any GOP votes.

After first failing to come to agreement with a group of centrist GOP Senators led by Manchin’s West Virginia colleague Shelley Moore Capito, he fared better with a group of 20 centrist Senators, including 10 Republicans (the number required to join with Democrats to pass such a bill), coming to agreement in principle on a $1.2 trillion package focused on “traditional” infrastructure.  Biden almost immediately nearly torpedoed the agreement with the first major gaffe of his surprisingly disciplined presidency, by coupling the two pieces of legislation (both the "traditional" and the "human" infrastructure bills), announcing he would only sign both, not one or the other.  Once the GOP centrists howled their displeasure, Biden walked back his error, decoupling the two legislative efforts, and got the GOP centrists back on board.  But this overall two-pronged approach is a high wire act and will take time, doubtless stretching into the fall.

The third major legislative effort was also of the bipartisan variety, the “George Floyd Justice in Policing Act of 2021,” which passed the House in March and remains in negotiation in the Senate.  Senator Tim Scott of South Carolina, the only Black GOP Senator, had led the charge to find 10 GOP votes needed for cloture and passage, and thus far that has proved elusive.  Scott himself said in May that he thought it was “June or bust” to get the bill done; June has now come and gone, with no vote in sight.

But in a reminder that legislative wheels can spin at lightning speed, on June 15 the Senate passed the “Juneteenth National Independence Day Act” which made June 19 a national holiday (commemorating the emancipation of African-American slaves).  The House followed by passing it on June 16, and Biden signed it into law on June 17.  So simple.

It often has been said that the Rolling Stones have become “the world's greatest Rolling Stones’ tribute band” – they reliably draw frothing arena crowds of the faithful as they pump out their many hits, but don’t expect any new material from them.  This is roughly the state of Donald Trump’s career at this point.  His return to “touring” has been successful in drawing crowds, but his message is the same old same old, the Big Lie Blah Blah Blah.  Whether he can carry this message successfully through a 2024 nomination effort is far from assured – especially while the GOP itself is on to new messaging, focused on bashing Biden spending and alleging that he is soft on crime and immigration (polling indicates the latter are his two weakest areas).  Trump may well adopt these themes in the months and years ahead, but for now his interest remains only on re-litigating 2020, and assailing his foes (mostly the ones in his own party), rather than moving on.

The month also brought the first indictments in the long-awaited (and twice deferred) investigation by Cy Vance and the New York Southern District (now in combination with Tish James, the New York State Attorney General) of Trump and his company’s finances.  First up for an indictment was Trump Organization CFO Allen Weisselberg, accused of $1.7 million worth of tax fraud on various forms of income he allegedly kept hidden from the IRS.  Weisselberg has yet to “flip” on Trump, and it is remarkably unclear where this investigation is headed from here.  Most observers seem to feel that this can’t be all there is, that more dominoes will fall, but there is no assurance of that, especially if Weisselberg takes the fall.

The other major weapon in the fight to delegitimize Trump by exposing his illegal acts was the creation, by Nancy Pelosi, of a House Select Committee to investigate the January 6 insurrection.  This, of course, follows the failure of Congress to create a bipartisan committee on the model of the 9/11 Commission, rejected by the GOP for rather naked reasons – they thought it would hurt them in 2022.  This forced Pelosi to act, and act she did, minutes after the GOP failed to consider the For The People Act of 2021.  The House Select Committee will consist of eight members to be named by Pelosi and five to be named by McCarthy.  Pelosi cleverly used one of her picks to select GOP Representative Lynn Cheney, the face of her party’s anti-Trump faction, which will enable Pelosi to label any conclusions the committee reaches with Cheney’s support as bipartisan, puncturing the very claim the GOP had planned to wield against it.

The fate of our democracy will be at stake in both 2022 and 2024.  One can only hope that between this investigation, the Vance/James investigation, Trump fatigue and Biden success, Democrats can make gains in their Senate and House majorities to give more breathing room to their margins, thereby consigning Joe Manchin back to anonymity and enhancing the potential for truly progressive legislation.

 

MONTHLY MADNESS

Rudy Giuliani can no longer practice law in New York State.  "We conclude that there is uncontroverted evidence that respondent {Giuliani} communicated demonstrably false and misleading statements to courts, lawmakers and the public at large in his capacity as lawyer for former President Donald J. Trump and the Trump campaign in connection with Trump’s failed effort at reelection in 2020," a New York state appellate court ruled. 

What in the world took them so long?


BIDEN APPROVAL RATING

Joe Biden’s approval rating continues an extremely modest decline of roughly half-a-point a month, and the 52% level in June is a low.  His net rating has also fallen to +9, which is still quite impressive for these partisan times.  Trump never achieved the 50% level or a net positive any week 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 19 points on COVID management, is ahead of Trump on foreign policy by 8 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 I, from 20% to 41%.








BIDENOMETER

The “Bidenometer” was virtually unchanged in the month, moving from +62 to +64.  A drop in the unemployment rate and increase in consumer confidence offset a slight decline in the Dow and a modest increase in gas prices.

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 +64, the economy is clearly performing much better under Biden versus where Trump left it.

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 +64 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 Trumpometer 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 took office.  The indicators are the unemployment rate, the Dow-Jones Industrial Average, the Consumer Confidence Index, the price of gasoline and the GDP.

 

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