Tom with the BTRTN March 2023 Month in Review.
It has been nearly two years since Donald Trump dominated a BTRTN month in review. Trump has not exactly receded from view, but he has had to compete with others for attention, including Joe Biden, Vladimir Putin, Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Kevin McCarthy, Ron DeSantis – heck, even George Santos -- and many others who are (unlike Trump) active players on the world and domestic stage. But there is no denying that he once again – and almost certainly not for the last time – took up nearly all of the political oxygen the country could muster in March, 2023.
But wasn’t this inevitable?
Trump committed many apparent crimes in the post-election period, and he
has never let go of his stranglehold on a substantial subset of the GOP. These two facts have been in plain sight for
a long time, and guaranteed a return to the bright lights. That time has come.
Trump’s indictment today in New York City is, of course, historic,
the first time a former president (or current or future one) has been charged
with a crime. For any other politician,
the facts of this case, whether proven or not, would have destroyed their
career when they first became public – just starting with an alleged affair
with a pornographic film actress. That alone would disqualify just about
everyone. The apparent payment of hush
money by a presidential candidate to silence the pornstar just weeks before the
election takes the offense, rather spectacularly, to a whole new level. Had those facts been known at the time, just
days after the Access Hollywood video, they might have indeed prevented a Trump
presidency. But Trump is no ordinary
politician, and between his impressive lowering of the acceptable bar and his
willingness to suppress damaging evidence, he prevailed.
Less heralded is the fact that it also is the first-ever
indictment for Trump, despite a lifetime of shady behavior. He has escaped the wrath of the law through
threats, persuasion, flattery and surprising care in leaving no fingerprints at
the scenes of his crimes. But attempting
the grafter routine while occupying the White House (and in post-presidency) is
a far different world. Trump has relied
on his instincts thus far and that got him to the Oval Office. But once there, the same type of behaviors
were bound to have inescapable consequences.
When Trump was in office, the Department of Justice followed
precedent in not attempting to indict a sitting president. While Trump clearly committed acts that might
have warranted DOJ attention, instead impeachment was the only available
recourse to attempt to bring him to account.
But impeachment is, of course, a political process, not a criminal
proceeding, and the Senators who comprised the jury followed their political
own instincts, rather than their constitutional duty, in twice failing to
It has been obvious (if not yet proven) that Trump has repeatedly
broken the law since he lost his bid for reelection to Joe Biden. Any non-lawyer with a basic grasp of the
facts could easily see that Trump was clearly the motivating force and primary
agent in attempting, by any means, to overthrow the election, crying fraud based
on no evidence whatsoever. Whether he
was involved in the detailed planning of January 6 is nearly irrelevant; the
insurrection was merely the most visible aspect of the entire attempted coup. Trump’s myriad efforts to subvert the result
are far too numerous to recount. It will
certainly be interesting to see if the DOJ attempts to prosecute crimes related
to the election beyond, say, what the Fulton County, Georgia D.A. is
There is no question that Trump attempted to bully Georgia state
election officials to “find” the votes he needed to surpass Biden in that state
– it’s all on tape. And the facts
involved in his possession of national security documents and failure to return
them promptly once discovered also would strike the lay person as an obvious
criminal offense, especially in view of the mounting evidence that Trump clearly
sought to retain the documents, and was personally involved in decisions not to
There are criminal proceedings underway in each of these
areas. Impartial grand juries comprised of
ordinary citizens have been empaneled to hear the evidence. They will decide whether there is enough
damning evidence to warrant an indictment.
They do not have to contemplate their political futures, or, if they are
properly protected, worry about their fate if they decide a certain way. The wheels of justice move slowly, but they
are now rolling directly at Trump and the reckoning has begun.
The only real surprise is that the first indictment to come down
was the Stormy Daniels case rather than any of the post-election potential
crimes. This was a case that other prosecutors
have passed on over the years, and all of the events in question pre-dated the
Trump presidency. The affair occurred nearly
two decades ago, in 2006, and the alleged hush money payment was made, a decade
after that, as said, just weeks before the 2016 election. This is generally viewed as a weaker case
than either the Georgia or documents cases, involving supposedly relatively
minor offences (in comparison, though any crime that has the power to sway a
presidential outcome seems quite serious to me) and a relatively complex interplay
of business fraud and campaign finance violations, with serial liar Michael
Cohen a star witness (though hardly the only source of evidence).
If indictments were inevitable, so was Trump’s return to
presidential politics. The two are
related, of course, in that a primary theory of why Trump is running again is so
that he can secure once again the legal shield a stint in the White House appears
to guarantee. It would also give Trump
the opportunity to fire at least some of his tormentors. His entire legal strategy now, as always, is
to delay, delay, delay, and rarely has the consequence of its potential success
been so clear.
If Trump’s return to presidential politics was a given, so was his
frontrunner status in the GOP race, because nothing – apparently – can shake
the grip Trump has on a sizable chuck of the GOP, the fabled base that will
turn out in primary elections in droves.
The mainstream GOP has not been able to organize the “non-Trump” lane –
a larger slice of the GOP at this point than the Trump base – behind one
candidate, and even the formidable-on-paper Governor Ron DeSantis of Florida,
fresh off an epic 20-point reelection win, has not been able to get within
shouting distance of Trump since then.
DeSantis has not announced yet, but his early performance in his
faux campaign has not been scintillating.
At best he is still 15 points back of Trump (at roughly a 45% to 30%
margin), but a close look at some of the polling suggests some backsliding in
the past month in polls that have repeated in that time. If DeSantis should falter, it would take a
miracle for any of their other candidates, either announced or
yet-to-be-announced, to rise from their single digit status to become a serious
threat. That is a long climb indeed, for
candidates who have yet to connect with GOP voters in any meaningful way (I’m
talking about you, Mike Pence, Nikki Haley, Mike Pompeo, Asa Hutchinson, Chris
Sununu, Kristen Noem, Chris Christie and on and on).
As we have noted before, Trump’s legal troubles will have large
but potentially countervailing impacts on his presidential prospects. They will likely help him win the GOP
nomination, as Trump’s base gets truly inflamed by attacks on him (they have
already contributed $7 million to his campaign since last Thursday when word of
the pending indictment leaked). The
base, which comprises somewhere in the range of 35-45% of the GOP, will vote
disproportionately higher in the primaries than other Republicans. The indictments will also force all of
Trump’s opponents to either defend him or risk the wrath of the base, and the circus
will overwhelm their attempts to position themselves as viable alternatives to
The general election is another matter. The indictments will hurt there. CNN just released survey results that
indicated 60% of Americans are in favor of the hush money indictment, roughly
the same figure as Independents. Even
21% of Republicans favor the indictment, far outstripping the very few
Democrats who oppose them. It is hard to
imagine future indictments faring differently, and perhaps even worse for Trump. Apart from the indictments, Trump’s
grievance-based messaging is unpopular outside of the base, even within the GOP
and surely outside it. But Trump is
hardly the type to “pivot” when the lure of filling arenas with the faithful is
so powerful (and every time he has tried to tone down his act, as with his 2024
launch announcement, he comes off as wooden, unconvincing and downright dull).
As for Joe Biden, he is apparently considering delaying his own
announcement for months, preferring to simply act presidential while the
madness of the Trump and the entire GOP unfolds. Having established a surprisingly progressive
track record in his first two years, he is now shoring up his centrist
credentials in advance of his reelection push.
In the month, he refused to veto a District of Columbia crime ball that
seemed a given; gave the green light to a massive oil drilling project on
federal land in Alaska that shocked environmentalists, and signaled that he is
considering restarting family detention at the border. Biden quite obviously senses political vulnerability
on crime, energy and immigration and is thusly taking positions that provide
separation from progressives on each.
Biden is also fervently hoping that the Fed can tame inflation
without inducing a recession in 2024 (so far, so good). He is undoubtedly anxious about OPEC’s latest
decision to cut crude oil production, which could spike U.S. gas prices this
summer. In general, he will pick his
spots – and those spots will largely feature big ribbons to cut as his
infrastructure bill yields tangible projects to unveil across America. Biden did well in 2020 in simply hiding
(protecting himself from Covid as well as potential campaign gaffes) and a quasi-Rose
Garden strategy may be appealing in 2024 as well.
But the real spectacle lies ahead, with Donald Trump campaigning
for office, continually interrupted by the cold force of the law impelling to
return to courthouses again and again for arraignments, motions and trials in
New York, Georgia and Washington, DC. Never
has the term “uncharted territory” been so widely applied. Will the Trump faithful truly weather all
that without a second thought?
Biden’s approval rating in March remained in the low-to-mid 40’s, ending at 43%, a tick mark below that of February. His issue management ratings also remained nearly identical to the prior month as well. The “Bidenometer,” our BTRTN aggregate measure of economic performance, dropped ever so slightly to +40, with very minor changes both up and down offsetting, indicating that the economy on average is 40% stronger than it was when Trump left office (see below).
The Bidenometer is a BTRTN proprietary economic measure that was
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.
The Bidenometer 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 +40 for March, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures
are 40% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart
below). With a Bidenometer of +40,
the economy is performing markedly better under Biden compared to its condition
when Trump left office. Unemployment is much lower, consumer
confidence is higher, the Dow is higher and the GDP is stronger. On the flip side, gas prices have soared (as
has overall inflation, of which gas prices are a primary component).
Using January 20, 2021 as a baseline measure of zero, under Clinton the measure ended at +55. It declined from +55 to +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 from 0 to +40 under Biden.
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