Tom is back with the September, 2023 BTRTN Month in Review.
There were three major stories in September, 2023 – the growing (if that is imaginable) insanity of Donald Trump, the growing absurdity that defines the Republican majority of the House of Representatives, and the growing ageism that stalks Joe Biden and his reelection campaign every day. It is not hard to detect the common thread here: the growing incompetence of the American electorate.
When is America ever going to come to its senses? Why are we so easily fooled by such blindingly obvious concepts as “equivalization”? (Example: Hunter Biden’s legal troubles, despite attempts by the GOP to portray it thusly, in no way approximate those of Donald Trump.) How did we become so “normalized” to the despicable that we are incapable of raising an eyebrow anymore, much less act? (Example: Trump’s apparent eagerness to kill – literally -- both Mike Pence and Mark Milley largely went unnoticed.) Why can we not bring ourselves to independently assess the world as we observe it, questioning assertions instead of allowing them to ossify into faux facts? (Example: Biden may be old, but he is governing actively and effectively.)
The American experiment in democracy does not really demand much of our citizens, but it does require at least a modicum of effort, at least some attempt at independent thinking, objectivity and logic. But we appear to be, collectively, and with deep consequence, incapable of it. Back in 1858, citizens watched challenger Abraham Lincoln debate Senator Stephen Douglas of Illinois on seven different occasions – for three hours each! The format was geared to thoughtful, in-depth discussion of the issues. Each candidate spoke for 60 minutes, then each rebutted for 90 minutes, with closing comments by the first speaker that lasted 30 minutes more. And those listeners did not even have the right to vote in that election! In those days, and up until 1913, Senators were elected by state legislatures, not ordinary citizens. One can hardly imagine today’s voters having the patience for anything remotely similar; even with debate formats geared to generate pithy sound bites, most of us don’t bother to watch, and those who do often turn it off after 30 minutes. =That is the level of attention given the only forum where, however flawed the design, one might get an unfiltered view of the candidates to discern real differences in issues, temperaments and communication skills.
The Republican-controlled U.S. House of Representatives nearly shut down the government – causing needless anxiety for millions of Americans, including our military -- because of a handful of lunatics, led by the despicable Matt Gaetz, who has no business holding one of the 435 seats in the House. These lunatics are united in their insanity and were exploiting the power afforded a small minority in these particular circumstances, that is, the thinness of the GOP majority. Their lunacy will likely be on display twice more in the next 45 days, first, to mount a challenge to McCarthy’s Speakership, and second, at the expiration of yesterday’s continuing resolution, when the spending brawl will resume anew. During the feverish countdown to the deadline, all of McCarthy’s attempts to appease the crazies were rejected -- even ridiculously conservative spending bills that were dead certain to be rejected outright by the Democratic-held Senate and Democratic President Joe Biden. And all of McCarthy’s proposed bills blatantly violated the deal he had made – in broad daylight – with President Biden on spending parameters to end the debt ceiling crisis last spring. But he still could not get anything passed within his own party.
And yet, according to a Morning Consult survey this week, only 34% of Americans blamed congressional Republicans for the potential shutdown. Somehow, 23% blamed Joe Biden, and another 21% blamed congressional Democrats. How can that possibly be? The Democratic-led Senate passed -- in bipartisan fashion -- its own spending bill and Biden, who aggressively negotiated the deal with McCarthy on which the latter reneged, was simply waiting for Congress to present him with a bill. How can they possibly be culpable in a shutdown that the GOP House, in its division, had clearly created? (I am perhaps even more bothered by another fact revealed by the Morning Consult survey – only one in four Americans were even aware last week that a shutdown was pending.)
In the end, it became apparent that something or someone would have to be sacrificed to get a deal done. That someone turned out to be perhaps the bravest people on the planet: the citizens of Ukraine. McCarthy finally did indeed reach out to the Democrats, offering a bill that had everything Biden, the House Democrats and the entire Senate wanted, except one thing: $6 billion in aid for Ukraine. That, ultimately, was the price that was paid for the sake of Gaetz’s vanity. It should be noted that the vast majority of Americans, and the vast majority of members of Congress, support Ukraine and want to continue to fund them in their remarkable stand against Russian aggression. And yet, Gaetz and a handful of henchman forced their temporary abandonment, and they still have the power to do the same in future funding attempts, under whatever Speaker the House has at that moment (likely, McCarthy, as no one else wants the job, and recognize they would face the same lunacy).
It would be easy to say that the American people deserve better than what Congress is offering, but do we? We were the ones who elected a GOP majority in Congress – including each and every one of those lunatics. Swing districts that elected GOP candidates had the capacity to see that this behavior was coming – it was plain as day that McCarthy was headed for multiple such showdowns. They should have asked themselves, when casting their votes, if this kind of chaos was what they wanted for America. McCarthy said publicly, quite deliberately, that the lunatics wanted to “burn the whole place down.” Is this what those swing district voters really want, a party that cannot even govern itself?
Matt Gaetz won his reelection to a fourth term in Congress last November by a 68% to 32% margin, despite years of similar histrionics, and despite sex trafficking charges that involved Gaetz, a 41-year old married man, having sex with a 17-year old. Gaetz denied that he ever paid for sex, and was acquitted. But he never denied having sex with the 17-year old. Where is the outrage? Al Franken was drummed out of office for a poor sexist joke he made decades earlier in a previous career, yet Matt Gaetz is now essentially running Congress. This is insanity. (And the fabulist-extraordinaire George Santos continues to represent New York’s 3rd district, despite being indicted on 13 counts of fraud, money laundering, theft of public money and false statements.)
And then there is Donald Trump. The beat goes on. If one believes it is too much to ask Americans to follow the arcana of Congressional maneuverings, what of Trump, who’s every movement is splattered across social media, TV and newspapers? It’s hard to excuse not knowing -- or worse, not caring -- about the torrent of evidence that point to his crimes and ongoing horrific behavior. Much that of evidence has been uttered from his own mouth, or reported by those closest to him, his allies, not his enemies. This is no whisper campaign, no conspiracy theory and, of course, no witch hunt. These are facts.
He is currently on a campaign to threaten witnesses and disparage prosecutors and judges, merely his latest attempt to subvert the legal system. And his campaign for the 2024 GOP nomination is no better. He recently made a point of stopping at a gun dealership in South Carolina to admire a customized Glock pistol. This was the same gun store – Palmetto State Armory – that sold an automatic rifle to a white man who used it to kill three Blacks in Florida just a month before. This was intentional. There are 78,000 retail outlets that sell guns in America, more than four times the number of the seemingly ubiquitous MacDonald’s, of which there are a mere 18,000. He could have selected any one of them to make a public embrace of the gun-wielding segment of the populace. Trump chose this one. Why? Because, not content with simply appealing to the gun-toting segment of the electorate, he wanted to embrace an even more vile subset, the racist gun-wielders.
He also stated that General Mike Milley “deserved to be executed” for Milley taking the wise precaution of calling his China counterparts in the aftermath of January 6 to assure them of America’s stability. Cassidy Hutchinson revealed that Trump was enthusiastic on January 6 on the topic of hanging of Mike Pence. Wishing death – death! – upon anyone has no place in the vocabulary of any person, much less the former leader of the free world. But these two men were his hand-picked Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff and Vice-President of the United States, two of the absolutely preeminent positions in any administration. Their "crimes," essentially, were to choose country and Constitution over loyalty to a criminal thug.
Of course, these are merely the latest in an encyclopedia-sized list of outrages perpetrated by Trump. On the legal front, a judge in New York found Trump guilty of an epic fraud, in serially overvaluing his properties to secure loans, including the fantasy of tripling the size of his own Trump Tower triplex. The penalties are still to be determined, but Trump could lose the Trump Organization itself in toto (it would cease to exist, a “death penalty”), as well as Trump Tower and all of his other New York State pieces of real estate. And, of course, there are the four indictments that will go to trial in 2024, including the theft of government documents and obstructing their return, paying off a porn star to avoid jeopardizing his 2016 election prospects by her revealing their affair, and, worst of all, the attempted subversion of the 2016 election, for which he faces both federal and state charges (in Georgia).
Despite all this, and so much more, Trump continues to be rabidly worshipped by at least one-third of the GOP, and favored by more than half of GOP likely voters for the 2024 GOP nomination. Part of the reason for their devotion is that the rank-and-file MAGA is not necessarily exposed to all of these horrific deeds (although they do hear him directly and read his Truth Social postings). But it is the silence of others that truly enables him. The right wing media mentions none of the above, nor do GOP politicians, not even the many of those who privately believe he is vile. They are all too scared of his sway over the party, and they note the political fate of Jeff Flake (remember him?), Lynn Chaney, Adam Kinzinger, Will Hurd (last seen running for president in virtual anonymity) and others who dared to cross him.
This complicit silence even extends to the most obvious opportunity one can possibly think of for it to be abandoned once and for all – the debate amongst those deeply ambitious Republican candidates who are challenging Trump to be the party’s nominee in 2024. And yet, there was no mention of the execution threats at the GOP debate the other night. No mention of the fraud verdict. No mention of any of the indictments. Neither the “journalists” who (barely) moderated the debate, nor the raucous candidates who fired darts at one another brought up the heinous actions of Trump for either comment or critique. A few of them did ding Trump a few times, but only for not showing up at the debate, and for running up the national debt. On my list, these are two of his lesser transgressions.
The Democrats are not immune from, shall we say it kindly, unproductive thinking. I hasten to clarify that there is no equivalency here. The Democrats clearly hold the high ground in terms of defending democracy, upholding the Constitution, and displaying ethics on government. In but the latest example, while Senator Bob Menendez has not bowed as yet to the pressure to resign (undoubtedly to secure better plea terms), that pressure is being applied by his Democratic colleagues in the Senate, who were quick to call loudly and clearly for his resignation. Yet the GOP cannot bring itself to expel Santos.
But the Democrats are obsessing unhelpfully over their own president and whining about the lack of alternatives for 2024. They say Joe Biden is too old to be president, which is a bit like saying that an 80-year old is too old to drive, even if the 80-year old in question was lapping the field in the Indianapolis 500. Biden is giving a textbook lesson on statecraft, both in passing meaningful, even historic, bipartisan legislation, and conducting a coherent foreign policy, rebuilding global alliances and using them to fight off the all too real Russian threat in Ukraine, at the cost of zero American lives. His administration is even doing well in the fight against inflation – a scourge he had little to do with, as it was caused primarily by supply shortages during Covid, of both materials and labor -- not his spending policies. To the extent Biden’s policies contributed to inflation, they also contributed to the robust consumer demand that drove the economy out of a short-term recession, preventing a longer, deeper one that would have decimated the job market. But all anyone – even far too many Democrats – can focus on is his age and his occasional stumbles.
It’s not as if there is a clear alternative, a clear “next generation” obvious successor to whom Biden might, even gladly, hand the baton. Biden himself once termed his potential presidency as “transitional.” In fact, the biggest indictment one can make about the next generation of Democrats is that none of them could beat Biden, then 78, in a wide-open race in 2020. Kamala Harris did not win a single delegate – she dropped out before Iowa in a dismal campaign. Pete Buttegieg and Amy Klobuchar did better, and Buttigieg even won Iowa, but he could not sustain that momentum, and Klobuchar never developed any. While a Biden re-election bid is a risk, so would be a candidacy of any alternative. None would have the considerable power of incumbency, and each would expose the Democratic ticket to their own weaknesses. Buttegieg, despite his considerable prowess and potential, has long been suspect in the Black community and would have to shatter his own glass ceiling as the first openly gay candidate. Gavin Newsom, the Governor of uber-liberal California, has a strong progressive record that would not necessarily play well in centrist swing states. Klobuchar, on paper, seemed a particularly strong candidate, a Midwestern Senator with all of Biden’s centrist credentials and apparent likeability, and decades younger, but somehow he easily defeated her. Who else? Certainly not the even-older leftist Bernie Sanders, or boring Sherrod Brown (who might not even win his own seat in Ohio in 2024), or….who else? And yet, various polls say that anywhere from two-thirds to three-quarters of Democrats say they would prefer another candidate.
Democrats need a cold slap in the face, and fast. Biden is our candidate. He flits around the world at a pace that exhausts me just reading about it, and he shows no sign of imminent demise. He may not last out a second term, but that is not the point – he could hand over the presidency to Harris in 2026 if he felt the slightest bit overmatched by the rigors of the office.
He has a fine record, he beat Trump once, and he can beat him again. He has the abortion issue to motivate voters, as well as January 6 and the threats to democracy posed by another Trump presidency. The economy seems to be headed in the right direction and the odds of a 2024 recession are viewed as low. Trump is disliked by independents, and for all the facts around 60% of the party favoring him for nomination, that also means that 40% are not, which in turns means they will not be motivated to help Trump win, even if they support him – and they may not, choosing to sit it out or even vote for Biden rather than hold their noses. Democrats essentially have won the 2018, 2020 and 2022 election cycles, and 2023 as well, where they have won dozens of state special elections and referendums but an average of 8 points higher than Biden did in those districts or states in 2020. In short, on balance, the electoral environment right now seems to be shaded blue.
Biden is the least risky candidate we have. Time to start talking him up instead of trashing him based on ignorance and the fear not of what he is, but of what he might become a few years from now. At the very least, try some equivalization of our own, of the very real variety: Trump is 77 and speaks like an insane man.
At this point, it may be almost a fairy tale to think that the GOP will reject the likes of Trump and Gaetz as nominees in 2024. But the Democrats need to get a grip on their own reality and back the one candidate we have who can ensure we never see another Trump presidency: and that is Joe Biden.
Joe Biden’s approval rating in September was unchanged versus August, holding at 41%. This marked the 25th straight month that Biden has been within the 39-45% range. The ratings of Biden’s performance on the issues were generally unchanged. The generic ballot shows a dead heat between the Democrats and the GOP.
The "Bidenometer" dropped somewhat from 35 to 33, driven by a drop in the Dow. But the +33 level still means the economy is in far better shape than the one he inherited from Trump (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 +33 for September, 2023 means that, on average, the five measures are 33% higher than they were when Biden was inaugurated (see the chart below). With a Bidenometer of +33, 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 are higher, as is 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 +33 under Biden.
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