Republican 2024 Presidential Politics:  First Inclinations: Part II

If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is immediately below), I would start there.

I generally refrain from posting any part of a multi-part note until all parts are completed.  The original version of Part II of this post – a pretty traditional analysis of lanes to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination — was done and scheduled when Part I was published on March 3.  Events occurring before Part II ran made me pull it back; it’s clear that the two lanes to the 2024 Republican presidential nomination will be markedly less about political philosophy than about personality; there will be a Donald Trump Lane and an Everybody Else Lane. 

At the time this is typed, former President Donald Trump certainly appears to be the frontrunner for the nomination; he retains a core MAGA base that I’ve seen estimated at 30 – 45% of Republicans, which will serve him well in a multi-candidate race.  Perhaps even more unnerving for his declared and prospective adversaries is a recent Emerson College (Massachusetts) poll indicating that Mr. Trump was the preferred candidate for 58% of New Hampshire Republicans – with FL. Gov. Ron DeSantis and NH Gov. Chris Sununu next trailing at, respectively, 17% and 7%.  While the Emerson sample size was tiny — 384 registered Republicans – New Hampshire ain’t Alabama; if the poll’s notable gap in support between Mr. Trump and his opponents has any appreciable relation to Republican sentiment in politically centrist states, such does not bode well for the other aspirants.

Since Part I was posted, the former president, in a rousing speech to a rabid MAGA crowd at the conservative conference, CPAC, claimed that he will continue his presidential candidacy no matter the state of his various legal challenges, and intimated that he wouldn’t necessarily support another Republican in 2024 if he fails to secure the party’s nomination – pronouncements amounting at the same time to a declaration of war on his nomination adversaries and a blackmail threat to Republican traditionalists.  The path Mr. Trump sees back to the White House appears clear:  that he’ll quickly dispatch any opponents for the nomination that have the temerity to take him on; that the entire Republican party will fall in behind him – although I am sure that he is aware that as many despise as adore him – because of Republican tribalism; and that any sign of increasing frailty or significant blunder by President Biden during the next two years will enable him to win over enough swing state swing voters to eke out an Electoral College victory.

First things first:  aside from blind ambition [admittedly, every politician’s failing 🙂 ] trumping [if you will 😉 ] logic, it’s hard to see why potential Republican candidates who have secure positions wouldn’t wait to run until 2028.  (Such a calculation would, of course, be premised on the assumptions that Mr. Trump will win the nomination and that he’ll either lose in 2024 or will indeed give up the presidency in 2028 if he wins in 2024.)  Of Mr. Trump’s potential adversaries for the nomination listed in Part I, sitting back seems the rational play for TX Gov. Greg Abbott, U.S. TX Sen. Ted Cruz, Mr. DeSantis, SD Gov. Kristi Noem, U.S. SC Sen. Tim Scott, Mr. Sununu and VA Gov. Glenn Youngkin.  (Mr. DeSantis’ candidacy may now be too anticipated for him to back out, but given his timidity thus far in confronting Mr. Trump, one certainly cannot rule out the possibility that he will yet quail.)        

The other potential candidates listed in Part I — former NJ Gov. Chris Christie, former AR Gov. Asa Hutchinson, former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence, and former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo – have no secure office from which to wait four years; if they don’t run and win in 2024, they will – as declared candidate former U.S. UN Amb. Nikki Haley obviously believes she will – almost certainly be irretrievably old news by 2028.  (Former MD Gov. Larry Hogan was also listed in Part I, but Mr. Hogan has since indicated that he will not seek the nomination.) 

Not all of the candidates listed in Part I can be addressed here – neither your patience nor my stamina could bear it – but a few seem worthy of consideration, and a couple perhaps illustrate manners in which Mr. Trump might be denied the Republican nomination.

First, the most prominent piece of Republican political flotsam:  Mr. Pence.  He hasn’t been sufficiently forthright in calling out Mr. Trump for inciting the January 6th insurrection to redeem himself with those who oppose Mr. Trump, while at the same time he is loathed by MAGAs as the ultimate traitor to Mr. Trump.  I see no path for him.

Mr. DeSantis is, of course, currently being touted as the Great Hope of those that oppose Mr. Trump.  After I posted Part I, a close friend commented that he hoped Mr. DeSantis would pull away from Mr. Trump, which he believed would cause Mr. Trump to form his own party, thereby doing in both his and Mr. DeSantis’ candidacies and the MAGA movement.  I would welcome such an outcome since I consider Mr. DeSantis to be as substantively dangerous as Mr. Trump, but I don’t see how Mr. DeSantis, who has diligently made himself a Trump Mini-Me, bests Mr. Trump for the Republican nomination as long as Mr. Trump remains a viable contender.  Both men visited Iowa recently; Mr. Trump’s crowds reportedly dwarfed Mr. DeSantis’.  If as a voter you like a dark stout, why settle for Near Beer?

That said, the nomination prospects of Mr. DeSantis or any other Trump Wannabe would seemingly improve if, despite Mr. Trump’s claims that he intends to continue his candidacy despite his legal challenges, such challenges ultimately disqualify him from a practical standpoint before he has the opportunity to politically eviscerate them.  They can’t beat Mr. Trump, but one might be able to step over him – if he legally implodes soon enough.  The difficulty with this scenario is that the former president is as good at delaying legal proceedings as he is at sowing sedition; it’s hard to see how a Trump Wannabe can wait long enough for Mr. Trump to legally succumb yet get in the race early enough to mount a viable campaign.  In Mr. DeSantis’ case, the attacks have already begun.

The candidates who seek to create a perceptual contrast between him/herselves and Mr. Trump – let’s call them, “Trump Alternatives”; Ms. Haley now being the only announced candidate in this category – seem to me to have perhaps brighter prospects than those of true Trump Wannabes.  I would offer that any Trump Alternative should want Mr. Trump in the race to clear out the Trump Wannabes.  As Mr. Trump scores some early primary wins, hand-wringing will mount in Republican circles regarding the likelihood of a resounding November defeat.  In the early going, each Trump Alternative should focus on beating the other Trump Alternatives.  Each Trump Alternative’s early core strategy should be the punch line of the two hikers confronted by a charging bear:  “I don’t need to be faster than the bear; I just need to be faster than you.”  A leader among Trump Alternatives will emerge.  The hope here is that there will be tremendous pressure brought to bear on the trailing Trump Alternatives to exit the race before Mr. Trump has garnered enough primary victories to de facto clinch the nomination, setting up a one-on-one between Mr. Trump and the remaining Trump Alternative.  Most prognosticators believe that Mr. Trump will lose primaries if forced to compete one-on-one at an early enough point in the primary season — an assumption admittedly yet to be tested.

One could discount this scenario by rightly pointing out that such didn’t happen in 2016 – former OH Gov. John Kasich stuck around almost to the end of the Republicans’ nominating process, and the party apparatus didn’t get behind him.  I would submit that this time could be different.  There seems a consensus, even among Republicans that maintain sympathy for Mr. Trump’s illiberalism and/or his policies, that it is highly likely that if nominated, he will lose to Mr. Biden.  Republicans want to win.  The party’s establishment undoubtedly realizes in retrospect that in 2016 they just didn’t envision soon enough that Mr. Trump (whom all considered a certain general election loser) could capture their nomination – until the proliferation of mainstream candidates cancelled each other out, and he did.  In 2020, they watched the Democrats learn from Republicans’ 2016 experience, and engineer the withdrawals of moderate candidates U.S. MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar and then-South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg from their presidential nomination contest just in time for Mr. Biden to corral all of the moderate Democratic support and snatch the nomination from the surging, and unelectable, progressive U.S. VT Sen. Bernie Sanders.

Then there is the X Factor:  former U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney.  She almost certainly can’t win the nomination herself – although if she did, I would submit (somewhat ironically, given the widespread antipathy toward her in the party) that she’d have a good chance to defeat Mr. Biden – but if she elects to get in the race, her attacks on Mr. Trump would undoubtedly divert Mr. Trump’s and his supporters’ venom away from the Trump Alternative.  [Admittedly, Ms. Cheney – substantively still a staunch Republican despite her undoubted devotion to American democracy — would need to craft a message designed not to draw support to her from the Trump Alternative (such a draw would help Mr. Trump) if she was comfortable that the Trump Alternative wasn’t a threat to democracy.]

And there is another factor, one of the few remaining maxims of American presidential politics:  anyone challenging Mr. Trump must – must – defeat him in the challenger’s home state primary.  Mr. Kasich could stay in the 2016 race to the end because he beat Mr. Trump in Ohio primary.  U.S. FL Sen. Marco Rubio dropped out of the 2016 race immediately after he lost the Florida primary to Mr. Trump (while Mr. Trump was still a New Yorker).    

There is one Trump Alternative whose opportunities – albeit requiring an audacious, Jimmy Carter in 1976-type strategy — intrigue me more than the rest; a notion that, even based upon a couple of references in this Part II, would make you question my mental acuity even more than you already do. 

As Mr. Trump likes to say:  We’ll see what happens. 🙂

Have a Happy St. Patrick’s Day.

Republican 2024 Presidential Politics:  First Inclinations: Part I

I was planning to put this off – former President Donald Trump’s declaration of candidacy for the 2024 Republican Presidential nomination being insufficient incentive for me to dive back into the pandemonium of presidential politics – but former U.S. UN Amb. and SC Gov. Nikki Haley’s recent declaration of her candidacy for Republican Party’s 2024 Presidential nomination and the likelihood that other Republican hopefuls will soon join her means:  It’s that time again.

As all who have read these pages for a while are aware, I consider the winning of general elections to be about matchups – each candidate’s strengths pitted against the other candidate’s weaknesses – but the parties’ nominating processes to be about lanes.  In U.S. presidential politics, I would offer that one should picture a five-lane highway:  the far-left lane, occupied today for purposes of reference by U.S.VT Sen. Bernie Sanders; the center-left lane, occupied by President Joe Biden and former President Bill Clinton; the center lane, occupied by independent and moderate voters but without a politician occupant; the center-right lane, occupied by former President George H.W. Bush (and interestingly, now shared by former President Ronald Reagan and former U.S. AZ Sen. John McCain, who during their lifetimes were considered to drive in the far right lane); and the far right lane, now occupied by Mr. Trump.  A maxim which all except avid Progressives and ardent MAGAs understand:  to win a presidential general election, a Democrat must have sufficient presence in the far-left lane to win the party’s nomination without veering so far left that s/he can’t move back toward the center lane to win the decisive percentage of independent and moderate swing state swing voters who decide the general election, while the Republican must have sufficient presence in the far-right lane to win the party’s nomination without veering so far right that s/he can’t move back toward the center lane to win the decisive percentage of the same swing voter segment.  A candidate’s challenge is further complicated by how many other candidates for his/her party’s nomination seek to run in the same lane s/he chooses.

It appears – despite the sage counsel I dispensed in these pages not long ago 😉 – that Mr. Biden does intend to seek another term; but let’s set the Democrats and the political highway’s two left lanes aside for the present, and consider the right two lanes.

Thus far, pundits have identified the following individuals in addition to Mr. Trump and Ms. Haley as among potential contenders for the Republican nomination, listed in alphabetical order:  TX Gov. Greg Abbott; former NJ Gov. Chris Christie; U.S. TX Sen. Ted Cruz; FL Gov. Ron DeSantis; former MD Gov. Larry Hogan; former AR Gov. Asa Hutchinson; SD Gov. Kristi Noem; former U.S. Vice President Mike Pence; former U.S. Secretary of State Mike Pompeo; U.S. SC Sen. Tim Scott; NH Gov. Chris Sununu; VA Gov. Glenn Youngkin; and – not in alphabetical order, given her special status – former U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney.  They, as well as any other aspirants for the Republican nomination, drive in one of the two lanes: 

In the far-right lane are Mr. Trump and those that have closely associated themselves with the MAGA movement who, if they declare for the Republican nomination, would in effect be seeking to replace Mr. Trump as its leader:  Messrs. Abbott, Cruz, DeSantis, Pence, Pompeo, and Ms. Noem.  (In fairness, although I consider MAGAism a threat to democracy, I do not consider Mr. Pence himself such a threat.  Although I disagree with his domestic agenda and deplore his obsequiousness as Vice President, I am confident that if reasonable evidence showed that he had lost an election, he would accept the result.  I have significant doubts in that regard about Mr. Cruz, and don’t know enough to venture an opinion about the rest.)

In the center-right lane are those who have managed to maintain a perception of distance from Mr. Trump and MAGAism:  Mses. Haley and Cheney, and Messrs. Christie, Hogan, Hutchinson, Scott, Sununu, and Youngkin.  It is no coincidence that Messrs. Hogan, Hutchinson, Sununu, and Youngkin are governors who have been outside Mr. Trump’s maelstrom, while Mr. Scott, the only black Republican Senator, has been able to stake out his own niche.  Ms. Haley and Mr. Christie, although past advisors to Mr. Trump, have to some extent been able to disassociate themselves from him.  Ms. Cheney’s position needs no elaboration for anyone who hasn’t spent the last two years in a cave in Nome.

I have seen any number of professional political operatives opine that given Mr. Trump’s estimated core 30% support among Republicans, he is the overwhelming favorite to win the party’s nomination and that a large field will almost assure his victory.  I have seen these prognosticators scoff at Ms. Haley’s chances, and suggest that the race will quickly become a two-candidate affair between Mr. Trump and Mr. DeSantis.

They’re professionals and I’m just a retired old blogger, but I see other potential scenarios that I assume at least some of these GOP hopefuls are banking on.  The rest in Part II. 

The Dog that Caught the Bus

There is exquisite irony that then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s disreputable manipulation of Senate procedures — enabling former President Donald Trump to appoint U.S. Supreme Court Justices who thereupon overturned women’s federal Constitutional abortion rights — was likely a notable factor in Democrats retaining their Senate majority in 2022, perhaps costing Mr. McConnell, an octogenarian, his final opportunity to reclaim Senate Majority leadership.

The U.S. Supreme Court’s reversal of Roe v. Wade may well be Republicans’ political gift to Democrats that keeps on giving.

There are seven Justices on the Wisconsin Supreme Court.  Justices are elected to 10 year terms, and such races are nominally bipartisan.  As all who care are aware, in recent decades such races have become decidedly partisan and relations between the liberal and conservative state Justices frequently acrimonious.  Conservatives currently hold a 4-3 advantage.  The winners of the just-past February 21st primary, Milwaukee County Judge Janet Protasiewicz and former WI Supreme Court Justice Daniel Kelly, are vying for a seat on the Court.  Ms. Protasiewicz is unabashedly the liberal candidate; Mr. Kelly, who lost to a liberal in his bid to stay on the Court in 2018, is clearly the conservative favorite.

The Protasiewicz-Kelly contest promises to be a tight race, with millions of out-state money contributed to both candidates.  Partisans on both sides are acutely aware that former President Donald Trump’s challenge to his 2020 Wisconsin electoral defeat – in which he sought to have disallowed a raft of absentee ballots in liberal Milwaukee and Dane Counties — was rejected in the Wisconsin Supreme Court by only a 4-3 margin that found Mr. Trump’s claims “unreasonable in the extreme.” Since the 2024 presidential race again seems likely to be razor-thin in Wisconsin, each party is wildly desirous of securing a majority on the state’s Supreme Court, which will probably be the final arbiter of any challenges to the initially-tabulated presidential election result.

Most now recognize that former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tip O’Neill’s famous adage, “All politics is local,” is no longer as true as it once was; the spread of media has nationalized our politics even down to the election of a state’s Supreme Court Justices and election officials.  That said, there is a local issue that I would suggest could, by itself, tip the balance in the WI Supreme Court election:  women’s right to abortion in Wisconsin. 

A Wisconsin state law, a vestige of the 1800s, prohibits abortion in the state.  At the same time, Marquette University polls indicate that a significant majority of Wisconsinites – over 60% — support a woman’s right to choose.  The Republican-controlled legislature has refused to allow a state referendum on the issue, presumably because the Republicans know how it will turn out. 

There can be little doubt that if elected, Judge Protasiewicz will vote for any legal rationale that enables women to obtain abortions in Wisconsin.  It seems just as likely that if elected, former Justice Kelly will uphold the current Wisconsin abortion prohibition.

I’m confident that Ms. Protasiewicz is surrounded by savvy political advisors.  If I were them – and it takes no prescience to suggest this – during her campaign stops, and in media advertising and literature, I would place relatively lesser emphasis on the potential impact that the Court’s composition might have on the state’s 2024 presidential election or the manner in which the Republicans have dishonorably gerrymandered the state’s legislative districts, and instead – not unlike the way U.S. WI Sen. Ron Johnson turned his 2022 race against then-WI Lt. Gov. Mandela Barnes into a referendum on crime – turn this WI Supreme Court contest into a referendum on abortion.

If Ms. Protasiewicz wins the seat, Mr. Kelly will rightfully be able to lay part of the responsibility for his defeat at the feet of Messrs. Trump and McConnell.

A significant majority of Republicans have wanted to overturn Roe v. Wade for about 50 years.  Their dog finally caught the bus.  At least thus far, it generally hasn’t gone that well.  We’ll see what happens this time.

On Lenten Fasting

Today is Ash Wednesday:  in the Christian world, the beginning of Lent, the 40-day period of reflection and performance of penance for one’s sins in preparation for Jesus’ Passion and Death on Good Friday and Resurrection on Easter Sunday.  It is a time in which Christians have traditionally fasted – customarily understood to mean that one of faith will willingly bear the pang of hunger, or endure some other discomfort – so as to identify in a microscopic way with the Lord’s suffering.  Even so, I offer the following Scriptural description of another means of fasting by which one might embrace the spirit of Lent:

“Would that today you might fast so as to make your voice heard on high!

Is this the manner of fasting I wish, of keeping a day of penance:

That a man bow his head like a reed and lie in sackcloth and ashes?

Do you call this a fast, a day acceptable to the Lord?

This, rather, is the fasting that I wish:

Releasing those bound unjustly, untying the thongs of the yoke;

Setting free the oppressed, breaking every yoke;

Sharing your bread with the hungry, sheltering the oppressed and the homeless;

Clothing the naked when you see them, and not turning your back on your own.

Then, your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your wound shall quickly be healed;

Your vindication shall go before you, and the glory of the Lord shall be your rear guard.

Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer; you shall cry for help, and He will say:

‘Here I am.’”

 Isaiah 58:  4-9    

Post’s Amazon Coverage Wins Polk Award

Set forth below is a link to a Washington Post article reporting that Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy won the 2022 George Polk Award in environmental reporting for his series, “The Amazon, Undone.”  I’m confident that the Post will not begrudge a proud parent the opportunity to excerpt verbatim from its lead paragraphs:

“Washington Post reporter Terrence McCoy’s coverage of ecological destruction, violence and terror in the Amazon rainforest has won a George Polk Award, a top honor in journalism, organizers announced Monday.

McCoy, The Post’s Rio de Janeiro bureau chief, will receive the environmental reporting award for  “The Amazon, Undone,” a 2022 series that examined how ruthless deforestation, the policies of former Brazilian president Jair Bolsonaro and the American appetite for beef are rapidly destabilizing the rainforest, which is one of the planet’s last bulwarks against unchecked global warming.

‘The forest is racing toward what scientists warn is a tipping point, when it can no longer maintain its base ecology and suffers a spreading dieback,’ McCoy wrote in a recap of the project, which took him hundreds of miles through the jungle.   …

The Polk Awards, presented by Long Island University since 1949 and named after a CBS correspondent killed during the Greek Civil War, gave out 16 prizes among more than 500 submissions for 2022.”

Many will recall that reporter Dom Phillips was killed this past June during a trip in the Amazon.  This is a moment to reflect upon journalists’ vital contributions in so many different contexts across the globe, sometimes with disregard for their own safety.

On the Role of Journalism

Below you will find a link to a recent piece by New York Times Columnist Bret Stephens.  In his essay, Mr. Stephens takes issue with a position recently asserted in the Washington Post by former Post Executive Editor Leonard Downie, Jr., whom Mr. Stephens quotes as declaring that a new generation of journalists “‘believe that pursuing objectivity can lead to false balance or misleading ‘both-sides-ism,’” and that these young journalists “‘feel it [presumably, pursuing objectivity] negates many of their own identities, life experiences and cultural contexts, keeping them from pursuing truth in their work.’”

Mr. Stephens also refers to a report co-authored by Mr. Downie, “Beyond Objectivity,” which Mr. Stephens indicates includes a contention by a quoted editor that Objectivity “is news ‘through the lens of largely white, straight men.’”  (The report – wait for it; this is the best part:  was issued by the Walter Cronkite School of Journalism at Arizona State University.  Those of us old enough to remember Mr. Cronkite’s straightforward reporting as longtime anchor of the CBS Evening News – at the end of every broadcast, he told us, “That’s the way it is,” and indeed, we knew, that was the way it was — can be confident that the report’s publication under his name has him rolling in his grave.)

I am not sure whether all reading this note will be able to reach Mr. Stephens’ column behind the Times’ paywall; what follows are a few of his comments that I am pretty confident that he wouldn’t mind me sharing if he were aware:

“[News outlets] are not in the ‘truth’ business, at least not the sort with a capital ‘T.’ Our job is to collect and present relevant facts and good evidence. Beyond that, truth quickly becomes a matter of personal interpretation, ‘lived experience,’ moral judgments and other subjective considerations that affect all journalists but that should not frame their coverage. …

The core business of journalism is collecting and distributing information. Doing this requires virtues of inquisitiveness, independence, open-mindedness, critical thinking and doggedness in the service of factual accuracy, timeliness and comprehensiveness. It also serves the vital interests of democracy by providing the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy. This may be less romantic than the pursuit of ‘truth,’ but we could regain a lot of trust by paring down our mission to simple facts.”

It seems that journalists may still be grappling with the challenges of 1950s McCarthyism, when the press (as it was then known) felt trapped by its perceived obligation to continue to report unfounded allegations of Communism by an elected Senator from … er … Wisconsin, even after it realized that Sen. Joseph McCarthy’s accusations were without basis.  I don’t consider the profession’s responsibility to objectively collect and disseminate facts to require ignoring reality.  When former President Donald Trump took office, the Wall Street Journal Newsroom (as contrasted with its Opinion desk) made the point of informing its readers that while it did not intend to specifically point out all of Mr. Trump’s seeming falsehoods, it would juxtapose what its reporters uncovered with Mr. Trump’s declarations, and let the reader decide.  (An old example:  given Mr. Trump’s assertion that his inauguration had drawn the most attendees in history, the Journal posted pictures of the crowds at the inaugurations of former President Barack Obama and Mr. Trump next to Mr. Trump’s claim, and let the reader form his/her own conclusion as to its veracity.)  I was, and remain, very comfortable with such an approach.

As for the notion that “objectivity” somehow reflects a bias of white, straight males:  while one’s being and background will obviously influence the way one perceives the import of a fact pattern, I entirely reject the notion that the standard of objectivity for collection and dissemination of facts should in any way vary according to a reporter’s gender, race, ethnicity, religion, age, or other attribute.

What makes journalism a noble calling isn’t those who shout from talk shows or opinion pages [or blogs  😉 ].  Although TLOML and I watch MSNBC’s decidedly-liberal Morning Joe and I frequently agree with and occasionally cite its panelists’ observations, I would never post anything in these pages based upon such observations unless I found confirmation either with my own eyes (via video) or in the news pages of a reputable newspaper.  We spouters can have our views; what is vital is that journalists, as Mr. Stephens put it, “provid[e] the public with the raw materials it needs to shape intelligent opinion and effective policy.”  That’s all, and that’s enough.  After journalists have fulfilled their responsibility – a sacred one in a democracy — it is thereafter up to our people, for good or ill, to form their own conclusions.

Obviously, I associate myself with the entirety of Mr. Stephens’ remarks, and encourage you to read his entire column – if not accessible to you via the link below, through other means.

Out of Africa: Part II

[If one intends to review this post, but has not yet read Part I (which is below), I would start there.]

The choice for this note’s title was deliberate; the best mental preparation I had for the trip was Out of Africa, published in 1937 by Danish Baroness Karen von Blixen under the pseudonym, Isak Dinesen, in which she chronicled her ownership and operation of a coffee plantation outside Nairobi from 1915 to 1931.  The book, which bears only passing relation to the 1985 Meryl Streep – Robert Redford film drawn from it, is devoted primarily to Ms. Blixen’s struggles to manage her farm, her relationships and interactions with native Africans, and her love of the flora and fauna of Africa.  The book has been called “intricately racist,” but I strongly disagree.  Given the evident high esteem Ms. Blixen had for those she called the “Natives,” and the great regard they in turn had for her, the work is simply a product of its times.

There are 42 tribes in Kenya.  The largest tribe in Kenya is the Kikuyu; the most renowned and resplendent, in their red plaid tribal garb – and, until recent generations, the most feared and fearsome — are the herders, the Maasai. 

“A Maasai warrior is a fine sight.  Those young men … are unswervingly true to their own nature, and to an immanent ideal.  Their style is not an assumed manner, nor an imitation of a foreign perfection; it has grown from the inside, and is an expression of the tribe and its history, and their weapons and finery are as much part of their being as are a deer’s antlers.”

  • Out of Africa; Isak Dinesen

Kenya’s population has grown from 2.65 million in Ms. Blixen’s time to 55 million today.  Population and urban growth have dramatically shrunk the land upon which the Maasai traditionally roamed with their herds, causing their ancestral livelihood to wither.  Some now have no alternative but to support their families by doing tribal dances for tourists in makeshift villages.    

Among themselves, Kenyans speak in native languages; as Binyavanga Wainaina noted decades ago in One Day I Will Write About This Place:  “Urban Kenya is a split personality:  authority, trajectory, international citizen in English; national brother in [Swahili]; and content villager or nostalgic urbanite in our mother [i.e., tribal] tongues.”  [Our guide, Manson, advised us during the trip that in Swahili, “Hakuna Matada,” made famous by Disney’s The Lion King, does indeed mean, “No Worries.”  😉 ]  Each of the places we stayed offered wonderful accommodations and excellent service by staffs consisting entirely of Kenyans.  We came to realize that these service employees are the fortunate ones; by adopting Western manner and command of English, their incomes far surpass that of the average Kenyan.  They wore name tags with English monikers such as “Lucy” and “Juliet.”  Although businesses catering to foreigners are clearly reluctant to ask customers to deal with African mores, most of the employees themselves were pleased to provide and be called by their native names when we asked for them.

At our last tent camp, I stupidly left some items where they could be damaged by an impending storm.  We were out in the park, so we called back to the camp to ask someone to move the items out of the elements.  When we returned, I asked the young man who had helped me – whose nameplate said, “Moses,” but who had readily given me (and helped me pronounce) his native name, how to say, “I am an idiot” in Swahili.  At first, he blanked; but when he understood that I was referring to myself, he grinned but said, “I can’t tell you that; you’ll have to ask Beth.”

Beth (as with Manson, since I haven’t sought this lady’s permission to refer to her, not her actual name) is the wonderful woman who manages the camp.  Manson considers her a role model for his daughters.  When I asked her for the Swahili translation for “I am an idiot,” she smiled broadly.  “You can’t say that,” she said.  “People will laugh at you.”  I said, “But I was an idiot, and made the staff work.”  She laughed, and gave me the translation, and practiced it with me.

We had the chance to visit with Beth during our last few evenings.  She is of the Kikuyu tribe.  While playfully teaching me the Swahili translation for other common phrases, she informed us that what I had been referring to “Kenyan names” were actually “tribal names.”  She pointedly did not want to be called by her tribal name.  Her name was Beth.  She indicated that tribal loyalties and customs were holding Kenya back.  “The only way we will move ahead as a country is if we think of ourselves as Kenyans, not as tribe members,” she said.  English is the common denominator, and accordingly, she felt that English was the language that her fellow citizens should embrace.  She was the last we heard repeat what I had heard from a number of Kenyans during our stay:  how pleased she was that – finally – there had been a peaceful transfer of presidential power without riots.

So amid extreme poverty for so many Kenyans, I found that many we encountered had hope – in some, despite material conditions at which most Americans we consider “poor” would blanch.  They – who have been struggling to maintain a democracy for a mere 60 years – cherished the peaceful transfer of power that we had taken for granted before January 6th; they, such as Manson and Beth, appreciate – obviously better than some of our own American elected officials — that the well-being of their nation lays in putting tribal loyalties aside and focusing on the good of the nation.  Their understanding brought home to me that the Capitol riot was not only an insult to America, but to people everywhere who yearn for what we have.  Recently-elected Kenyan President William Ruto, who came from humble beginnings but is now rich, won the election on a pledge to provide help for impoverished Kenyans.  (Studies of his victory reportedly indicate that voting patterns had not adhered to tribal lines as closely as in the past.)  May he make good on his promises.  As this is published, the election opponent Mr. Ruto defeated, Raila Odinga, continues to question his loss; may his supporters refrain from taking to the streets to emulate the example of seditionists in America and recently in Brazil, and Kenya’s own recent troubled electoral past.

Beth walked us to our van on the last day.  After hugging each of us in turn, she looked up at me.  “Of all the Swahili phrases I taught you, the only one you pronounce correctly is, ‘I am an idiot,’” she smiled.

Clearly apropos.  We started home.  I don’t foresee that we’ll ever make it back to Kenya, but I wish we could.  If Kenyans can put aside their ancestral differences and remain on a democratic path, there is certainly light for them at the end of what will unfortunately be a long tunnel.

Out of Africa: Part I

In the first half of September, we traveled to Kenya on Safari.  This site would make a poor travel log, so suffice it to say that our adventure offered everything we had hoped for — the opportunity to see innumerable African species, including all of those in the American imagination, in their domain (i.e., the “bush”), while (happily) not having to spend our nights in accommodations that one associates with big game hunters of a century past.  If you have the inclination and means to visit Africa, don’t put it off; it will be one of your most memorable experiences. 

Kenya became an independent nation in 1963, emerging from what had been (mostly British) colonial rule existing since the late 19th century.  It has been said that since achieving independence, the country’s leadership — a few families have effectively controlled the government — has been too slow to break down the vestiges of colonialism.  We arguably saw indications of that throughout our excursion; virtually all of the guests everywhere we stayed were Caucasian or Asian.  It is a land where tribal traditions and constitutional government are in search of peaceful accommodation, one of stark contrast between enduring customs and onrushing modernity. 

One visiting Kenya cannot help but recognize the material benefits we in America have, and the precious democratic practices we seemingly remain at risk of frittering away.

Kenya had elected a new president, William Ruto, shortly before we arrived.  The outgoing president, Uhuru Kenyatta (son of Kenya’s first president), was stepping down after two terms in accord with the Kenyan Constitution.  Mr. Ruto’s opponent, Raila Odinga — who had lost notwithstanding an endorsement from Mr. Kenyatta (Mr. Odinga, having lost five presidential elections, is somewhat the Harold Stassen of Kenya) — had appealed Mr. Ruto’s victory to the nation’s highest tribunal; we arrived in the country two days before the tribunal was to decide on his appeal.  Kenya has a history of unrest arising from disputed elections; rioting attendant to a 2007 election dispute claimed over 1,000 lives, and lesser disturbances accompanied a challenge to Mr. Kenyatta’s 2017 election.  We were aware at the time we arrived that there was some concern throughout the country, despite both candidates’ and Mr. Kenyatta’s pleas for calm, that disturbances might follow any final declaration upholding Mr. Ruto’s victory; however, when his victory was sanctioned, all remained quiet. 

Our safari guide was Manson [since I haven’t sought this incredible gentleman’s consent to refer to him, not his real name], about 40.  Descended from a father of the Maasai tribe and a mother from the Kikuyu tribe, tribal mores caused Manson to leave his Maasai village in his middle-school years.  He was taken in by a Catholic mission, and completed advanced studies under the mission’s auspices.  Manson is a naturalist with a specialization in ornithology, and possesses a seemingly-encyclopedic knowledge of the habits of East African birds (which he used as indicators to locate Africa’s celebrated wildlife for us in unexpected parts of the parks).  Because of the just-concluded Kenyan presidential election, politics naturally came up early during the trip; Manson observed with satisfaction that his country had finally achieved a transfer of presidential power without riots.  He follows international affairs; after he asked me whether I thought America should negotiate with Russia over Ukraine, and I indicated that I then opposed negotiation because I didn’t think it would stop Mr. Putin from continuing to stir unrest among democracies, he immediately responded, “I completely agree.”  He was then in the process of building a house – almost unheard of except for affluent Kenyans.  He has two daughters, 20 and 14.  His elder daughter had recently been awarded a green card to the U.S. through the U.S. Diversity Visa Program (known as the “Green Card Lottery”) and he was thrilled.  He said to me, “In America, if you work hard, you can get ahead.”  While some born and reared in the U.S. might question the statement, from the perspective of a Kenyan, it is undeniable.

Our excursion took us both north and west of Nairobi to visit the wildlife preserves; it is hard for any American who has never been in a Third World country to imagine life in rural Kenya.  While the flora is gorgeous and the soil the rich burnt orange of Utah, Kenyans residing in remote villages have desperately limited means.  Manson mentioned how much improved the roads surrounding Nairobi had become during Mr. Kenyatta’s term as president, but outside the city the roads were, to an American, barely passable.  (“Were most roads in Kenya like this ten years ago?” TLOML asked as we pounded along a particularly sacroiliac-abusive stretch.  “Oh, this is much better,” Manson replied, without any trace of irony.)  Shanty hamlets and markets exist on the wayside amid plastic bottles and refuse for which there is no means of disposal.  People (including small children), cattle, goats, even camels walk perilously close to vehicles whizzing along the road.  Tiny thatched huts (it sounds like a cliché, but it’s not), smaller than almost any room in any American home built in the last century, dot the surrounding fields, housing whole families.  There is very little health insurance.  Where the roads are reasonably traversable, speed is maintained not by stoplights but by mountainous speed bumps – and at every speed bump, people approach the slowing cars from the side of the road to try to sell produce, water, or souvenirs.  (Manson was amused when I suggested that they were “businessmen,” and referred to them as such for the rest of the trip.)   

Early in our trip, Manson described how difficult life can be for elementary-school-aged Kenyans, particularly outside Nairobi.  There are frequently over 100 in a class, with limited facilities and poorly-paid teachers; many times the schools receiving the tuition fail to pay the teachers, who in turn therefore sometimes demand payment directly from the students and send them away if they cannot comply.  (Unexpectedly, grade school children are better dressed than some adults because many schools require uniforms.)  Manson indicated that in his early years, he himself had at times been sent home from school because his family lacked the money to pay his teachers.  At about the mid-point of our trip, our van broke down between preserves.  While Manson called back to Nairobi for assistance, the delay provided the opportunity to walk around (for safety purposes, most time in wildlife preserves is spent in the vehicle) and appreciate the vista.  A middle schooler, Sam, walked by and then stopped while we waited by the side of the road.  He was stoic, and didn’t speak much English, but it became clear that he understood it perfectly.  Random motorists would stop, come over and speak with Manson in Swahili, and look under the hood of our vehicle; sometimes tinkering would go on; more talk would ensue; the engine wouldn’t start; and they would leave, soon followed by other well-meaning, but equally ineffective, Good Samaritans.  Sam and I watched this cycle several times.  Finally I quietly asked him, “Do you think any of these guys know anything about cars?”  For a moment his deadpan disappeared; I got a brilliant smile, and he shook his head.  At some break in the (in)action, Manson came over and asked Sam why he wasn’t in school.  It turned out that he had been sent home because he couldn’t pay his teacher.  Manson was clearly taken back to his own past, and asked how much money Sam needed to be allowed back in school:  it was 500KSh – 500 Kenyan shillings.  Manson and I split the needed tuition.  Before being too struck by our generosity, be aware:  at the time, 500KSh amounted to $4.35 – another stark indication as to how far many Kenyans’ material means differ from our own.

To avoid unduly taxing your eyes or your stamina, the remainder of this note will appear in Part II.

On Ukraine Today

My sense – although the impression, even if now accurate, can be dispelled by NATO allies’ future decisive action – is that Ukraine might be starting to slip away.

“Putin knows that unexpected events can and will blow things off course in domestic and foreign policy. … This means he focuses on contingency and adaptive planning to deal with them. … Having back-up plans means learning from past mistakes as well as successes.”

  • Mr. Putin; Fiona Hill and Clifford G. Gaddy

After initially misunderstanding Ukrainians’ devotion to a Ukrainian state, underestimating Ukrainian grit and determination, grossly overestimating the competence of the Russian military, misjudging NATO unity and resolve, counting on a cold winter to cause Europeans to prioritize Russian fuel over Ukrainian sovereignty, and hoping that vague threats of nuclear weaponry would deter NATO, Russian President Vladimir Putin has adjusted his war strategy to four pillars:  holding the Ukrainian territory Russia now controls; terrorizing the Ukrainian population through continuous missile strikes (simultaneously destroying symbols of Ukrainian heritage); transitioning Russia to a wartime footing by mobilizing Russian industry for military production while conscripting a massive number of additional soldiers (i.e., following a centuries-old Russian tradition of feeding untrained Russian bodies into the meat grinder to compensate for Russian officer cronyism and incompetence); and waiting the West out. 

Mr. Putin is now literally seeking to grind it out.  Evil.  But savvy.

For much of the conflict, I consider the United States’ response to have been almost pitch-perfect.  The Biden Administration first sought to dissuade Russia from invading Ukraine by publicizing its intelligence on Russian plans and deployments.  President Joe Biden then masterfully marshaled NATO unity and action.  Thereafter, understandably concerned that the conflict could lead to nuclear war (although those fears currently appear abated), America and its NATO allies have (in then-Pentagon Press Secretary John Kirby’s word) “curated” their military assistance to Ukraine – a tit for every Russian tat – an approach designed to maintain a fiction that NATO is not at war with Russia.

The irony is that Mr. Putin maintains no such illusions; he considers NATO to be at war with Russia.  You know what?  He’s right. 

At the time this is typed, NATO allies are divided over whether to and which tanks to provide to Ukraine.  Reportedly, the United States doesn’t want to provide its Abrams tanks to Ukraine because … they require a lot of training and need a lot of gas.  Germany isn’t yet willing to send its Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine because … it isn’t.  (Germany reportedly is willing to let other NATO nations send their Leopard 2 tanks to Ukraine, and the U.K. is sending 14 of its Challenger 2 tanks.)  This follows diddling over whether to and who should provide planes to Ukrainians, diddling over which and how many missile defense systems are suitable for Ukraine (so far, we’ve provided one Patriot system), and hand-wringing over what firepower has too much range to provide to the Ukrainians.  (God forbid that they start taking the battle to Russia in Russia, although this might cause some Russians to question Russian media claims about Russia’s success.)

Last week, President of the Council on Foreign Relations Richard Haass made a point that resonated with me:  slow escalations rarely work; the enemy simply adapts.  He used Vietnam as an example, and although that war otherwise has little in common with the Ukrainian conflict, the analogy is apt.  NATO has slowly escalated, and Russia has correspondingly adapted.

It’s time for America and its NATO allies to conceptually and viscerally internalize the fact that although at this point only Ukrainians are actively fighting and dying, NATO is indeed at war (albeit so far conventional) with Russia.  Poland understands this reality – it has experienced life under Russian rule – which is why, despite its elected leadership’s increasingly illiberal leanings, it is among the NATO allies most aggressively assisting Ukraine’s defense.  Finland and Sweden understand Russia’s voraciousness when it is guided by a KGB soul such as Mr. Putin, which is why they seek NATO membership after decades of reluctance.  (The Biden Administration should put maximum pressure on Turkey and Hungary to vote to admit Finland and Sweden to NATO immediately.  NATO Treaty provisions are what they are, but how to deal with two states that are now at best quasi-allies is an issue that the Alliance needs to consider.)  Once NATO as a whole accepts the reality that it is at war with Russia, the steps that follow largely dictate themselves.  In America’s case, I would submit that we should refrain only from providing Ukraine nuclear weaponry and the resources required to help rebuff any Chinese invasion of Taiwan; otherwise, within the confines of the Ukrainian aid package Congress passed at the end of 2022, we should furnish Ukrainians whatever we can that they either know or can be trained how to use.  

Our national debt is now approaching World War II levels.  I wholeheartedly agree that at some time in the not-too-distant future, we do need to lay a plan to curb our spending and increase our revenues.  Given their past support of costly initiatives of former Presidents George W. Bush and Donald Trump, any protests for fiscal conservatism put forth by Republicans during this Congress will obviously be patently hypocritical, but I would further submit that any such claims asserted by MAGAs in the context of limiting future aid to Ukraine will also amount to a cloak for anti-democratic aims.  No matter the size of our debt, this is NOT the time to back off on aid to Ukraine – a position I believe to be shared by sensible members of Congress on both sides of the aisle.

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy is frequently compared to British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.  During the last year, I have frequently turned to the World War II speeches Mr. Churchill rendered in the months after France fell to the Nazis and before the United States entered the war.  It is clear that Mr. Churchill then believed that if Britain could just hold on long enough, America’s entry into the war – with its military and manufacturing resources – would ultimately ensure victory.  Mr. Zelenskyy is now nervous and exhausted, and he’s showing it.  I am confident that he is acutely aware that in one vital respect, his position is in fact the reverse of Mr. Churchill’s so long ago:  since the Russian invasion, although seemingly teetering at times, has not collapsed, it is Mr. Putin that is calculating that if he can just hold out long enough, NATO will lose the will to support Ukraine, and then … Ukraine will be Russia’s.

If Mr. Putin was going to be internally deposed for this Russian military debacle, he already would have been.  If he is to be externally judged for this monstrous insult to humanity and international order, that reckoning is a long time off.  We and our NATO allies need to grasp that we are at war, quit diddling, and give it all we have – now and into the foreseeable future.

On Classified Documents

[Warning:  Viewer Discretion Advised.  There is absolutely nothing in this post that you haven’t already thought, heard, and/or read.  Sometimes, one cannot resist adding two cents.  🙂 ].

We had family visiting most of the past week, and accordingly, were only able to absorb smatterings of information regarding the classified documents from President Joe Biden’s term as vice president that were discovered first in Mr. Biden’s private nongovernmental office, then in his Delaware home, and apparently then in his garage … near his Corvette.  I did see one video clip in which the President sought to minimize the severity of this security breach by noting that the garage was locked [I’m sure that his garage door lock would have proven impregnable to Russian or Chinese specialists  😉 ], and actually uttering the word, “Corvette.”  (D’oh!)  At another point we did hear that a Special Counsel has been appointed to investigate the situation.  (Ouch!)

[At least as far as I am aware, no Top Secret documents have yet been found in a school backpack in Hunter Biden’s childhood bedroom. 🙂 ]

In the one edition of MSNBC’s decidedly-liberal Morning Joe we saw last week, the members of the panel, while conceding that these discoveries were terrible political optics for the President, almost literally tried to stand on their heads to distinguish the Biden discoveries from the discoveries of classified documents at former President Donald Trump’s Mar-a-Lago estate.

From a legal perspective, they may well be right; national security laws were never within my legal purview.  That said, perhaps because we formed our impressions from only the highlights of the reports on the discovered documents — much as do working Americans who don’t have the time to absorb nuances of current events – I would venture that there is very little chance that the average citizen is not going to conceptually equate Messrs. Biden’s and Trump’s security breaches.

This Biden classified document fiasco markedly corrodes what I consider the President’s core “brand” attribute among objective Americans:  competence.  Through his marshaling of NATO assets to help Ukraine confront Russia and the undeniably-impressive array of legislative achievements passed during the first two years of his term, before the recent revelations Mr. Biden had seemingly expunged the taint of incompetence engendered by our bungled Afghanistan withdrawal.  What’s worse for him is that, unlike the Afghanistan debacle – which an open-minded American might conclude resulted from Mr. Biden’s understandable reliance on U.S. military and intelligence sources’ erroneous assessment of our Afghan allies’ readiness to withstand the Taliban – this blunder can be laid directly at the President’s feet.   

Both parties indulge in “Whataboutism,” and the Republicans excel at it.  That said, I have recently suggested in these pages that the Republicans sometimes tend to let their hyper-partisan venom get in their own way; that their attacks on the Biden Administration’s student loan forgiveness initiative and the Administration’s attempts to retire certain Trump Administration southwest border immigration limits actually appeared to me to help Mr. Biden politically and/or substantively.  While it seems overwhelmingly likely that Republicans will yell loud and long about the Biden discoveries as justification for defending Mr. Trump, I would venture that if they indeed adopt that course, they will again be too smart by half.  Surveys indicate that most Republicans, even those that retain an affinity for Mr. Trump, want a different presidential standard-bearer in 2024; Paul Ryan, former Republican Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives turned Board Director for the Murdoch Family-controlled Fox Corporation – and thus, now a mouthpiece of Murdoch sentiment — recently called Mr. Trump “a proven loser” on CNN.  If conservative media outlets are savvy – and hopefully they aren’t this shrewd – they will pivot their coverage and use the recent Biden document discoveries as a cudgel to politically bludgeon both Messrs. Biden and Trump.

May Democrats, and President Biden himself, not be so Pollyannish as to think that Republicans – still yelling not only about Hunter Biden’s laptop, but about the Steele dossier, former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s emails, and how unfairly the autocratic Pharaoh was treated by Moses — will let the President’s classified document peccadillo drift away.  While actually I am aware that most legal specialists have opined, based upon reporting to date, that Mr. Biden probably isn’t in any criminal trouble for this embarrassing mess, I am hoping that the President, presumably still mulling whether to run for re-election, is aware that Republicans will be talking about this not only as long as he is in office, but, if Ms. Clinton’s experience is any example, perhaps as long as he is alive.  It’s a weight, along with his age, that he can’t afford in a re-election bid.  I will submit that if Mr. Biden’s unauthorized retention of classified documents had been discovered in the weeks before the 2020 election, Mr. Trump would have been able to exploit the controversy to eke out a narrow victory.

So for those of us that laud Mr. Biden’s accomplishments to date, but fear that any run he makes for re-election will be fraught with peril for American democracy (given the likely attitudes of whomever is the Republican nominee), there is perhaps a silver lining in this clumsy snafu, although it is not among the rationales painfully posed by liberal talking heads.  As a close friend emailed me last week:  “Perhaps a silver lining is that this is the lever that gets Biden not to run again.”