On Elizabeth Warren

As the Democratic Presidential hopefuls separate into tiers, MA Sen. Elizabeth Warren is by some measures displacing VT Sen. Bernie Sanders as the favorite among the Democratic progressives. While I have great respect for Sen. Warren’s intelligence and command of policy, and very much enjoy her feistiness, it seems to me that she might be the Democrat whom the President would most like to run against. Although Ms. Warren objectively scores well in a number of the measures that I indicated a while back I consider to be of paramount importance in selecting the Democrat that can defeat Mr. Trump, I would submit that in her case, the whole is unfortunately markedly less than the sum of the parts:

  1. Sen. Warren is tough. She will look strong on the stage against the President, and indeed, has a talent for getting under Mr. Trump’s skin. Her age – 71 at the time she would take office – is clearly not a problem against the older President and she looks and acts younger than she is. A ticket to a Trump-Warren debate would be worth Super Bowl prices. Even so, Sen. Warren may be the one Democratic candidate whose strength could be as much curse as blessing. More on that below.

 

  1. Ms. Warren, if not as rounded for the presidency as former Vice President Joe Biden, otherwise appears as or more intellectually prepared as anyone else in the Democratic field. She is deeply versed in the ways of the U.S. financial industry. She has a plan for everything to address the needs of our economically disadvantaged people (except perhaps for health care). She’s less seasoned in foreign policy, although I doubt anyone on either side of the aisle would question that she would be steadfast on America’s behalf in dealing with Russia, China, and other adversaries or quasi-allies such as Turkey and Saudi Arabia. That said, Ms. Warren doesn’t necessarily possess – to put it delicately – a compromising and conciliatory nature. One can surmise that as president she might have difficulty working with business interests. One can fairly question whether a Warren Administration would make any progress on domestic issues if Republicans maintain control of the Senate and KY Sen. Mitch McConnell continues as the Senate Majority Leader; every issue will become a brawl.

 

  1. To her credit, Sen. Warren is – subject to the self-inflicted ethnic gaffe discussed below – not campaigning as an identity candidate; she certainly supports women’s rights but her heart seems more focused on economic issues. She is likewise not a shiny new toy in Democratic politics, another plus.

 

  1. Ms. Warren is overtly progressive, to me a drawback. In addition to her attacks on business, she has reportedly said that she is “in all the way” on the Green New Deal, a bugaboo for many voters (although she’s apparently been less forthright about her approach to Medicare for All). As I have noted before, Democrats need the center to win; swing voters’ concerns about the President seem centered upon his demeanor, his veracity, his biases, and his disregard for our institutions, and much less on his substantive policies. Mr. Trump’s most favorable substantive advantage at this point is the apparent strength of the economy. Ms. Warren is extremely vulnerable to being painted a “Socialist” by Mr. Trump and the conservative media – which, whether or not warranted, could persuade some centrists that she is scarier than Mr. Trump.

 

I indicated above that President Trump might consider Sen. Warren his most favorable matchup; I offer such because of intangibles. While beloved by progressives and despite her good intentions, she doesn’t, at least in my view, present a warm image; she seems too much the nagging schoolmarm (or, to us veterans of old time Catholic education, the intimidating nun) who scolded you (and perhaps rapped your knuckles) for not paying attention in class. The Senator’s unforced missteps regarding her Native American ancestry have invited the President’s ridicule, and his mocking references to “Pocahontas” – combined with his inflammatory claims about “Socialism” — will, I suggest, resonate among some of the swing voters that will decide the election. I predict that in any debate between Mr. Trump and Ms. Warren, policy wonks will judge her the substantive winner on every question, but for a pivotal segment of our electorate, the contest will evoke the age-old classroom drama – the President as the irreverent class clown, Ms. Warren as the strict grade school teacher – that Mr. Trump will win handily.

The Democratic Party has already run one Hillary Clinton; I would submit that if they nominate Sen. Warren, they may well, despite her objective qualifications, be in effect doing so again.

Wish I’d Said That

This week, I heard a learned observer – I’m sure enough it was George Will to attribute it to him, but am not entirely positive it was Mr. Will – state to the effect, “From the beginning of the New Deal through the end of the Obama Administration, American domestic politics have essentially amounted to a conversation between Franklin Roosevelt and Ronald Reagan,” indicating that President Trump has significantly departed from the tenets espoused by each.

An arresting image.  Wish I’d said that. In a post a while back, I noted that I consider President Reagan the most accomplished president of my lifetime, but the only reason President Roosevelt didn’t best him in my ranking is … because I haven’t been around quite long enough for Mr. Roosevelt to have qualified for the competition. 😉

I can’t recall whether Mr. Will also observed that notwithstanding their domestic “conversation,” Messrs. Roosevelt and Reagan were, decades apart, almost perfectly aligned on their views of America’s place and responsibility in the world – that which, in my view, is perhaps the most important component of what actually makes America great — or that in this area, Mr. Trump has also disrupted and is seeking to further disrupt if not destroy much of what these two American giants stood for. If Mr. Will didn’t add that … I’m reasonably confident he wouldn’t mind if I do.

The Sleeves From Her Vest

As all who care are aware, last week Special Counsel Robert Mueller vocalized his Report’s implied call upon Congress to conduct an impeachment inquiry addressing President Trump’s activities related to the Special Counsel’s investigation — a process that, if the inquiry’s findings merited, would culminate with a House impeachment vote and likely Senate Trial. Given his derogatory comments about the Special Counsel following the statement, it is apparent that the President himself interpreted Mr. Mueller’s remarks as a call for impeachment proceedings.

The practical difficulty with the Congressional approach urged by Mr. Mueller is manifest: there aren’t 20 Republican Senators who have the political courage to vote for the President’s removal from office even if they privately agree that his behavior warranted it. The political calculus is equally obvious. Any such efforts to remove Mr. Trump from office will: arguably play into his hands, enabling him to wage a straightforward crusade — against “the Dems,” “the Deep State Coup,” and “the Media”; result in an almost certain and outwardly vindicating Senate victory for the President; create a perhaps-unequaled way to galvanize his supporters for the 2020 election; and – to me most importantly – leave the centrist voters upon whom the election’s outcome will rest with the unfavorable impression that the Democrats engaged in an inappropriate partisan spasm intended to undo the results of the 2016 election. I would submit that for Democrats, an impeachment initiative is a sucker’s choice.

The two primary players in this constitutional chess match are obviously the President and Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi. Mr. Trump is reported to recognize the strategic political advantage he may gain from an impeachment inquiry, but to be at the same time understandably wary about the inquiry’s outcome and its effect on the public. For her part, Ms. Pelosi is reportedly facing intensifying calls from members of her House caucus to begin an impeachment inquiry that she clearly considers a practical and political loser. She seemingly will soon need a way to appease pro-impeachment House Democrats while avoiding the political pitfalls that her instincts tell her lie in impeachment proceedings.

Rather than embark upon a struggle which Ms. Pelosi knows she can’t win, she could consider an approach that might enable her to maintain the upper political hand and help the country as well. House leadership might draw up a list of its top priorities and have staff draft bills that, if passed, would implement those priorities. Given our need to thwart future election meddling, the highest priority (at least for me) would be a comprehensive, amply funded bill enabling the safeguarding of our federal, state and local election systems from interference by state/non-state actors, combined with the imposition of legal duties upon significant social media providers to identify and remove fraudulent presences from their platforms. Other potential priorities could range across health care, the environment, immigration, infrastructure, repeal of some 2017 corporate and personal high-income tax cuts, etc., etc. Congressional Democratic leadership would then decide which one or two of the various priorities might (1) given the right incentive, be palatable to the White House and (2) be considered sufficient exchange by progressives intent on impeachment.

When this effort was completed, Ms. Pelosi and Mr. Schumer could approach the President and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with this proposal: if Sen. McConnell garnered sufficient Republican Senate votes to pass the House-drafted bills virtually “as is” and the President thereupon signed such bills, the House of Representatives would, after the bills had been passed and signed, suspend its investigations of the President for the remainder of the current Congressional term. This would not be an offer to “start discussions” of the Democrats’ priorities in return for the suspension; the quid pro quo for the suspension would be the prior enactment of the Democrats’ priorities “as is.” An ancillary, but crucial point: the House’s pledge to suspend its investigations would expire if the President claimed vindication related to the House’s discontinuance.

One might surmise that depending upon the priorities Democrats selected and how progressively the enabling legislation was cast, Mr. Trump, given his lack of grounded policy principles, might be very tempted to agree to the deal. Although Mr. McConnell would probably be less enthusiastic, I suspect that he might warm to the notion if the President suggested that he would otherwise endorse an alt-right Republican to compete against Mr. McConnell in the 2020 Kentucky Republican Senatorial primary.

There would obviously be nuances to be worked out and potential ramifications to be weighed; among them, that each side would have to agree to share the credit for whatever bills were passed, that there would be no assurance for the President that he wouldn’t be subject to the criminal justice system the day he left office, and that the deal might steady Mr. Trump’s politically-listing ship. Democrats would be gambling that Mr. Trump’s divisive and exhausting behavior would still be his 2020 undoing.

In October, 1986, President Ronald Reagan and U.S.S.R. Communist Party General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev met in Reykjavik, Iceland, desirous of reducing ballistic missiles and nuclear weaponry. During their discussions, Gen. Sec. Gorbachev proposed eliminating all nuclear weaponry, but added a condition – accounts I’ve seen varying a bit – that either field testing or deployment of the U.S. Strategic Defense Initiative (“SDI”) be delayed for a significant number of years. Mr. Reagan demurred, and the discussions ended (although they are generally credited with laying the groundwork for the 1987 Intermediate-Range Nuclear Forces Treaty). When asked about Reykjavik years later, Mr. Reagan’s Secretary of State, George Schultz, recalled, “[W]hat we did was use [as bargaining chips] things like an agreement not to deploy [SDI] for a certain number of years, which I remember arguing with the President, that’s like giving them the sleeves from your vest. There’s nothing we’re going to deploy in seven years anyway [my emphasis].”

There is admittedly no indication that the President, Senate Republicans, and Democrats are capable of contemplating any “grand bargain.” Even so, given the overwhelming likelihood that Democrats will never garner sufficient Senate votes to remove the President from office following an impeachment trial, if Ms. Pelosi was able to leverage the President’s uneasiness with impeachment proceedings (in turn caroming through Republican legislators’ evident fear of politically crossing Mr. Trump) to achieve substantive policy goals, while enabling the Democrats to escape the political box in which they are increasingly finding themselves, it would be a significant accomplishment in return for … the sleeves from her vest …

On Joe Biden: A Postscript

Since the last post, I’ve seen references to a recent Fox News poll indicating that former Vice President Joe Biden currently holds a commanding lead over President Trump (49% – 38%) among all voters, while the President has a consistent 41% level of support against all of the other currently-foremost Democratic presidential candidates (whom the poll reflects as leading or trailing the President by varying degrees). While I consider both national polls and polls taken this far from the election to be meaningless, I confess that I find one aspect of these results suggestive: the 3% reduction in the President’s support if Mr. Biden is the Democratic nominee. If in a general election, Mr. Biden is able to peel away 3% of the President’s support – at a guess, in union households – that could arguably be the measure of victory in states with continuing union strength — such as Pennsylvania and Michigan.

A second, unrelated thought: although Mr. Trump apparently fails to recognize it, we pay our Presidents to think ahead. If Mr. Biden is as suited to the presidency as I think he is, I would expect that without any written documentation that could be leaked or hacked, he has already verbally asked his few most trusted aides to start considering whom he should pick as his running mate if he wins the nomination. While it is way too early for any but the vaguest impressions — and the Democratic candidates’ respective debate performances and ultimate primary vote totals could understandably have a significant impact upon the decision — my current reaction would be that the running mate should (1) come from or be expected to have a positive impact on the voters of one or more swing states and/or (2) be in a pivotal demographic group where Mr. Biden finds he has relatively less support. Today, top prospects might be: MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, if Mr. Biden felt he needed help in securing the Midwest; South Bend, IN Mayor Pete Buttigieg or former U.S. TX Rep. Beto O’Rourke (depending upon which had fared better during the primary season) to energize young voters; or former U.S. HUD Secretary Julian Castro, who might bolster the ticket’s Hispanic support, perhaps tip Arizona, and make the President divert time and resources to hold Texas. (I admit that the only one of these that I’m now confident is prepared for the presidency is Ms. Klobuchar, but I haven’t done a thorough review of Mr. Castro.)

What will presumably be a critical backdrop to the selection is the way that it is accepted within the party; given Mr. Biden’s age, whomever Mr. Biden picks will seemingly immediately be the frontrunner for the Democrats’ 2024 nomination if he wins.

Enough. Although political handicapping is addictive, these pages are overdue for a note on a substantive policy issue …

On Joe Biden

At what I think is the current count, the field of Democrats seeking the party’s 2020 Presidential nomination now exceeds 20. We are all exhausted. As those that are interested are already aware, a minority of the declared candidates are seemingly starting to separate themselves from the rest of the pack by dint of campaign contributions and relatively more favorable poll numbers; some may, realistically, be running for the party’s Vice Presidential nomination; some may be running for President in 2024 or 2028; many are apparently running because their egos, spouses or mothers have told them that they’d make a good President.

I would offer that one stands apart from the rest: former Vice President Joe Biden.

Several months ago, I listed the measures I consider most germane to assessing a candidate’s strength and suitability for the presidency: the requisite knowledge and experience; the ability to look strong on the stage against the President; not an “identity” candidate; not a shiny new toy; not an overtly progressive candidate; likeability; and possessed of credible plans to address the needs of a large segment of our economically desperate people. In reviewing them, one might surmise that I had Mr. Biden in mind when I developed them. I didn’t, specifically; but he best fits them.

First, as to substance. I would suggest that among the announced candidates (for these purposes, including President Trump), Mr. Biden is the only one unquestionably qualified to conduct the presidency. He has a deep knowledge of both domestic and foreign policy. He has the standing to assure our allies, give our adversaries pause, and reinfuse some vigor to the world’s liberal democratic order. To the best of my knowledge, he hasn’t fully embraced progressive positions such as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, and Free Public College; as such, I would submit that his sentiments are more in tune with the preferences of the majority of our people than those of the zealots on either the left or right. He is obviously conversant with the levers of power in Congress, and he would seem to be as adept as any candidate will be in achieving progress in our hyper-partisan environment. He is likeable and upbeat, and Americans have consistently shown themselves willing to follow a President that casts a sunny vision.

From a handicapping standpoint, Mr. Biden has the gravitas to hold the stage against the President; facing the President, his advanced age won’t be a drawback; he has a sufficiently-established public identity that Mr. Trump and his cohort won’t be able to define him; he maintains a broad reservoir of good feeling among a wide swath of our people combined with a low antipathy quotient – i.e., few of our people actively dislike him; he has appeal amongst Mr. Trump’s working class constituency; and he’s not an identity candidate, but will undoubtedly receive the full support of identity-focused Democrats in a race against Mr. Trump. If, as I have put forth in other posts, the 2020 candidate that wins Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Wisconsin will win the presidency, Mr. Biden – from Scranton, PA, and a former Delaware Senator, will almost certainly claim Pennsylvania, has deep long-standing union support that will help him in Michigan, and is the kind of decent, centrist candidate with whom (speaking as a Wisconsinite) Wisconsin citizens are comfortable. At the same time, he is obviously the antithesis of the shiny new toy, and he and his long record are susceptible to attack under progressive shibboleths such as crime (too harsh), Iraq (supported the invasion), the environment (not idealistic enough; too practical) and his propensity to “invade” others’ personal space.

In a note a while back, I indicated my strong affinity for the candidacy of MN Sen. Amy Klobuchar, and on the merits, I still see much to recommend her. That said: she is currently polling under 2% nationally and, most chilling for her prospects, at 3.3% in her neighbor state of Iowa, where I believe she must do very well to have a realistic chance at the nomination. In a bit of a lament, I would suggest that unless she rallies significantly in the next 7 months, she’ll be done by March 1.

As the race has shaped up, I’ve been a bit surprised that some of our more avidly progressive friends, while having great aspirations for our nation and the world, appear unaware that some of their positions are as far from mainstream American sentiment – the sentiment that generally elects Presidents — as are the views of our staunchly conservative friends that abhor business regulation, oppose all abortion on moral grounds, and favor a largely unfettered right to assault weapons on constitutional principle. If the Democratic Party nominates a candidate generally perceived as being too far to the left, progressives need to recognize that a certain number of centrists may well choose to retain Mr. Trump.

In a passage I’ve recorded once before in these pages [and pledge to try to restrain myself from repeating too many times in the coming months :)], David Halberstam wrote this in The Best and The Brightest about then-MA Sen. John F. Kennedy’s assessment of his chances for winning the Democratic Party nomination in 1960:

 

“[The liberal intellectual wing of the party was] not only dubious of [Kennedy] but staunchly loyal to Adlai Stevenson after those two gallant and exhilarating defeats. That very exhilaration had left the Kennedys, particularly Robert Kennedy, with a vague suspicion that liberals would rather lose gallantly than win pragmatically ….”

Hopefully, the majority of Democrats will keep in mind that this election, and our world’s situation, are too important to indulge in ideological fratricide that could result in the President’s reelection. For reasons of substance and politics – and subject to a seemingly unlikely campaign resurrection by Sen. Klobuchar — I’m for Joe …

On the Meaning of Polls

To pose the title of this post is to answer the question: Polls mean very little. If nothing else, President Trump’s victory in 2016 proved that even on the eve of Election Day, they are of limited value, and this far removed from Election Day, they simply provide fodder for talking heads – liberal or conservative, depending upon whose cause seems positively reflected in them. That said, I am a bit nettled to hear pundits starting to talk about Mr. Trump’s poor standing in the national polls. Under our Electoral College system, any polls that include the preferences of the citizens of about 35 of our states are irrelevant. The sentiments of the respective majorities of those states’ citizens are so firmly cast that it seems clear which Presidential candidate will receive those states’ Electoral College votes — whether the election is held next week or in November, 2020. Put another way: while indications of the President’s national unpopularity might provide an emotional salve to Democratic stalwarts, polls that capture Californians’ or New Yorkers’ intentions are pretty much a waste of time. Not only did Sec. Clinton lead in the national polling to Election Day, 2016, she … won the popular total. Didn’t do her a lot of good.

Although the relative current merits of the Electoral College in our federal system is worth and will likely receive a decent amount of discussion in the upcoming campaign, for the 2020 presidential election, the system remains what we’ve traditionally had. Without need of a lot of research, I found different pieces that collectively identified the following 14 states that arguably either the President or the Democratic nominee could win in 2020 (followed by their Electoral College total and who won them in 2016): AZ (11; DJT); CO (9; HRC); FL (29; DJT); GA (16; DJT); IA (6; DJT); MI (16; DJT); MN (10; HRC); NC (15; DJT); NH (4; HRC); NV (6; HRC); OH (18; DJT); PA (20; DJT); VA (13; HRC); and WI (10; DJT).

The candidates’ relative support in these states may be worth watching as the election draws closer. Below is a link to a Morning Consult website that sets forth Mr. Trump’s relative popularity throughout his presidency on a state by state basis. While polling results describing Mr. Trump’s standing seemingly have limited value until the Democrats settle on a candidate, this website’s findings (there are undoubtedly others that report similar statewide polling data) indicate that in March, 2019, the President was viewed more unfavorably than favorably in all of the listed states, except one – Georgia. In Michigan and Wisconsin, states that, along with Pennsylvania, put him over the top in the Electoral College, his unfavorable rating exceeds 10 points. Of the states won by Ms. Clinton, his unfavorable rating is 10 points or greater in all but Virginia (a worthy prize of 13 Electoral College votes, enough to offset a potential Wisconsin loss), where his unfavorable rating is but 4 points and he might reasonably surmise that Ms. Clinton’s 2016 victory was attributable to her running mate, VA Sen. Tim Kaine.

https://morningconsult.com/tracking-trump/

For those that enjoy watching poll numbers despite recognizing their limited value, a potential bookmark ;).

On William Barr

As part of a note posted February 7, 2019, addressing the Senate’s confirmation process for then- Attorney General Nominee William Barr, I stated:

“Partisans on both sides are currently all too-ready to impute ulterior motives to those with whom they disagree. If solid evidence that senior members of the Trump Campaign illegally colluded with Russia is presented to Mr. Barr by a universally-respected investigator, I suggest that one need assume either that he will bring the information to the Congress, or that he is a partisan – indeed, traitorous – blackguard. I am willing to believe, unless and until I have evidence to the contrary, that Mr. Barr will do what is necessary to protect the United States while conducting his duty.”

While my caution regarding Mr. Barr specifically related to the prospect of his being presented with evidence of “illegal collusion” – technically, criminal conspiracy – for which Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s team finally found insufficient basis to bring charges against Trump Campaign Principals, and the Attorney General has ultimately made the majority of the Special Counsel’s Report public, it has nonetheless now become obvious through both the contents of the Report itself and the letters sent to the Attorney General by the Special Counsel following Mr. Barr’s issuance of his Summary of the Special Counsel’s Report that for a period of weeks, Mr. Barr misleadingly characterized the overall thrust of the Special Counsel’s Report and unnecessarily delayed in releasing sections of the Report which would have made its tenor plain.

A link to Mr. Mueller’s March 27, 2019, letter to Mr. Barr is set forth below. A bit over one page in length, it is worth reading in its entirety. You will find that Mr. Mueller indicated to Mr. Barr, a scant three days after Mr. Barr issued his Summary of the Report’s findings: “[Mr. Barr’s] summary … did not fully capture the context, nature, and substance of this Office’s work and conclusions. We communicated that concern to the Department on the morning of March 25. There is now public confusion about critical aspects of the results of our investigation. This threatens to undermine … full public confidence in the outcome of the investigations. [My emphasis].”

https://www.lawfareblog.com/document-robert-muellers-letter-bill-barr

It is sadly clear that my belief in Mr. Barr was … undeserved.