The Joy of Income Taxes

These pages have two main purposes:  to provide another perspective on the matters it addresses for those who care to consider it, and to discipline me to refine my own ideas through the exercise of writing them down.  I am 100% confident that no one cares what I’m doing on a day-to-day basis.

That said:  this weekend, I’m doing our income taxes.  I’ve always done ‘em.  Don’t use tax software, but do ‘em old school:  by reading the hard copy Instruction Booklet and filling out the forms longhand.  It’s obviously a tedious endeavor requiring concentration, although I have never particularly minded it.

This year, I’m absolutely looking forward to it.  The task will necessarily distract me for a number of hours from what is happening in Ukraine – the killing of innocents, the irretrievable upheaval of lives, the destruction of structures and institutions, the usurpation of one nation by another more powerful … just because it can.  As I get lost in the IRS’ arcane world and the numbers flow by, my outrage will dissipate, at least for a while.

In the eyes of the Almighty, there is no difference between what is happening in Ukraine today and what has happened and is happening in Syria, Afghanistan, Yemen, parts of Africa, and so on, and so on, and so on.  We are just seeing the obliteration of Ukraine’s society and culture more clearly due to its proximity to Western media.  I am having trouble putting it aside.

Have a good weekend.  As I get engrossed with taking this number or that from this worksheet or that and entering it onto this line of the return or that, I hope I will.

The Theater of the Absurd

As all who care are aware, on Tuesday former Wisconsin Supreme Court Justice Michael J. Gableman reported to the Wisconsin Assembly’s Elections Committee on his investigation of the 2020 presidential election.  Mr. Gableman was appointed by Wisconsin Assembly Speaker Robin Vos – with a $676,000 taxpayer-funded budget – to investigate the election shortly after former President Donald Trump criticized Mr. Vos and other leading Wisconsin Republicans for failing to investigate supposed election corruption.  The alacrity with which Mr. Vos acted to pacify Mr. Trump proved him to be not only despicably partisan (we knew that) but gutless to boot. 

In his presentation, Mr. Gableman — a former state Supreme Court Justice, mind you – declared that “the Legislature ought to take a very hard look at the option of decertification of the 2020 Wisconsin presidential election.”

This is, of course, pathetic poppycock.  First, all objective analyses of the Wisconsin’s election results have determined that President Joe Biden won the state; second, all objective authorities have opined that the Legislature has no power to decertify the election’s results.  Interestingly, there has been sharp negative reaction to Mr. Gableman’s assertions and proposals on the Republican as well as on the Democratic side. It seems likely that a number of state Republican officials fear both that the report makes them look ridiculous and that it shifts voters’ attention back to 2020 instead of ahead to 2024.  As of the time this is typed, Mr. Vos himself has maintained an uncomfortable silence regarding the substance of Mr. Gableman’s recommendations – after past statements that he opposed many of the measures Mr. Gableman is urging.  Mr. Gableman’s rehashing of debunked conspiracy theories could provide a boost to the fledgling campaign of Republican Gubernatorial candidate (and election conspiracy theorist) Timothy Ramthun, which might ironically ultimately aid the upcoming campaigns of WI Gov. Tony Evers and whomever state Democrats nominate to challenge Republican U.S. WI Sen. Ron Johnson.

After reading the accounts of Mr. Gableman’s report and presentation, the matter strikes me as both hapless and malign.  He is either a liar or a fool.  His report, designed to stir unfounded suspicions among credulous Wisconsinites about the legitimacy of a sitting president whose election has been validated nationwide by all credible evidence, is at best pointless and, by resurrecting unsubstantiated claims as it does, arguably un-American.

Even so, given the perspective provided by our witness to the current existential struggle of a people fighting and dying to preserve their freedom, I’m choosing to focus on the absurd aspects of Mr. Gableman’s quest.  I hope that those who follow these pages will excuse my linking to a scene from Mel Brooks’ Blazing Saddles that, while aptly capturing the machinations of Mr. Gableman and his sponsor, Mr. Vos, admittedly woefully fails to adhere to the standards that I generally try to maintain in these pages.

The State of the Union

If counseling President Joe Biden on the strategy for tonight’s State of the Union address, I would advise that he focus on the primary challenge facing the future of global democracy:  the poisonous partisan divisions within America eating away at our national core.  That said, such would have to be done obliquely.  He should seek to leverage Americans’ overwhelming support for Ukraine in its struggle against Russia by devoting more than half of the speech to the Russian invasion, and assert that the attack is on the freedom of all democracies, an assault on all free peoples.  As I suggested in an earlier note, he must make it “real” for Americans:  what Russia is doing is the same as if Canada simply decided to take Alaska; I would remark that I had seen a commentator compare Ukrainians’ toughness to Texans, and note what would happen if somebody tried to invade Texas – intentionally invoking the support of two of our states politically inhospitable to him.  I would quote Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy’s declaration, “I need ammunition, not a ride.”  He should note how he and his team have worked with our NATO allies to stand up to a ravenous aggressor.  He should note how the Western nations’ combined economic sanctions are crippling Russia, and that we are shipping Ukraine all the military equipment we can.  Then – creeping up on the point – he might declare that no matter where an American might stand on gun rights, abortion rights, vaccines and masks, or whatever, these are differences of opinion that a free people can have – as contrasted with the Ukrainians’ fight for actual freedom:  that they’re throwing themselves under Russian tanks to slow the Russian advance; that they’re ready to die rather than be swept back behind the Iron Curtain; that they want real elections, not Russian mockeries.  I would recommend that he be so bold to declare that anyone that defends Vladimir Putin or the Russian actions is providing aid and comfort to tyrants.  He should tell our citizens that he was going to talk straight with them:  that although his Administration will do all it reasonably can to soften the impact of inflation – and call on Congress to suspend the federal 18-cent gasoline tax through the remainder of 2022 — it is likely that while this battle rages inflation could worsen.  We cannot commit soldiers to the Ukrainians’ struggle for freedom, but we can do this.

While he should make references to his Build Back Better Plan, to COVID, to Climate Change, to his recent nomination of Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson to the Supreme Court, he shouldn’t dwell on these or other domestic issues.  He needs to evoke Americans’ visceral feeling for freedom.  If he can keep the majority of Americans on his side on this critical point, it creates a rallying point, something for all of us to be against – Russian aggression — that we desperately need.

Fiery, inspirational speeches are obviously not Mr. Biden’s forte.  Frankly, I’d have him spend the last hour before the speech watching clips of John F. Kennedy’s delivery and of President Zelenskyy’s recent speeches from bunkers.

I have no illusions that this crisis or even the best speech of Mr. Biden’s life will be a panacea for what besets us; our partisan divisions are too deep.  Even in much more congenial times, George H. W. Bush was defeated for re-election after a term that saw the fall of the Berlin Wall and a resounding military victory in Desert Storm.  That said, if Mr. Biden can use this moment to get at least some of our people to recognize the difference between real freedom and the faux freedom now at the center of our domestic strife, and to focus us as a people on a common and true enemy, it’s a start.

On Volodymyr Zelenskyy

As this is typed, the Russians are bombing Kyiv, Ukraine’s capitol.  CNN is reporting that the United States is urging Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskyy, Russia’s primary target, to leave Ukraine and set up a government in exile.  As of this minute, Mr. Zelenskyy is remaining in Kyiv to fight for a free Ukraine.  CNN has reported his response to the American offer: 

“I need ammunition, not a ride.”

A Question of Strategic Interest

As this is typed, Russian troops are advancing across Ukraine at the order of Russian President Vladimir Putin.  I don’t speak Russian, but from reports understand that Russia, the world’s second-mightiest nuclear power, has claimed both that it is acting because it feared an attack by underpowered Ukraine, and that its invasion is necessary to “de-Nazify” a Ukrainian government led by President Volodymyr Zelensky — who is Jewish.  It is obviously the most naked violation of another nation’s sovereignty that Europe has seen since 1940.  I doubt Mr. Putin believes his own lies.  It is cruelly ironic that his pretext for Russia’s advance actually echoes Nazi Germany’s usurpation of other sovereign nations’ territories and freedoms prior to World War II in the name of Lebensraum (“Living Space”).  There are those, including me in a December post, who wanted the Administration to be more forthright in signaling America’s resolve to deter Russian warmongering.  I concede that any such overtures, had they been undertaken, would probably have been fruitless.  It now seems apparent that Mr. Putin is obsessed by a visceral need to answer the insults and to rectify the injustices he perceives to have been visited upon Russian sovereignty by the Western powers at the fall of the Soviet Union – compulsions ominously reminiscent of Adolf Hitler’s obsessions and railings at the Western powers for the insults and injustices he considered to have been visited upon Germany at the conclusion of World War I. 

In President Joe Biden’s Thursday speech in response to the invasion, he was as firm in tone as he is capable of being (it is not within him to radiate the menace from the podium that Ronald Reagan could).  I don’t know much about international financial systems, but the financial sanctions that will be imposed on Russia sounded harsh.  That said, they don’t sound like much of a deterrent, but rather like measures that Mr. Putin has foreseen would be imposed if Russia commenced the invasion.  Perhaps more importantly, it does appear that the Administration has forged cohesion among a lot of disparate nations to stand against the Russian aggression, which was seemingly its overarching strategic goal (more on this below).  At the same time, I was disappointed in three aspects of Mr. Biden’s speech.  First, he made no mention of shipping Ukraine additional military aid.  Although Ukraine’s need for humanitarian aid will come, right now its people need all materiel we are willing to send them to check Russia’s advance.  Second, I would offer that Mr. Biden wasn’t very effective at making this foreign policy challenge real for Americans, certainly not for those with isolationist tendencies (we’ve had isolationists wishing to ignore what was going on “over there” as long as we’ve been a nation).  I would have liked to see him “bring home” the Ukrainians’ endangered freedom by observing, “How would we like it if Canada had the military strength to simply grab Alaska and take away Alaskans’ freedom merely because it borders Canada?  That is what Putin is doing.”  Finally, I found the President’s attempts to assure Americans about their gas prices too apologetic; he impliedly took responsibility to keep gas prices down.  I submit that what he should have said – what former President Donald Trump, given his COVID track record, undoubtedly would have said – is that gas prices and some other prices were probably going to go even higher due to the Ukrainian conflict, and that increased prices were Vladimir Putin’s fault (with such point to be hammered home with every Administration communication in the coming months).  If a majority of Americans accepted that higher prices were exacerbated by Vladimir Putin’s unjust invasion and our attempts to aid Ukrainian freedom, the Administration would be in good stead politically on inflation, at least for a while.  Mr. Biden entirely whiffed on the opportunity.   

So what is our strategic posture at this point?  A passing remark by a pundit during the week before the invasion has nagged at me ever since: 

Ukraine [in and of itself] is of no strategic importance to the United States.

While some of us chafed at the Biden Administration’s seemingly slow response to the Russian buildup at the Ukrainian border, there is no question that Mr. Biden and his team used the evidence and duration of the Russian buildup to forge a much higher level of unity, consensus, and resolve among NATO and European Union members against Russia than at least I would have considered achievable last Thanksgiving.  The NATO allies, clearly alarmed, have cooperated to reinforce each other’s borders vulnerable to a Russian advance.  At the same time, aside from providing materiel to the Ukrainians – with whom they have no mutual defense pact – they have appeared to be conceding Ukraine to Mr. Putin, like a square on the chess board, if he wanted to take it. If Ukraine’s primary significance to the United States is to occupy a hunk of land serving as a buffer between Russia and our NATO allies, and otherwise has little value to the United States (as contrasted, for example, with our vital concern in keeping Cuba free of enemy nuclear weapons in the 1960s and ensuring the flow of Middle East oil in the 1970s), at this point, what is our overarching strategic interest?  (If Ukraine has a greater objective strategic value than I’ve indicated here, I’m hoping that someone reading this note will enlighten me via comment; but let’s assume the negative for the moment.)

I’ve been writing a post on and off for months about a comprehensive foreign policy framework that I believe that we should employ, but will give away the punchline here:  we can’t go on as we have since 1945.  We can no longer be everywhere and do everything; even aside from our internal partisan divisions, our burgeoning domestic obligations mean we can’t afford it.  We need emotionally and financially committed regional allies across the globe to withstand hostile and able autocracies.  Mr. Biden, by his rhetoric and actions during this crisis, is evidencing that he sees this.  He doesn’t want the Ukrainians to lose their nation, and have their freedoms extinguished by Russia, to the point that to deter Russia he perhaps to some extent compromised the secrecy of some of our intelligence apparatus, sources and methods to leak as much as the Administration had about Russian intentions; but what he seemingly believes that we primarily need to achieve out of this confrontation is an awakened, energized, and unified NATO to stand as a European bulwark against further Russian incursions.  If so, he has succeeded.

If Ukrainian freedom is our primary objective, we (hopefully as part of a NATO force) should deploy troops to Ukraine.  If it is the strengthening of the NATO alliance itself, we probably shouldn’t.

So what is our overarching interest?  Again, assuming arguendo that Ukraine has little objective realpolitik value to us, is maintaining its people’s freedom against a malign aggressor, in and of itself, a strategic interest for a nation that calls itself the “Land of the Free and the Home of the Brave?”  In June, 1963, President John F. Kennedy stood in West Berlin and declared, “All free men, wherever they may live, are citizens of Berlin, and therefore, as a free man, I take pride in the words, “Ich bin ein Berliner.”  In West Berlin, in June, 1987, President Ronald Reagan spoke of freedom and famously called on Russian General Secretary Mikhail Gorbachev:  “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall.”  Yet neither man risked nuclear war and American casualties by sending troops to free the subjugated.  Mr. Putin, who, perhaps most unnervingly, now seems not only consumed with grievance but a bit unbalanced, has alluded to his willingness to use nuclear weapons if confronted too aggressively.  How Chinese President Xi Jinping and his cabinet might integrate their interpretation of our response into any initiative they might be considering against Taiwan must also be factored in.  Eisenhower Administration Secretary of State John Foster Dulles once observed in connection with America’s policy of Soviet deterrence, “The ability to get to the verge without getting into the war is the necessary art.  If you cannot master it, you inevitably get into war.  If you try to run away from it, if you are scared to go to the brink, you are lost.”   

Television accounts and my tiny Twitter feed are overflowing with declarations lauding the Ukranians’ courage and expressions of support.  Mr. Biden said in his address yesterday that “America stands up to bullies. We stand up for freedom. This is who we are.” Yet, Mr. Zelensky said from an undisclosed location last night that he has asked all 27 NATO members why Ukraine can’t be a member of NATO, and has gotten no response. I haven’t seen anybody advocating for the deployment of either NATO or American forces into Ukraine.  Absent that, all this talk … is just talk.

If I was advising Mr. Biden and there was general consensus among the foreign policy team that the Russian aggression had enabled the Administration to unexpectedly strengthen the strategic NATO alliance against Russian manipulation and that Ukraine itself had no value other than as a buffer between Russia and NATO, would I advise that he commit American troops to protect Ukrainians’ freedom – perhaps risking the threat of a nuclear escalation, and inevitably resulting in the death of American soldiers?

The President isn’t the Pope, concerned with the protection of all humankind; s/he works for the American people.  Yet – with the exception of the period from January, 2017, through January, 2021 — the President of the United States has since 1941 been the leader of the Free World.  Viewing clips of Messrs. Kennedy’s and Reagan’s Berlin speeches (linked below) lean me in one direction.  Even putting aside the risk of nuclear escalation, the thought of Americans attending funerals of their husbands and wives, their fathers and mothers, their sons and daughters, as a result of a conflict over land arguably without strategic value – as we have too frequently in the last 60 years — leans me in the other.

In this situation, where is the “brink” Mr. Dulles referred to? When push came to shove — as it has — I’d probably counsel Mr. Biden to maintain the policy he has adopted, perhaps with more aggressive provision of materiel to Ukraine.  I’d move – as he is – to reinforce our NATO allies’ borders with a marked influx of American soldiers and materiel.  (I’d also make sufficient movements in Asia to let Mr. Xi know that we haven’t forgotten about him.)  Otherwise, I’d sit tight, waiting for the inevitable denouement in Ukraine. 

All the same:  these echoes from the past probably wouldn’t let me sleep.

A Requiem for Economic Diplomacy

Putin might want Nord Stream 2 [the natural gas pipeline between Russia and Germany, financially advantageous to both nations, which will presumably be scuttled if Russia invades Ukraine], but … he definitely wants Ukraine more than that pipeline.

  • Kadri Liik, senior policy fellow at the European Council on Foreign Relations, on January 28, 2022, at an event held by the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace.

As this is typed, there are reports of an imminent invasion of Ukraine by Russian troops and materiel massed at Ukraine’s borders with Russia and Russian satellite Belarus. Putting aside – if one can – the human loss and destruction of freedom which will attend any Russian attack, I would submit that Russia’s bellicosity despite the allied democracies’ threat to apply what Russian President Vladimir Putin undoubtedly understands will be truly punitive economic sanctions on the Russian economy and people provides a final debunking of the notion of Economic Diplomacy:  the theory that forging economic interdependence between nations will discourage them from engaging in military and other provocative actions likely to earn the enmity of other nations with whom they do business to sustain their respective economies.

Economic Diplomacy didn’t seem like a bad idea in the 1990s, when China was desirous of expanding its economy and providing at least marginally greater freedoms for its citizens, and Russia’s fledgling democracy was seeking economic stability after the fall of the Soviet Union.  It was seemingly based on the belief in some liberal democratic economic quarters that economic priorities would become the dominant driver of world affairs.  More money for everybody would make it less likely that anybody would want to threaten the golden goose.  In retrospect, it appears that its adherents underestimated the strength of other prevalent motivations among states and their leaders, such as national aspirations, power, religion, patriotism, and ancestral antipathies.  With the benefit of hindsight, I would venture that a fundamental underpinning of the premise that economic interdependence would facilitate equilibrium among traditionally contentious powers was the assumption that Western-style liberal democracy would inexorably sweep across the globe.  If such sweep had continued – bringing forth an international system where most militarily- and economically-powerful nations were governed by officials who were dependent upon the support, and thus at least to a certain extent the economic wellbeing, of their respective citizens to stay in power — perhaps economic interdependence would have indeed salved political frictions between nations.  It didn’t, so it hasn’t.  Instead, the global meshing of the economies of democratic and authoritarian nations has inadvertently created an asymmetric advantage for the autocracies. 

The most blatant indication that Economic Diplomacy has failed – and has, indeed, provided a strategic advantage to authoritarian powers — is the muscular disdain which China presents a world disturbed by its established human rights abuses, its unapologetic subjugation of Hong Kong, its flouting of other nations’ corporations’ intellectual property rights, etc., etc., etc.  The Mainland regime’s flagrant disregard of the credibility of Hong Kong – for over a century, one of Asia’s foremost financial centers — shows that it thinks first in political, not in economic, terms.  It doesn’t care what the world thinks.  In theory, a nation hosts the Olympics to create a positive image, generate economic opportunity, and foster worldwide goodwill.  If that was originally China’s aim, it is clear that such is no longer a strategic goal; instead, visiting athletes and the nations they represent figuratively tiptoe at the Games rather than risking offending the Chinese government.  Chinese President Xi Jinping and his government don’t need to heed international concerns or the preferences of ordinary Chinese citizens to stay in power.

Contrast this Chinese indifference with the political and economic attitudes in the democracies.  The world was outraged for a period after the 1989 Tiananmen Square massacre … but it came back.  Recently, the Wall Street Journal reported that major movie studios now scrupulously avoid casting China or Chinese as villains in their films, lest they be cut off from Chinese consumers.  Apple, Tesla, Google, and other global corporate icons comply with Chinese government demands rather than lose access to the China market (and in Apple’s and Tesla’s case, critical Chinese manufacturing resources), which would probably result in significant reductions in their stock prices.  Such price declines not only affect the careers of these organizations’ senior executives; they also affect the prospects of politicians dependent upon the votes of citizens alarmed at losses in their nest eggs.  Recall that former President Donald Trump’s last trade arrangement with China was primarily designed to reinstitute China’s purchase of produce raised in states that strongly supported Mr. Trump.  Maybe Chinese citizens would truly be angry if their government terminated their access to Google Search, Apple phones, American films, and Tesla EVs.  Mr. Xi doesn’t need his citizens’ approval to keep his job.  Democratic leaders do.

Let’s move to Russia.  It has been widely reported that the most influential member of NATO reluctant to confront Russia in the Ukraine crisis is Germany, to the point that Germany has even in some ways obstructed other NATO nations’ support of Ukraine.  Despite Russia’s illegal annexation of Crimea from Ukraine in 2014, Germany authorized the Nord Stream 2 pipeline between Russia and Germany in 2018.  Germany’s dilemma is clear:  as it is winding down its coal and nuclear power sources to address climate change concerns, it is becoming ever more dependent on Russian natural gas.  While Germany has come under increasing pressure to be more supportive of NATO’s efforts against Russian aggression, German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, as a democratic leader, obviously needs to be responsive to the needs of his citizens.  (In fairness, while I strongly support the defense of Ukraine, it is cold in Madison, WI as this is typed.  If our heat was dependent upon Russian resources, would I be as aggressively calling for my government to confront Russia?  I hope so, but would certainly have a measure of pause.)  On the other hand, although democratic sanctions and loss of German natural gas revenue will certainly inflict hardship on the Russian economy and people, Mr. Putin has already weathered national demonstrations related to his unjustified imprisonment of his chief domestic political opponent, Alexei Navalny; he is obviously not worried about being ousted by Russian citizens as a result of the loss of revenue and resources from allied democracies.

If counseling Mr. Biden, I would indicate that it falls to him to accelerate the dismantling of America’s economic interdependence in areas in which such now places our nation at a strategic disadvantage.  I would advise him to completely recast the thrust of his Build Back Better Plan toward national security concerns, broadly conceptualized.  While the following suggestion would undoubtedly irritate progressives [and elicit strong pushback from someone very, very close to me  😉 ], at this juncture I’d be less concerned with domestic challenges such as early education, child care, health care expansion, etc., and would instead seek legislation to accelerate our preparations where our most advanced military capabilities are lagging and in areas where we are currently strategically exposed, such as sophisticated microchip design and production and rare earth mineral mining and refinement capabilities.  (Reflect:  while these pages have noted Mainland China’s ancestral territorial desires to control Taiwan, one should not overlook the strategic technological vulnerability for liberal democracies that could be created by any Chinese takeover of the Taiwan Semiconductor Manufacturing Company — described by Time Magazine as the company “that makes the world’s tech run.”) 

I admit that these suggestions have a hint of parochialism – a bit of, “Buy American,” or at least, “Buy Reliably Democratic.”  Such measures would increase good-paying American jobs, but right now finding workers, not opportunities, is obviously our economic challenge.  It might well perpetuate if not exacerbate our currently uncomfortable inflationary pressures.  In some instances, it might even slow global climate change efforts – for example, if Germany sought to reduce its current and projected reliance on Russian natural gas by slowing its plans to move away from its nuclear energy and carbon fuel resources.  Even so, insurance costs money.  Even if Mr. Putin ultimately stands down rather than have his forces invade Ukraine, I would suggest that he will do so not because he fears democratic economic sanctions or the loss of German natural gas revenues but because he discovered that NATO had greater military resolve to resist his advances than he had anticipated.  He, and particularly Mr. Xi, will learn from this incident and look for other means to probe democratic vulnerabilities.  It is up to Mr. Biden and other democratic leaders to move aggressively to counteract such likely future endeavors.

On Selecting a Supreme Court Nominee: Part II

In Part I of this post, I noted President Joe Biden’s pledge to nominate an African American woman jurist to replace retiring liberal-leaning Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer; what follows is what I would suggest if advising Mr. Biden.  I believe that this is the first time that I have substantively modified a post’s Part II after publishing Part I.

I would start here:  although the nominee will certainly be an extremely able lawyer and jurist with an established record of quality, since no liberal nominee put forth by Mr. Biden and ultimately confirmed by the Senate, whether conciliatory or provocative by nature or philosophy, is going to meaningfully affect the Court’s conservative tilt, divining shades of ability among a distinguished group is not the most important consideration.

I would venture that the top objective in this process is assessing how to best leverage the nomination to Democrats’ advantage in the midterm elections.  Stanching midterm Democratic losses is vital; although there are exceptions, such as U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney and U.S. UT Sen. Mitt Romney, I would submit that in our current political environment, any victory by any generic Republican is a threat to our democracy.  I would suggest that there are seemingly two aspects of how this pick, if pursued adroitly, can assist Democrats’ prospects in the midterms:

 Mr. Biden needs to win.  A win in this most visible and controversial of arenas will shore up his image of competence, and redound to the benefit of the Democrats running in swing areas in 2022.  A loss would be devastating for his presidency and Congressional Democrats.  Thus, Mr. Biden’s team will need to clear whomever he picks beforehand with all 50 Democratic Senators.

Mr. Biden should want a fight.  This is a strategy used expertly by former President Trump during his term:  galvanizing your base and antagonizing your opponents through a decision that draws fire (as long as you win in the end).  Drawing right wing attacks on a black nominee seems an effective way to inspire what is currently a dispirited Democratic base for the upcoming midterm elections.  There are reports that the African American community is disgruntled because it doesn’t believe that D.C. Democrats have done enough for them.  Disgruntled voters don’t turn out.  This selection, although it will do little for the average black voter, will present that and all Democratic constituencies a rallying point.  Mr. Biden should want the Republicans to take the bait, and there are already clear indications that at least some of them will.  I have seen video snippets of right-wing commentators decrying the fact that Mr. Biden has narrowed his candidate field to black women.  Republican U.S. MS Sen. Roger Wicker reportedly recently stated, “The irony is that the Supreme Court is … hearing cases about … affirmative racial discrimination, while adding someone who is the beneficiary of this sort of quota.”  Republican U.S. TX Sen. Ted Cruz has reportedly called Mr. Biden’s promise to appoint a black woman “offensive.”  These types of comments have racial overtones, and play into the President’s hands.

In the previous draft of Part II, I suggested that assuming that from a wholistic standpoint, the finalists had substantially similarly impressive legal qualifications without disqualifiers, to provoke a fight Mr. Biden should name one of the more legally progressive finalists, but not the most progressive finalist, provided that the nominee clearly possessed the ability to maintain poise and project a pleasant demeanor in the face of attack during the televised Senate confirmation hearings.  The theory was that as long as the nominee was ultimately confirmed, a Republican attack would galvanize a somewhat dispirited Democratic base and reflect badly on Republicans, provided that the nominee didn’t look like a wild-eyed progressive on TV.  This strategy seemingly cut against nominating U.S. SC District Judge J. Michelle Childs, one of the jurists listed as a candidate in initial reports, who while liberal is reportedly more moderate than some of the other potential candidates and, since she already has the expressed support of Republican U.S. SC Sens. Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott, is perhaps the least likely candidate to raise Republican hackles.  Nevertheless – while I have no real knowledge of the talents, records, or relative progressive inclinations of any of the other potential finalists – I’m warming to Judge Childs.  What shifted my opinion was an ABC News/Ipsos poll out this week indicating that 76% of Americans – and 54% of Democrats — believe that Mr. Biden should consider “all potential nominees” in making his selection rather than limiting his candidate field to black women jurists.  (I certainly understand these sentiments; I observed in Part I that although I understood Mr. Biden’s need to fulfill a campaign pledge, I philosophically disagree with “diversity” picks.)  This marked majority view obviously puts Mr. Biden and his team in a bit of a box.  If he doesn’t nominate a black woman, it will be perceived as a betrayal to at least some segments of the Democratic African American community; if he does, it will, however unfairly, lend grist for Republican claims that he has kowtowed to progressives.  Judge Childs seems to enable him to thread the needle.  She seems, from a brief review of what I could find of her record, eminently qualified with notable legal education and judicial experience, and has the endorsement of U.S. SC Rep. James Clyburn, an extremely influential supporter of Mr. Biden.  While the President cannot count on the support of Sen. Graham – the ultimate feather blowing in the political wind – Sen. Scott, the only African American Republican in the Senate, is made of sterner stuff, and it seems unlikely that a number of Mr. Scott’s Republican colleagues will want to be on the wrong side of him in a vote with racial overtones.  Things have been a little rocky for Mr. Biden lately, and a bipartisan confirmation will burnish his image for sensible bipartisanship with the target audience — Independents and moderate Republicans in swing areas — and limit the perception of tokenism that might otherwise attach, however unfairly, to any nominee confirmed strictly along party lines.  At the same time, while I don’t doubt that Senate Republican leadership, knowing that a liberal jurist is ultimately going to be placed on the Court, will want to avoid aggressive attacks against a black woman that will inevitably have a tinge of racism and will inspire the Democratic base, I just don’t think that a lot of Republicans will be able to help themselves.  Their and right-wing media outlets’ excesses are likely to offend Independents, make moderate Republicans uneasy, and inflame Democrats.  By selecting Judge Childs, Mr. Biden may be able to have his cake and eat it, too – as long as she is confirmed

On Selecting a Supreme Court Nominee: Part I

As all who care are aware, liberal-leaning Associate Supreme Court Justice Stephen Breyer recently announced that he is retiring from the Court at the end of its term in June.  President Joe Biden has already indicated that he intends to nominate an African-American woman to Justice Breyer’s seat, fulfilling a campaign pledge.  I have seen electronic and print media accounts listing U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for the District of Columbia Circuit Ketanji Brown Jackson, 51, California Supreme Court Justice Leondra Kruger, 45, U.S. SC District Judge Julianna Michelle Childs, 55, U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for the Seventh Circuit (Chicago) Candace Rae Jackson-Akiwumi, 43, and U.S. Court of Appeals Judge for the Second Circuit (New York) Eunice Cheryl Lee, 51, as potential nominees.  The names of other black women jurists will undoubtedly surface.  I have no knowledge of any of these candidates, but have seen brief reports that Justice Kruger and Judge Childs are relatively more moderate (i.e., less progressive) in their judicial philosophies.  U.S. SC Rep. James Clyburn, an extremely influential supporter of Mr. Biden, has already stated his support for Judge Childs.  U.S. SC Republican Sens. Lindsay Graham and Tim Scott have also already announced their support for Judge Childs, seemingly all but ensuring that absent now-unforeseen factors, she would have a straightforward and relatively uncontentious Senate confirmation process.

In past notes addressing other Presidential nominations, I have set forth an admittedly simple – and some would suggest, in these partisan days, archaic  😉 — two-factor framework that I submit that each Senator should apply when determining whether to vote to confirm a nominee:   Is the nominee objectively qualified for the position?  If so, is there any other objective factor that should nonetheless disqualify him/her from the position for which s/he has been nominated (e.g., established current drug abuse problem)?  Since the Constitution provides our President the power to nominate whom s/he considers appropriate, I don’t believe that a nominee’s substantive philosophies or policy positions (if within the bounds of law) should be part of the equation.  I would now add a third factor, addressed further in Part II of this note, which shouldn’t be necessary but is, given the mindlessly-contentious environment in which we exist today:  a candidate’s ability to maintain poise in the face of attack, at least during the televised Senate confirmation hearings.

As I indicated ad nauseam in these pages in years past, I consider then-Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s scuttling of former President Barack Obama’s nomination of then-Judge Merrick Garland to the Supreme Court to have been a despicable dereliction of duty.  At the same time, while there are a thousand things for which I fault former President Donald Trump, his Supreme Court nominations are not among them.  During his term he was presented with three Supreme Court vacancies; it was his role under the Constitution to present the Senate with nominees; in accord with his political preferences, his choices were extremely judicially conservative, but no one questions their judicial competence. 

An aside:  I philosophically disagree with “diversity” picks.  I believe that a President should nominate the candidate, without regard to factors of gender, race, ethnicity, creed, sexual persuasion, or such like, that s/he thinks is most able and suited (albeit liberal or conservative, aligned with the inclinations of the given President) for each of our respective most sophisticated governmental posts.  That said, my sentiments on this issue and their underlying rationales are much broader than Presidential nominations and are better left to another note.  Having pledged during the campaign to nominate a black woman to the Supreme Court if he was elected, it is both the appropriate and politically expedient course for Mr. Biden, although his having so explicitly narrowed the candidate field will inevitably make race a focal point of this nomination exercise.

As in all these processes, the Administration will ultimately narrow the field to a few liberal-leaning jurist finalists. The vetting process will undoubtedly involve grilling each candidate about embarrassing incidents that might not appear on a background check.  Any candidate able enough to warrant nomination has to know that if there are any such incidents in her past, the Republicans will find them.  Even if she is ultimately confirmed, any foreseeable possibility that a stigma would be attached to her during the confirmation process akin to those borne by Associate Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Brett Kavanaugh would make any sensible person doubt that the game is worth the candle.  Less important but notable:  determining that she has no peccadillos, such as a past college romance with her school’s campus Republican president, that will inflame progressives always looking for a reason to be offended and more than willing to bite their own.

The yammering has clearly already begun from the right and the left regarding the qualities each expects in the nominee.  In order to keep these posts to manageable length, I’ll defer what I would recommend if advising Mr. Biden to Part II.

A Stupid Way to Lose a Football Game

With age comes experience [hopefully seasoned with a smattering of wisdom 😉 ].  Given the clear current danger to American democracy arising from illiberal officials and the significant segment of our polity consciously choosing to ignore or deny truth, the Russians massing at the Ukraine border, the evident and accelerating consequences of Climate Change, the continuing health and economic effects of COVID, human beings suffering from persecution and deprivation across the globe, etc., etc., etc., my pleasure at the triumphs and disappointment at the travails of the professional teams I root for has become pretty tempered.  Many of the pro athletes shown blinking back tears in the closing moments of losing playoff efforts will make more money in their short careers (some, in one season) than a significant percentage of our citizens will earn during their entire working lives.  Therefore, I note more in exasperation than despair that the Packer kicking game miscues last Saturday night were, truly, a stupid way to lose a football game, but symbolic of three decades of dominance that should perhaps have yielded four or five Lombardi Trophies and brought only two. We Packer fans nonetheless have every reason to be grateful for the wonderful distraction from life’s cares that the team has provided.

P.S.  After this was scheduled to run, a late postscript:  Reports have started to circulate that Tampa Bay Buccaneer and former New England Patriot Quarterback Tom Brady is considering retirement after an unmatched illustrious career in which he won Super Bowls with both teams.  I’m taking the liberty of suggesting this before at least I have seen anybody else do so:  What are the prospects that if Mr. Brady does indeed retire, next year Tampa Bay will have a different extremely-accomplished starting quarterback wearing its No. 12 jersey?

Early ’22 Political Musings

Posts on politics are like candy:  easy to write, mostly instinct [and thus, if such is possible, perhaps even more rife with Noise than other notes entered here  ;)].  What follows are reactions on three events we can or might anticipate in 2022, and what might result from them.

The almost certain:  that the House of Representatives’ Select Committee to Investigate the January 6 Attack on the United States Capitol will issue a report setting forth damning evidence showing that in an attempt to retain power, former President Donald Trump and his traitorous cohort sought to overturn the results of a free and fair election and instigated the Capitol insurrection.  I believe that the political ramifications of such a report will be … nil.  While I absolutely support the vital work that the Committee is doing, those citizens with – to paraphrase the Lord – eyes to see and ears to hear already know that Mr. Trump and his acolytes are guilty of sedition.  Those who willfully and steadfastly reject this fundamental and blatantly obvious truth will be unmoved by whatever the Committee brings forth. 

The seemingly probable:  that at some point before June, 2022, the Supreme Court will overturn Roe v. Wade and declare that regulation of women’s reproductive rights are best left to the several states.  If such a decision is handed down, it takes no prescience to opine that within the sixty days thereafter, most or all states with Republican governors and legislatures will outlaw abortion within their jurisdictions, either de jure or de facto.  On a purely political handicapping basis, I will venture that if such a holding obtains, it will provoke such a paroxysm of liberal and progressive outrage and generate sufficient unease among Independents and Republican moderates that Democrats, despite all historical trends and the way 2022 political winds now appear to be blowing, will retain their majorities in Congress.  It would be a fitting and final irony to the career of U.S. KY Sen. Mitch McConnell if the hyper-partisan manner in which he wielded his U.S. Senate leadership to place an arch conservative majority on the Supreme Court prevented him from ever regaining what he most desires:  majority leadership in the U.S. Senate.

The perhaps possible:  repeating reflections that I’ve already entered in these pages, that U.S. WY Rep. Liz Cheney, whether or not she retains her seat in the House of Representatives in the 2022 elections, declares her candidacy for the presidency of the United States in 2024.  She has been vilified in and ostracized by her own party – for having the guts to speak the truth – but she remains a Republican.  (I admire U.S. IL Rep. Adam Kinzinger, but he doesn’t have enough political gravitas to mount a credible presidential campaign.)  Since 1950, Dwight Eisenhower, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan and Donald Trump each won the Republican nomination and the presidency while not holding any elective office.  Ms. Cheney’s presence in the Republican nomination race, whether or not Mr. Trump chooses to run again, would create a sufficient schism in the Republican ranks that I would suggest – if the Democrats put up anybody reasonable [who might be “reasonable” to be left to a post on a later date ;)] — it will be difficult for Republicans to sufficiently repair their rupture in enough swing states to claim the presidency.  (Although Ms. Cheney would seemingly have no realistic prospect of securing the 2024 Republican nomination if Mr. Trump runs, her prospects against a field of Trump Wannabes, who would split the pro-Trump vote in the early primaries, are actually a bit intriguing – a reverse of the strategy Mr. Trump himself used to win the Republican nomination in 2016.)  If Mr. Trump runs, debates between him and Ms. Cheney would literally be the most arresting television of all time.  If he doesn’t, Ms. Cheney’s presence on a debate stage would at a minimum require each Trump Wannabe seeking Mr. Trump’s mantle to declare whether s/he believed that the 2020 election was stolen from Mr. Trump and whether the Capitol events of January 6 were an insurrection or a tourist excursion.  In this scenario, if a Trump Wannabe ultimately prevails, it’s hard for me to believe that a sufficient number of Independents and Republican moderates in enough swing states will countenance voting for a candidate that they know is either a liar or a fool for the Republican to win the White House – assuming, again, that Democrats give them a reasonable alternative (and assuming, of course, that swing state Republican governors and legislatures don’t use their newly-minted election laws to award their Electoral College votes to the Republican notwithstanding their states’ actual vote totals).

‘Nuff said.  Omicron – although by virtually all accounts, not mortally dangerous to those vaxxed and boosted – lurks.  Although maintaining protections is now moving from exasperating to aggravating, stay safe.