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Last week brought several notable developments in rapid fire succession, some in the nation’s capital and others elsewhere. Here’s a recap of the action while impressions are fresh.
I. Iowa caucuses (Feb. 3) – After several months of campaigning around the country and seven Democratic primary debates, the first voting was to take place in the Iowa caucuses. The polls were scheduled to close at 8:00 PM (7:00 PM in Iowa), and the TV news staffs were all primed to start reporting the results as soon as they became available with all of the intriguing details they could offer about this “breaking news.”
Tucker Carlson promised viewers on his Fox News show that the results would start being reported soon, but this was not to be. Several hours and shows later, there were still no results; the delay was being blamed on the malfunctioning of a new app designed to aggregate the data.
The next morning, the data still weren’t available. Some blamed the situation on incompetence; others suspected a scheme to prevent a Bernie Sanders victory. Either way, it wasn’t a good look. The people who want to run the US economy can’t run a simple caucus, Jon Miltimore, thefederalist.com, 2/4/20.
Today, I broke my morning routine. Normally I shower, dress, wake kids, brush teeth, and make coffee before I pick up my phone. This morning I couldn’t wait. I had to see the results of the Iowa caucus. Unfortunately, we still don’t have them. There were, um, issues. “A systemwide disaster,” said Derek Eadon, a former Iowa Democratic Party chairman, speaking more bluntly to The New York Times.
When the complete Iowa caucus results became available (several days later), they showed Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg in a virtual dead heat, Elizabeth Warren third, Joe Biden 4th, Amy Klobuchar 5th, etc. All of the candidates were in New Hampshire by then, and the issue of “who won” in Iowa had receded in perceived importance. For better or worse, it’s been suggested that Iowa will lose its cherished “first to vote” status in future primaries. The Iowa caucus fiasco, Wall Street Journal, 2/4/20.
Democrats have been griping about how Iowa is insufficiently diverse to hold the first presidential contest, and this may be the last time the state goes first. But let’s hope whatever comes next is geared toward producing strong candidates and reliable outcomes and not merely satisfying the demands of partisan opportunists.
II. State of the Union Address (Feb. 4) – Contrary to our previously expressed hope, the outcome of the Senate impeachment trial remained undetermined. This raised the possibility that the president would choose to comment about the pending proceeding in his annual address to a joint session of Congress and the American public – and did anyone really need that? Once again, Congress delivered subpar results, 1/13/20.
Trump isn’t known for verbal restraint when attacked. We have no idea what he might say if the impeachment proceeding is still pending on Feb. 4th, but would expect him to fire back at his accusers. If that’s how things play out, it won’t do much for the image of the US government. Too bad!
In the event, the president decided otherwise. Everyone in the House chamber for the SOTU was aware of the situation, however, and the political undercurrents were very powerful – in ways that were evident to the live and TV (or videos) audience, but aren’t captured by the transcript. SOTU transcript, Time, 2/3/20.
To some extent this was par for the course, as congressional members of the president’s party are typically inclined to applaud SOTU remarks while the other side tends to be more selective and less demonstrative. Some of the behavior this time, however, seemed abnormal. For example:
•When the president came to the rostrum, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi introduced him as the president of the United States but omitted the traditional verbiage about it being her privilege and “high honor” to make the introduction.
•Speaker Pelosi subsequently stuck out a hand in the president’s direction, which he either didn’t see or chose to ignore.
•Republican members of the audience began chanting “four more years,” as though this event was a political rally.
•Speaker Pelosi’s facial expressions and body language suggested disdain versus engagement, and she seemed to be scanning a copy of the speech that the president had handed her (in accordance with tradition) at the outset.
•Some Democratic members in the audience didn’t seem very enthusiastic either, notably Reps. Adam Schiff and Jerry Nadler who were sitting together in what struck us as a conspiratorial pose.
•At one point in the speech, there was a commotion involving numerous members (ladies in white dresses) standing up and chanting something at the rear of the chamber as the president was talking about drug pricing legislation – this event was explained by a subsequent report. Watch: Democrats chant HR3, John Gage, Washington Examiner, 2/4/20.
The rare display of excitement from the Democratic side of the audience at Tuesday's event at the U.S. Capitol came as Trump encouraged lawmakers to send him a bipartisan bill aimed at lowering drug costs, which he said he would sign immediately. Democrats responded by chanting "HR3!" at him, a reference to their bill [passed by the House] that deals with prescription drug prices.
•At the conclusion of the speech, as the president was leaving the rostrum, Speaker Pelosi made a show of tearing the pages of the speech text that he had given her earlier. This action was captured on video, and it was replayed endlessly in GOP fund raising appeals.
As for tone and substance, the president delivered a very upbeat assessment of the nation’s status and prospects. The State of our Union is stronger than ever before! - America’s future is blazing bright - the best is yet to come.
His specific factual claims were reasonably well supported, as was duly established by a conservative analysis. Fact checking 11 Trump claims in SOTU, Fred Lucas et al., dailysignal.com, 2/5/20.
The overall picture that the president painted seemed unduly rosy, however, e.g., 2.3% economic growth for 2019 didn’t really justify his reference to a “roaring economy.” Also, various negative factors weren’t mentioned, e.g., trillion dollar deficits and soaring debt for the foreseeable future, political gridlock, and a host of international threats that might run counter to his claims of overwhelming military superiority.
The president didn’t present a lengthy “laundry list” for congressional action, as some previous SOTU addresses have done. However, he did set some clear-cut policy markers – several of which strike us as dubious.
•His principal plans for paring government expenditures are bipartisan legislation to lower pharmaceutical prices, no free healthcare for illegal aliens, and insistence that military allies pay their “fair share” of mutual defense arrangements. [There’s far more waste in government than that!]
•Shield Social Security and Medicare from cost cuts. [These programs simply are not going to be affordable in future years without some changes, and the longer that action is delayed the more painful the ultimate solutions will be.]
•Enforce US immigration laws; states and cities should not be allowed to provide sanctuary for would-be violations of said laws. [While we agree in principle, legislative changes will be essential to straighten out the current mess.]
•Upgrade US infrastructure, including rural access to high speed internet, and pass Senator Barrasso’s highway bill. [Details of the plan are needed to establish whether it is or isn’t affordable.]
•Mandate paid family leave plan for private businesses to complement the recently enacted provisions for federal government employees. [A new entitlement program is the last thing we need!]
•Pass the Education Freedom Scholarships and Opportunity Act — because no parent should be forced to send their child to a failing government school. [In our view, the federal government needs to leave education to state and local governments.]
As has become customary, the president introduced a number of special guests who had been chosen to make specific points and/or enliven the presentation. This year’s choices included Juan Guaido (candidate to replace Nicolas Maduro as president of Venezuela); Rush Limbaugh (the talk show host, recently diagnosed with advanced lung cancer, was awarded the Medal of Freedom by Melania Trump); Charles McGee (a 100-year-old Tuskegee Airman) and Ian Lanphier (McGee’s 13-year-old great grandson, who aspires to be in the Space Force), and Ellie Schneider (a healthy 2-year-old girl, who had been born at 21 weeks weighing less than one pound) and her mother Robin. It would be a rare person who would not find at least some of these and the other guests interesting or inspiring.
Our assessment: In policy substance, the State of the Union address was only middling. Emotionally and politically, however, it was “pitch perfect.” The only question was how long it would be before the president exhibited his volatility by veering off in some less constructive direction.
III. Senate impeachment trial (Feb. 5) – Various things (e.g., more arguments by the lawyers and statements by individual senators) had happened between Friday (Jan. 31), when the trial was adjourned for the weekend after voting not to consider additional documents and witnesses, and the following Wednesday at 4:00 PM. There being little doubt as to the ultimate outcome, however, most Americans had chosen not to follow this action.
More people tuned in at 4:00 PM when the voting to convict or acquit the president was scheduled to take place. This final segment proceeded smoothly, with no emotional displays. All 100 senators voted on a party line basis, with the exception of Sen. Mitt Romney (who voted “guilty” on abuse of power, but “not guilty” on obstruction of Congress). Then Chief Justice John Roberts declared the results, there were brief closing remarks by Sens. Mitch McConnell & Chuck Schumer (expressing satisfaction in the orderly process and thanking the Senate staff) and the chief justice (expressing satisfaction that he would be going back to the Supreme Court building), and the trial was over. Trump acquitted on impeachment charges, Kyle Cheney, politico.com, 2/5/20.
The Senate, having tried Donald Trump, president of the United States, upon two articles of impeachment exhibited against him by the House of Representatives, and two-thirds of the senators present not having found him guilty of the charges contained therein: it is, therefore, ordered and adjudged that the said Donald John Trump be, and he is hereby, acquitted of the charges in said articles.
IV. Post-trial activity (Feb. 6) – The spirit of post-acquittal harmony didn’t last long. Tweets aside (it’s hard to keep up with them), the president’s first attack was launched at a breakfast event the next day. Trump uses National Prayer Breakfast to gloat about impeachment acquittal while standing just feet from Nancy Pelosi, Grace Panetta, yahoo.com, 2/6/20.
As everybody knows, my family, our great country, and your president have been put through a terrible ordeal by some very dishonest and corrupt people. They have done everything possible to destroy us, and in so doing have very badly hurt our nation. They know what they are doing is wrong, but they have put themselves far ahead of our great country.
I don't like people [referring to Pelosi and Mitt Romney] who use their faith as justification to do something they know is wrong, nor do I like people who say, “I pray for you,” when they know that is not so. So many people have been hurt, and we cannot let that go on.
Speaker Pelosi was soon quoted as firing back. Nancy Trump says Trump “sedated” at SOTU – slams him for talking about faith even though he “knows little about” it, Dave Goldiner, Daily News, 2/6/20.
That was not a state of the union. That was ... his state of mind. He looked to me ... a little sedated, looked that way last year too.
At a White House event later in the day, which lasted about an hour, Trump took a victory lap and individually lauded many of his supporters – including their personal attributes as well as their achievements. He also went out of his way to slam his political opponents, much as he had done at the prayer breakfast. Trump condemns “evil” impeachment after Senate acquittal: It was a disgrace, Brooke Singman, foxnews.com, 2/7/20.
. . . during Thursday's speech, Trump said people like Pelosi, and Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer, D-N.Y., "want to destroy our country."
There have been further developments since then as the post-acquittal fallout continues. (a) The president arranged for the rapid firing and/or reassignment of two impeachment witnesses, EU Ambassador Gordon Sondland and Lt. Col. Alexander Vindman (his twin brother, Eugene Vindman, who also worked at the NSC, was fired as well). (b) Sen. Lindsey Graham appears to be moving ahead with an investigation of the activities of Hunter Biden in the Ukraine. (c) Professor Alan Dershowitz has called for Senate Minority Leader Chuck Schumer and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi to be replaced. But we just don’t have the space or time to cover everything.
V. Democratic Primary Debate 8 (Feb. 7) – This latest debate in the series was broadcast from Anselm College in Manchester, NH, starting at 8 PM (Eastern time). The sponsors were ABC News, WMUR (a local radio station), and Apple News. The ABC moderators were George Stephanopoulos, David Muir, and Linsey Davis. Andrew Yang makes New Hampshire debate, Nate Ashworth, uspresidentialelectionnews.com, 1/27/20.
The candidates consisted of the cast for Debate 7 plus Yang, which increased the number to 7. Michael Bloomberg was the only notable candidate not on stage (as he is not raising campaign cash, only disbursing it, he doesn’t meet the current debate qualification requirements).
The president’s acquittal did not occasion any toning down of the verbal attacks on him that have been used in prior debates – impulsive, short-sighted, corrupt, pick your adjective. There is one candidate (Andrew Yang), however, who has said all along and continues to say that the impeachment attempt was a bad idea because the goal should be to offer better policies.
The prime challenge was perceived as toppling President Trump in November. Tom Steyer, for one, suggested that the biggest obstacle would be a full employment economy that is favorably perceived by many Americans. Tom Steyer is mostly right: It’s the economy, Eddie Scarry, Washington Examiner, 2/7/20.
Steyer correctly said that Trump routinely touts the robust economic growth seen in his first term and that it's proving an effective line with voters. But Steyer left the reservation when he said Democrats would only be successful in November if they "beat" Trump on that issue [because he didn’t offer an answer as to] how he or any one of them could do that . . .
In stark contrast to the rosy picture painted by the president in his SOTU address, the Democratic candidates describe this country as a land where countless Americans are living “paycheck to paycheck,” lack adequate healthcare insurance, overpay for their prescription drugs, etc., and everyone faces a dismal future due to manmade global warming. For an explanation of the technique of hyping negative perspectives, see The Power of Bad, Roy Baumeister & John Tierney, 2019.
As for which of the candidates would be most likely to win in November, each tends to argue for criteria that favor their own case. Thus, Joe Biden touts his decades of experience in addressing big issues, while Pete Buttigieg stresses the perception of new opportunities and the ability to help the nation “turn the page.”
Bernie Sanders wants to lead a political revolution; Amy Klobuchar advocates down to earth ideas that Americans are ready to embrace. Elizabeth Warren presents herself as a warrior for social justice like Bernie who embraces the power of capitalism to boot.
Tom Steyer claims to be the only candidate who will declare a natural emergency over climate change, and Andrew Yang wants to improve everyone’s lives by instituting a government-funded universal basic income (UBI) that would be paid for by raising taxes (including a value added tax).
In the wake of a “gut punch” in Iowa, Joe Biden’s former status as the front runner is looking shaky. In New Hampshire primary [tomorrow night], could Pete Buttigieg end Joe Biden’s 50-year political career? Andrew Cline, usatoday.com, 2/7/20.
The other logical beneficiary of a Biden collapse is Bernie Sanders who basically tied Buttigieg in New Hampshire and at last report was leading in New Hampshire polls. Although Sanders is the oldest candidate in the race, he is popular with many younger voters and his self-identification as a Democratic Socialist may not be a big issue.
Perhaps the biggest difference between this debate and some of the earlier ones was the appearance of mutual support between the candidates, i.e., their hesitance to attack each other. Front runners Buttigieg and Sanders beat back debate attacks, Steve Peoples et al., apnews.com, 2/8/20.
While the debate was heated at times, there were moments of unity with candidates aware that Democratic primary voters have little desire to see an all-out intraparty brawl. When a moderator asked Klobuchar to respond to Hillary Clinton’s comments that no one likes Sanders, Biden walked over and gave him a hug. Klobuchar, meanwhile, joked that Sanders is “just fine” and noted times when they had worked together on policy.
One thing that all of the candidates seemed to agree on was that they weren’t looking for Michael Bloomberg to swoop in and become the presidential nominee. First, surely one of them was the right candidate for the job. Second, this immensely wealthy man should not be able to “buy the presidency.” Democrats at debate criticize candidate who isn’t there: Mike Bloomberg, Tal Axelrod, thehill.com, 2/7/20.
By way of further information, here’s a debate synopsis that offers some very perceptive insights. For example, Tom Steyer is “like the group’s coach rather than a candidate” and Andrew Yang is “running for student council, not the presidency.” Another thought that has occurred to us is that Amy Klobuchar may really be running for vice president. Pete Buttigieg and Amy Klobuchar shine, New York Post, 2/7/20.
VI. Assessment – One might have hoped that the execution and failure of the impeachment process would cause political leaders on both sides to rethink their strategies and behavior. Perhaps this will happen in due course, depending on how the elections turn out in November, but there certainly have been no immediate signs of a constructive change in tone. An example follows
SAFE contacted the members of Congress from Delaware in early December about the impeachment proceeding and other issues that Congress was expected to address before adjourning for the year. We sent a second letter in mid-January, based on the actions that Congress actually took, to remind them of our advice, albeit not seriously expecting that Sens. Carper and Coons would change their impeachment votes based on our views. SAFE outreach to decision-makers, 1/20/20.
Maybe if the impeachment proceeding turns out as we expect, [however,] they will realize that it was not such a great idea after all.
Judging from columns by Delaware’s senators that were published in the News Journal to justify their votes to convict as the only possible course of action, our counsel didn’t have much effect. Believing that a binary good-evil perspective on political disputes is rarely appropriate, regardless of which side one is following, your faithful scribe responded via a letter to the editor. “Not guilty” verdict was amply justified; maybe DC needs its own return day, 2/7/20.
#Good blog entry. I am always impressed by the quality and quantity every week. SAFE director
# Very interesting account of last week--each new day "out-did" the previous day! – Family connection