The political landscape remains uncertain
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E minus 134: Presidential impeachment proceedings – coronavirus pandemic – civil unrest. What more could possibly go wrong this year? Unfortunately, quite a lot.
It would be nice to assume that better days lie ahead between now and November, but two things give us pause. First, there is some logical linkage between the bad things that have already happened, suggesting underlying instability. Second, a deteriorating international situation could tempt US rivals to try and steal a march on this country while it seems preoccupied with internal difficulties
So without offering any definitive predictions, here are some thoughts about potential pitfalls in the path forward and what should (or at least might) be done to avert them.
A. Linkage – Political action over the past six months has been like a three-act play, but with some overlap in the causes and timing of the various events.
#IMPEACHMENT - The House impeachment process was a dubious gamble. The alleged presidential misconduct was overstated, the evidence was unimpressive and the investigation was handled in a blatantly partisan way. When the charges moved on to the GOP-controlled Senate for trial, with a 2/3 majority vote required, there would be no realistic expectation of the president being removed from office.
This left only one reason for the impeachment charges: political opposition – which was consistent with a pattern of resistance to the president that had been evident since he was elected in 2016. Put paid to impeachment and let the voters decide, 1/27/20.
Any lingering thoughts about a higher purpose were erased on February 5th when the Senate members voted to acquit the president on an essentially party-line basis. For a brief moment, it seemed like the president was finally hitting his stride. Tumultuous times in national politics, 2/10/20. As would soon become apparent, however, more challenges lay ahead.
#CORONAVIRUS - The first US cases of Covid-19 surfaced around January 21, and the president imposed restrictions on travelers from China (which critics slammed as xenophobic) about a week later. The coronavirus situation was characterized in the State of the Union Address as an issue that would be addressed without great difficulty. Transcript, 2/4/20.
Protecting Americans’ health also means fighting infectious diseases. We are coordinating with the Chinese government and working closely together on the coronavirus outbreak in China. My administration will take all necessary steps to safeguard our citizens from this threat.
By early March, with a soaring number of Covid-19 cases and resulting deaths, it had become apparent that sweeping measures would be needed to slow the spread of disease. A federal coronavirus task force was formed, headed by Vice President Mike Pence, and state & local government officials began imposing restrictions in general accordance with the emerging federal guidance. The result was what amounted to a national lockdown, which would trigger an economic recession. A new challenge to the healthcare system, 3/16/20.
The coronavirus pandemic scrambled the existing electoral calculus, to the overall benefit of Democratic candidates (especially Joe Biden).
•The onus of the losing bet on impeachment was wiped out as everyone now had a new threat to worry about, and the president’s strongest claim (record low unemployment and a robust economy) evaporated.
•Progressive proposals to save the world from catastrophic global warming were quietly moved to the back burner, presumably because Americans wouldn’t be worrying about the climate in 30 or 40 years while the coronavirus was perceived to be a major threat right now.
•The allure of massive new social benefit programs, such as Medicare for All, was diminished. Ditto Sen. Bernie Sanders’ call for a “political revolution.”
•There was a sense that the winning Democrat strategy might be to accuse Republicans of mishandling the coronavirus response and endangering public health by ending the lockdown that had been put in place too quickly.
After winning the Nevada caucuses on February 22, Sen. Sanders enjoyed a delegate lead and seemed well positioned to maintain it in future primaries. Political strategist Karl Rove had predicted at the start of 2020 that the Democratic Party might have a contested convention (for the first time since 1952); perhaps he was going to be proven right.
Things changed rapidly in the next two weeks, however, and our guess would be that the coronavirus pandemic had a lot to do with it. Joe Biden racked up a solid victory in the South Carolina primary – several second tier Democratic candidates dropped out and threw their support to Biden – Biden won most of the Super Tuesday primaries on March 3.
After one more Democratic presidential debate, conducted without an audience and with only two candidates (Biden & Sanders) on stage, Sanders suspended his campaign. Biden’s political activity for several months consisted almost entirely of virtual events broadcast from his home in Delaware. He continued to accumulate votes in primaries being held around the country, and in early June it was announced that he had clinched the nomination. Ho, hum.
The coronavirus pandemic now seems to be waning in many states, but it’s far from over and the cumulative US death toll exceeded 118 thousand on June 20. Despite massive government aid (including virtually unlimited Federal Reserve monetary support and congressional authorization of close to $3 trillion in extra government spending), it’s not clear that the economy can be quickly turned back on.
House Democrats doubled down in mid-May by passing another massive spending bill (the HEROES Act), which has yet to be taken up by the Senate. In an election year, with all the problems that have been spawned by the pandemic and lockdown, more deficit spending measures are likely to be enacted eventually. SAFE will do its best, however, to support fiscal responsibility. See our 4/10/20 letter to the president and selected congressional leaders.
#CIVIL UNREST – Social justice (Black Lives Matter) protests broke out in Minneapolis after the police-inflicted death of George Floyd on May 25. This activity was quickly emulated in cities around the country, following a pattern that had been established a few years earlier during the Obama administration.
Almost everyone seemed to agree from the videos that Floyd’s arrest had been egregiously mishandled. One police officer has been charged with murder, and three others with aiding and abetting the crime. Although the nationwide protests occurred in response to this event, they don’t make sense unless other factors are considered to be involved, e.g., the systemic racism that some people have attributed to the nation’s police forces.
In our view, the systemic racism claim is dubious. Yes, abusive police actions can and do occur. It’s quite appropriate to investigate complaints and impose disciplinary measures if appropriate. But available data don’t demonstrate that black suspects are more likely to be killed or abused by arresting police officers than suspects of other racial backgrounds, or at least that’s our understanding.
Furthermore, a fair number of the supposedly peaceful protests turned violent. Looting – fires – attacks on police officers or fellow citizens – etc. Some of this activity was described in this blog and a good deal more was documented by horrifying video footage that was aired on television. A proper response to nationwide protests that often morph into violence, 6/8/20.
Violence begets violence, as experience has often shown, so it should be no surprise that efforts to combat the violence have led to additional complaints against the police (generally far less clear-cut than the initial complaint about the George Floyd arrest gone wrong). The biggest losers will be members of the black communities, whom protestors claim to be supporting. America has a silent black minority, Jason Riley, Wall Street Journal, 6/16/20.
There’s nothing wrong with having a national conversation about better policing, but this one has turned into a conversation about blaming law enforcement for social inequality, which is not only illogical but dangerous. Unsafe neighborhoods retard upward mobility, and poorly policed neighborhoods are less safe. A conversation that doesn’t acknowledge that reality is hardly worth having.
Adding fuel to the fire, leftists have embraced the mantra of defunding the police. This idea may be implemented in some locations, and it predictably won’t help anyone. The best police officers will quit and find other employment, perhaps as private security guards. Other officers will dial back the way in which they do their jobs (the so-called “Ferguson effect"), thereby giving lawless people more latitude to work their will on society. And in extreme cases, imagine calling 911 and getting an answer like this one. Spoof 911 call, audio (28 seconds), 6/15/20.
Like almost everything else these days, assignment of blame for the protests and where applicable riots has been thoroughly politicized. Side A blames the president and anyone who happens to support him, while Side B blames the protestors, etc. and feels they should “knock it off.” Law and order may become an effective theme for the Trump campaign if Side A makes the mistake of pushing the “defund the police” theme too far. America has a silent black minority, op. cit.
The question is whether Joe Biden and the Democrats will rescue Mr. Trump by allowing violent protesters to become the face of their party and by indulging the increasingly absurd demands of radical progressives. Mr. Trump may be unpopular, but so are looting, toppling statues, defunding the police, and allowing armed radicals to take over sections of major cities.
B. Other threats – Picture yourself as a strategist for the People’s Republic of China. You believe the United States is a world power on the decline and perceive many signs of vulnerability.
Consider how the US bungled the Covid-19 response, allowing big chunks of their economy to grind to a halt. Seems like they didn’t really know what they were doing. And they even sent warships back into port because a few sailors got the virus; obviously their naval forces aren’t truly battle-ready.
Then there were demonstrations all over the US because a single person got killed during an arrest. The authorities allowed widespread looting, takeover of police stations, attacks on police officers, and protestors massed in front of the White House night after night. President Trump had to be taken to an underground bunker at one point, can you imagine President Xi putting up with such a situation?
Another point is the lack of respect for President Trump, not only from his political opponents but also from the mainstream media, business community, computer tech companies, judges, professors, and celebrities.
Even former employees of the president’s administration (such as National Security Director John Bolton) and a family member (niece Mary Trump) have been writing disparaging books about him, and what’s he done about it other than posting tweets and filing lawsuits?
It’s almost as though everyone in the country was conspiring to take down the president. The big swarm, Byron York, Washington Examiner, 6/19/20.
No telling how the presidential election will come out in November, US politics can be rather baffling, but it seems fairly certain that the president and his supporters will be preoccupied by this activity. So what better time could there be to take action on some of the things that we’re planning, such as recapturing the lost province of Taiwan or teaching US forces that have been staging provocative actions in the South China Sea a lesson that they won’t soon forget.
Hopefully, the Chinese aren’t likely to throw caution to the winds any time soon, but relations between the two countries have cooled markedly of late and the risk of eventual hostilities is all too real. See,, e.g., A history of the 2025 Sino-American war in the South China Sea, Michael Austin, National Review, 6/15/20.
Additionally, there are potential flashpoints with other hostile nations, including Russia (which has been aggressively testing US air defenses in Alaska, etc.), Iran (which has been involved in numerous hostile actions in the Middle East), and even North Korea (which isn’t about to give up its nuclear weapons, and has been remilitarizing its border with South Korea in a manner made possible by US/SK concessions).
What should the US do in response to this kind of threat? Much as was true during the former “cold war” with the USSR, our leaders and military forces need to be watchful, prudent, yet at the same time firm. Appeasement never works, it simply invites further misbehavior. See, e.g., Former top US Korea Commander advocates return of nuclear platforms to South, return of “war games” in response to provocations by North, Jamie McIntyre, Washington Examiner, 6/18/20.
In sum, the kind of constant political warfare that has become the norm these days has already had some serious consequences and could do far more harm if it’s allowed to continue.
Let’s have spirited debates about political differences, by all means, but keep the focus on problems and solutions versus personal differences. Like it or not, Americans are all in the same boat, and if the boat sinks we will all go down together – as have the citizens of many former great powers.
#The only hope is to vote in November. – SAFE director
Voting is certainly important, but efforts to shape public opinions in a constructive way are needed now.
#The cover note says there is no downside in demanding better (i.e., questioning what is going on), but I believe otherwise. There is always a downside in questioning political activism. – SAFE member (DE)
Your point is well taken, and here’s some support for it. America’s Jacobin moment, Wall Street Journal, 6/22/20.
We describe this as a Jacobin moment because it has the fervor and indiscriminate judgment of the revolutionary mind. The guillotine isn’t in use, but the impulse is the same to destroy careers, livelihoods and reputations. The wave of resignations, firings, disavowals and forced apologies at institutions large and small is moving so fast it is difficult to keep track.