Politics & Policy

The IRS Is Your Friend

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Outside the Internal Revenue Service building in Washington, D.C. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

The ridiculous ways in which liberals have been selling the Biden tax and spendapalooza bill are verging on comedy.

The latest whopper has Representative Katie Porter of California calling fears that the bill’s 87,000 new IRS employees will mean more middle-class audits “a load of malarkey.” She incredibly told MSNBC that “the number one agency that the American people would like to have (with) more agents, be more helpful, pick up the phone, build better technology, be more responsive — is the IRS. So, this is an investment in allowing the IRS to modernize. . . .”

Porter then pulled out a whiteboard on air and argued, “For every dollar that we invest in IRS enforcement, of the most wealthy Americans, . . . we can recover $5 in taxes that are owed to the rest of us.”

This isn’t even remotely close to the truth. Only about 4 percent of the money is for taxpayer “assistance.” Most of it is for audits and investigations.

William Henck, a former IRS lawyer who was forced to leave a 30-year-long career with the agency in 2017 after becoming a whistleblower, recently told Fox News: “The idea that they’re going to open things up and go after these big billionaires and large corporations is quite frankly bullsh**.

“The big corporations and the billionaires are probably sitting back laughing right now,” he said.

Politics & Policy

Sweet Victory!

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I debated Yale professor David Blight the other day, over whether Trump should be prosecuted, in an Oxford-style debate put on by Intelligence Squared. I’m happy to report that I won.

Of course, there’s a vote beforehand and afterwards, and whoever has moved the most people wins. I started out with something like 81 percent against me and in favor of the pro-prosecution resolution and 5 percent with me. By the end it was roughly (I didn’t take notes) 71 percent in favor of the resolution and 15 percent against, so that was a win — and I’m sure if I had had another hour, I could have gotten the number down to 69 or 68 percent. Anyway, it was a lot of fun, and the audio of the debate will be on the Intelligence Squared podcast sometime soon.

Woke Culture

Why Are We Still Rushing toward the Abyss?

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In response to Transitioning Three-Year-Olds

Maddy, we discussed this a little on the Editors podcast the other day, but I’ll ask the question here, too. It’s usually the case that the rest of the English-speaking world is at the vanguard of cultural insanity, with the U.S. only catching up later. So why is it that the U.K. is stepping back from the abyss on this issue while we are still rushing toward it?

Health Care

Fact-Checking a Clinical Activist

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Caroline Downey had a great piece on the home page about Jack Turban, a controversial clinical activist described as “an advocate rather than a scientist” by Dr. Stephen Levine, a professor of psychiatry at Case Western Reserve University.

Caroline discusses Turban’s most recent study on trans-identifying youth, the central claim of which — that social influence has nothing to do with it and should not be used to argue against medicalized gender transition — I have fact-checked for the Independent Women’s Forum.

As Leor Sapir wrote at City Journal: “That a study like this can pass the peer-review process unscathed, especially at a time when European countries are shutting down or putting severe restrictions on pediatric transition, is a sorry statement about the quality of knowledge gatekeeping in the medical research community.”

Politics & Policy

‘Don’t Run, Liz, Don’t Run’

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Ron Brownstein is an incredibly shrewd political analyst, but this passage in his column about Liz Cheney’s political prospects strikes me as very fanciful:

In public polls, as many as one-fourth of Republicans and GOP-leaning independents reject Trump’s claim that the 2020 election was stolen, or criticize his efforts to overturn the result and his role in the January 6 insurrection. The share of Trump critics is usually slightly higher among Republicans holding at least a four-year college degree—a group that was notably cooler toward him during his first run to the nomination in 2016 and that sharply moved away from the GOP in the 2018 and 2020 elections. Some of those voters have since soured on President Joe Biden and the Democrats, but Cheney could spend months reminding them why they rejected Trump in the first place. “Especially among college-educated and donor-class Republicans, I think she continues to just chip away at Trump,” Kristol said.

Whit Ayres, a longtime GOP pollster, believes that the core of Republican-leaning voters hostile to Trump is smaller—only about one in 10, rather than the roughly one in five suggested by some poll questions. But he believes a Cheney candidacy could reach beyond that circle to raise doubts among a much bigger group: Republicans who are neither hard-core Trump supporters or opponents, but are focused mostly on winning in 2024. Although Cheney might appeal solely to the thin sliver of die-hard Trump opponents “with a prophetic-moral case … about the importance of devotion to our democratic institutions and the U.S. Constitution,” Ayres said, that larger group might respond to “a very practical utilitarian case” that Trump has too much baggage to win a general election.

What this leaves out is that even voters hostile to Trump might not be enamored of a Republican politician who eagerly cooperated with Nancy Pelosi on the January 6 committee and whose political base is largely the mainstream media.

Cheney’s potential electoral audience is tiny, and as I argue in Politico today, it would make no sense for her to run for president.

The Economy

Kohl’s, Doctor Doom, and Inflation

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A Kolh’s is seen in Broomfield, Colo., 2014 (Rick Wilking/Reuters)

Yesterday, I noted that Walmart’s new outlook was less gloomy than only a few weeks ago. That was the good news. The bad news was that the company was benefiting, in part, from the way it was attracting more affluent customers (who are — presumably thanks to inflation — not feeling quite so affluent as before), another sign of the way in which spending patterns are shifting in the wake of inflation.

Meanwhile, the news from Kohl’s today is not so great.

Reuters:

Kohl’s Corp cut its full-year sales and profit forecasts on Thursday, squeezed by steeper discounts and higher costs amid dwindling demand for clothing and shoes in the face of high inflation, sending its shares down 5%.

The U.S. department store chain joined top retailers including Target Corp  and Best Buy Co to warn of a profit squeeze, as decades-high inflation has made Americans wary of opening their wallets for apparel and other discretionary goods.

The demand slump has left several retailers with bloated inventories, forcing them to offload excess stocks through steep discounts and clearance sales heading into the back-to-school season. Kohl’s is offering up to 80% discount on its website.

Kohl’s is taking a bigger hit as it caters to middle to low-income customers and leans toward more casual styles, which means it is unable to take advantage of resilient high-income consumers who have lifted sales of dressy clothing and high-end fashion.

Kohl’s has made its own missteps, but the broader message is interesting and may, of course, be a sign of a slowing economy.

The Fed, however, does not appear inclined to declare victory over inflation any time soon, nor should it.

The Financial Times:

Federal Reserve officials discussed the need to keep interest rates at levels that will restrict the US economy “for some time” in a bid to contain the highest inflation in roughly 40 years, according to an account of their most recent meeting.

Minutes from the meeting in July, when the US central bank raised its benchmark policy rate 0.75 percentage points for the second month in a row, signalled that policymakers were intent on pressing ahead with tightening monetary policy but aware of the risks of overdoing it.

Given the enormity of the inflation problem and “upside risks” to the outlook for price growth, officials supported raising interest rates to the point where they act as a drag on economic growth.

Raising rates to such a level would allow the Fed to increase them even “further, to appropriately restrictive levels, if inflation were to run higher than expected”, the minutes noted.

Some officials indicated that once rates had been raised to the point where they were cooling down the economy “sufficiently”, it would probably “be appropriate to maintain that level to ensure that inflation was firmly on a path back” to the Fed’s target of 2 per cent.

If I had to guess, that probably means that the central bank will opt another 75bp hike (rather than 50bp) as its next move, even, as was also noted (you can see more in the full piece), that the “bulk” of the effect of the current round of rate increases has yet to be felt. Thus the changes in demand being seen by some retailers owes more or less everything to the effect of higher prices, very little (IMO) to interest rates.

For a more interest-rate sensitive area, look to housing.

CNBC:

Sales of previously owned homes fell nearly 6% in July compared with June, according to a monthly report from the National Association of Realtors.

The sales count declined to a seasonally adjusted annualized rate of 4.81 million units, the group added. It is the slowest sales pace since November 2015, with the exception of a brief plunge at the beginning of the Covid pandemic.

Sales dropped about 20% from the same month a year ago.

I’ve written more on what appears to be a darkening housing market here, here, and here.

However, even if the full effect of current rate hikes has yet to be felt, there is something to be said for choosing a 75bp message simply to send a message. Expectations matter when fighting inflation.

And, right on cue, here’s Henry K — Henry Kaufman, that is, or “Doctor Doom,” for those of us with long-enough memories, chatting to the FT:

[Kaufman] fears that today’s Fed under Jay Powell is failing to combat inflation with the resolve displayed by Paul Volcker, who aggressively raised interest rates while leading the central bank in the 1970s and 1980s.

“I am still waiting for him to act boldly — ‘boldly’ means he has to shock the market,” Kaufman said of Powell. “If you want to change someone’s view, if you want to change someone’s action, you can’t slap them on the hand, you have to hit them in the face.”

You can take the man out of Salomon Brothers, but you can’t take Salomon Brothers out of the man.

The FT:

Kaufman said the Fed chair erred after he made his pivot on inflation last November. Months passed between the time Powell warned of “persistently higher inflation” and the start of Fed interest rate increases in March.

“His forecast was right, his inaction was wrong,” Kaufman said.

Kaufman has, uh, noticed that real interest rates are still negative.

“Today, the inflation rate is higher than interest rates. Back then [August 1982], interest rates were higher than inflation rates. It’s quite a juxtaposition,” he said. “We have a long way to go. Inflation has to come down or interest rates will go higher.”

For more on how a “tightening,” when rates remain negative in real terms, may struggle to deliver low inflation, check out John Cochrane here.

Health Care

CDC Admission of Dysfunction Misses the Big Problems

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CDC Director Rochelle Walensky testifies during a Senate hearing on the federal response to the coronavirus on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., January 11, 2022. (Shawn Thew/Pool via Reuters)

CDC director Rochelle Walensky went all out in discussing her agency’s terrible handling of the coronavirus pandemic and the resulting need to overhaul that bureaucracy. At least that’s what she thinks and what the media happily report. The problem is that, while there is a lot of truth in what Walensky said, she omitted the CDC’s most blatant failures and the role that she played in these disasters. These failures, to be specific, are the CDC’s excessive caution, its misguided use of studies to impose its excessive risk aversion on all Americans, and the influence it exercised to keep schools closed (and, when they opened, to keep the kids masked and scared).

The CDC’s oversized risk aversion manifested itself in many ways, but the most obvious one was its eagerness to continue to recommend mask wearing late into the pandemic, which was especially harmful for children. The CDC loves mask wearing so much that it even issued a guidance suggesting that mask-wearing by travelers can help protect against “many diseases, including monkeypox.” This particular recommendation was laughed out of the room so fast that after a mere 18 hours the CDC removed the guidance. This little fact matters, since politicians with a taste for mandates remain eager to use CDC guidelines to justify their intrusive actions.

The criticism that the CDC is overly cautious is levelled against it by many people. Overcaution is a real problem, and it would be hard to address in part because the agency was created to focus on disease prevention, thus causing it to discount, or even to ignore altogether, other consequences that likely arise from its single-minded efforts to mitigate disease.

The second problem with the CDC, yet to be mentioned by Walensky, is, in my opinion, even worse. The agency has proven itself to be incurably political, no matter who is in the White House. As all Americans now know, it’s heavily influenced by union representatives. At the extreme, the CDC is even corruptible. It has also been shown to misuse or misrepresent data, and it has turned to junk-science studies to bolster its case for an eviction moratorium, for mask mandates, and for fear in general.

But the greatest CDC blunder of them all was its awful guidance on school closures and masking schoolchildren. While many industrialized nations’ kids were back in school at the end of 2020 and for the start of the 2021–22 school year, here, many states kept kids learning — “learning” — next to nothing from home long after the economy was reopened and people, even teachers, were dining out and going on vacations. This was thanks to CDC guidance on school closures. Again, it is now well known that one part of the guidance was written by leaders of the largest teachers’ union. Adding insult to injury, the CDC ignored the many studies, dating back to the summer of 2020, showing that it is safe for kids, teachers, and community members for children to attend school in person. It also ignored the evidence that remote learning was a disaster.

When the CDC said that it was finally okay to go back to school, the kids were still advised to wear masks to protect teachers, even though most teachers were vaccinated. This guidance was followed scrupulously by many eager administrators (including by the ones at my vaccinated kids’ high school well into 2022).

As late as February 2022, I wrote the following:

More recently, CDC Director Rochelle Walensky was questioned by members of the House’s Energy and Commerce Subcommittee on Oversight and Investigations about the agency’s guidance on continued mask wearing in school.

Members on both sides of the aisle seemed uneasy with school mask mandates, and some noted that the studies used by the agency to justify its continued requirements had been debunked. The guidance was at odds with available evidence and with what most other countries were doing without an apparent increase in health risks.

Did this line of questioning make a difference? No. Walensky acknowledged the “limitations” of the mask studies but refused to change a thing. And so, many kids as young as 2 will continue to be masked at school.

It’s infuriating, especially since the guidance will likely change when enough Democrat-led states have lifted their own mandates. So much for following science.

Which is exactly what happened.

So count me as one of those who are skeptical that Walensky, who is part of the problem, will change the agency in any way that improves its operation. What I believe is that she will be able to achieve what she is truly after: a bigger budget for the CDC and more power to force states to follow its often-unscientific dictates.

World

China’s Foreign Ministry Suggests 9/11 Was an Inside Job

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Chinese Foreign Ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian attends a news conference in Beijing, China, April 8, 2020. (Carlos Garcia Rawlins/Reuters)

Chinese foreign ministry spokesman Zhao Lijian recently shared a meme strongly implying that America was behind the 9/11 attacks:

This is hardly the first time that a CCP Wolf Warrior’s social-media foray has resulted in an international embarrassment for Beijing. Yet Zhao apparently considers his post so impressive that, as of this afternoon, it remains pinned to the top of his Twitter page.

Elections

John Fetterman Has Big Weaknesses

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Democratic Senate candidate John Fetterman stands on stage before speaking at a rally in Erie, Pa., August 12, 2022. (Quinn Glabicki/Reuters)

If you ask the typical online conservative who’s been following the Pennsylvania Senate race closely what stands out the most about Democrat John Fetterman, they’ll probably mention Fetterman pulling a gun on a black jogger back in 2013. It’s a particularly unflattering portrait of the Democratic nominee:

In 2013, when he was mayor, Mr. Fetterman used his shotgun to stop an unarmed Black jogger and detain him, telling the police that he had heard shots fired near his home and spotted the man running, according to the police report. “Fetterman continued to yell and state that he knows this male was shooting,” the police report says. Two other people told police they had heard several shots as well.An officer who patted down the man, Christopher Miyares, then 28, found no weapons. The officer noted that Mr. Miyares was wearing running clothes and headphones. Mr. Miyares was released.

Fetterman wasn’t a cop, didn’t have a badge, and didn’t have any legal authority to detain that man at gunpoint. In a television interview shortly afterwords, Fetterman said, “I believe I did the right thing, but I may have broken the law during the course of it.” (Ya think?) At the time, local reporters asked, fairly, whether Fetterman escaped any investigation, charges, or consequences because of his position as mayor.

Let’s face it, if Fetterman had an “R” after his name instead of a “D,” he would be as widely decried as George Zimmerman, painted as a bullying white aspiring vigilante who regarded every black man he saw as a likely criminal. But because Fetterman is the Democratic nominee in a key race, that incident is just an innocent misunderstanding, instead of an abuse of power and authority.

The commercials from the Oz campaign and NRSC are painting Fetterman as soft on crime, and I’m sure they’ve got a lot of focus group and research data indicating that will be an effective message. But you have to wonder how the race would have looked if, a few months ago as Fetterman began his stroke recovery, Oz or the NRSC ran a bunch of “giant racist thug John Fetterman pulls his gun on innocent black men” ads on media targeting African-Americans.

If nothing else, Oz talking about the incident would make Fetterman spend time insisting his gun-toting vigilante days were just long-forgotten mistakes.

Media

Bye-Bye, Brian

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Brian Stelter arrives for the Time 100 Gala celebrating Time magazine’s 100 most influential people people in the world in New York City, June 8, 2022. (Caitlin Ochs/Reuters)

Brian Stelter is out at CNN. NPR reports:

CNN is canceling its Sunday media affairs show Reliable Sources, and host Brian Stelter is departing the network, Stelter tells NPR. . . . CNN chief Chris Licht informed Stelter of the decision yesterday. Licht has been making cuts throughout the network since taking the helm as part of Warner Bros. Discovery’s takeover of the old Time Warner company. Stelter, who often touted the show’s ratings on Twitter, was among those CNN hosts targeted for frequent criticism from conservatives for his coverage of the media in the Trump years.

“Frequent criticism from conservatives” is putting it charitably. Stelter was one of the legacy media’s top contenders for the highly coveted title of Least Self-Aware Man in America. (His erstwhile colleague at CNN, Jim Acosta, is the award’s defending champion.) The media are not wanting in egotistical, preening, self-satisfied buffoons, but rarely in the course of human events have we witnessed such a profound inverse relationship between self-regard and intelligence. Whatever our political disagreements, I can’t help but feel a certain amount of awe at Stelter’s ability to routinely run segments like this one, in which he authoritatively instructed a class of eighth-graders in New York about “how to spot and avoid being misled by misinformation” in the media, with a straight face. (“You want to believe something,” he nods gravely in the clip. “But you gotta face reality head on.”) 

At this point it’s almost cliché to say so, but what Stelter meant when he used words like “misinformation” was right-wing. For all the Reliable Sources anchor’s garment-rending about declining trust in the media, he spent a disproportionate amount of time covering for his industry’s egregiously biased, activist behavior over the course of the past few years. He defended his colleague Chris Cuomo’s unethical role as an adviser to his brother, the disgraced former New York governor Andrew Cuomo. He regularly offered up his show as a platform for Biden officials to repeat White House propaganda. On Jussie Smollett, he argued: “We may never know what happened.” And he himself regularly engaged in “misinformation,” including championing the fraudulent “Steele dossier” narrative. (When new details about the dossier’s fraudulent nature emerged, Stelter protested: “I’m a media reporter, and I’m not a Steele dossier reporter.”)

Stelter also served as the mainstream media’s attack dog when right-leaning outlets published stories that were inconvenient for Democrats. As Isaac Schorr and Brittany Bernstein pointed out, for example, Stelter went to the mat to discredit the New York Post’s story on Hunter Biden’s laptop:

Instead of praising the Post for its work, Stelter responded to the story by running a segment called “How the latest anti-Biden narrative was manufactured,” in which he attacked the Post for its reporting, called it part of the “right-wing media machine,” and asserted that the story didn’t “add up.” One year later, precisely none of the Post’s reporting has been debunked and much of it has been confirmed.

All this while complaining, on a near-daily basis, that right-wing media was ruining American democracy and that no one wanted to listen to outlets like CNN anymore. (The journalists! Will someone please think of the journalists!) Stelter’s shtick was, at root, a product of a new paradigm in American media, where journalists at powerful legacy outlets conceive of themselves as a prestigious guild with a specific set of interests rather than as seekers of truth committed to presenting it without fear or favor. Of course, the rhetorical window-dressing — democracy dies in darkness! — is still there. But if you’ve been watching Reliable Sources, you’ve seen Stelter regularly contorting himself into pretzels to defend his guild at all costs. That was his job, as he understood it. It’s difficult to feel sorry that his time at CNN has come to an end.

Law & the Courts

On the Guilty Plea of Trump’s Finance Guy, Weisselberg

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Allen Howard Weisselberg, the former Trump Organization CFO, appears in New York State Supreme Court in Manhattan, August 18, 2022. (Curtis Means/Pool via Reuters)

With all the violent crime that goes unaddressed in New York City, how great to see that Alvin Bragg has resources to prosecute septuagenarians for failing to report their grandchildren’s comped school tuition to the taxman. But, for whatever it’s worth to him, the Manhattan DA has gotten his man — or at least a man close to his man. To settle the case against him, Allen Weisselberg, longtime financial officer for Donald Trump’s real-estate organization, was made to plead guilty to 15 counts of behavior so serious that he’ll be looking at . . . yes . . . 100 days in prison.

As the New York Times put it, with surprising bluntness, Bragg will “gain a victory” here because “Mr. Weisselberg, an accountant who served a vital role as the company’s financial gatekeeper, will be branded as a felon.” So will Trump’s organization when the case against it comes up in October, unless there is a plea before then. This is an exercise in branding political enemies, and the media will speak about the dispositions in those terms. The fact, however, is that the DA is settling for a puny case against the company because it can’t hook the big fish.

Dan has done his characteristically stellar job spelling out the intrigue and legal twists in this mini-drama. I will just repeat what I said when the Captain Ahab quest begun eons ago by Bragg’s predecessor and fellow Democrat, Cy Vance Jr., cratered earlier this year. The case the DA’s office has tried to make against Trump was originally looked at by federal prosecutors in my old shop, the U.S. Attorney’s Office for the Southern District of New York. If there had been something there, the SDNY would not have abandoned its investigation and let the state prosecutors across the street run with it.

The walls may indeed be closing in on the former president in several ways. This is not one of them.

Elections

Oregon Governor’s Race Moved from ‘Lean Democrat’ to ‘Toss-Up’

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Left: Gubernatorial Candidate Christine Drazan (R., Ore.) speaks during an interview. Right: Tina Kotek speaks during Day 1 of the Democratic National Convention at the Wells Fargo Center in Philadelphia, Pa., July 25, 2016. (Screengrab KGW News/YouTube, Saul Loeb/AFP via Getty Images)

Yesterday, I reported:

One little-noticed race where Republicans might have an unusually solid shot — and where the GOP nominee is, by all accounts, serious, focused, and competent — is my home state of Oregon. (This is on my mind because I arrived back here last night, and am currently writing from my family’s home in Hood River.) Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee for Oregon’s 2022 governor’s race, continues to poll neck-and-neck with her Democratic opponent, Tina Kotek. If Drazan wins, she’d be the Beaver State’s first Republican governor since 1987.

This morning, right on cue, the University of Virginia’s Center for Politics moved the Oregon governor’s race from “Leans Democratic” to “Toss-up.” The Center explains its reasoning:

[Oregon] is hosting an unusual 3-way race among a trio of women who are all recent members of the state legislature: former state House Speaker Tina Kotek (D), former state House Minority Leader Christine Drazan (R), and former state Sen. Betsy Johnson, an unaffiliated, former Democrat who is more conservative than most of the members of her former party and who has been backed by Nike co-founder Phil Knight. The race sets up an unusual situation where the winner may not need to crack even 40%. Additionally, the 3 candidates all served concurrently in the state legislature, which should provide the campaigns ample opportunities to draw contrasts among the candidates. Outgoing Gov. Kate Brown (D) is deeply unpopular, and there may be some desire for change in the Beaver State. Johnson, the independent, would still be the most surprising winner, and Kotek and Drazan both will be working to try to prevent their voters from flocking to her banner. There’s just enough uncertainty here that we’re looking at the race as a Toss-up now.

This isn’t an outlier: The Cook Political Report also moved the Oregon governor’s race from “Likely Democrat” to “Lean Democrat” at the end of last month. Drazan might have an actual shot at this thing. And it can’t come soon enough — as I wrote when I profiled the Republican back in May, “Decades of one-party rule haven’t treated the Beaver State well: The state boasts the fourth-worst homelessness problem in the country, and the eighth-worst education system. (With the fourth-worst graduation rate and teacher-to-student ratio.) According to a 2021 CNBC analysis, it’s the sixth-worst for business friendliness, and the third-worst for cost of living. As one former Democratic state representative put it in an unusually candid interview with Willamette Week in March: ‘S***’s not working.’”

Drazan is up against an array of powerful entrenched interests — unions, activist groups, etc. — that have enjoyed a decades-long monopoly over political decision-making in Salem. But if she can harness the dissatisfaction of enough voters throughout the state, she may be able to meet the challenge.

Woke Culture

Transitioning Three-Year-Olds

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In our recent editorial on the closure of the U.K.’s transgender youth clinic, we noted how, by comparison, gender clinics in the United States are only getting more aggressive:

Across the country, gender clinics are becoming more numerous and brazen in their recklessness. The Boston Children’s Hospital has a promotional video advertising “gender-affirming” hysterectomies for adolescent females, and the Children’s Hospital of Pittsburgh has a similar one for puberty blockers. Like the Tavistock, their motivation is ideological — but, unlike the Tavistock, they have an added monetary incentive.

Now we can add Yale Medicine to the list.

World

Zelensky Slams Russia’s ‘Nuclear Blackmail,’ Pleads for U.N. Action on Forced Deportations

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Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky speaks during a joint news conference with IAEA Director General Rafael Grossi in Kyiv, Ukraine, April 26, 2022. (Valentyn Ogirenko/Reuters)

Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky decried Russia’s shelling of the Zaporizhzhia nuclear power plant in Eastern Ukraine, during a meeting with U.N. chief Antonio Guterres today in Lviv, as Ukrainian defense intelligence warned that Russia is preparing another attack on the site. Russian forces have controlled it since March.

Guterres was in Kyiv to meet with Zelensky and Turkish president Recep Tayyip Erdogan for discussions on grain shipments from Ukraine, in addition to other issues.

Earlier this month, after Russian forces shelled the nuclear plant, which is located in the southeastern city of Zaporizhzhia, Guterres told reporters that “any attack on nuclear power plants is a suicidal thing.”

During a meeting with Guterres today, Zelensky said that Russia’s tactics involving the plant are a “deliberate and cynical terror,” according to a summary of the conversation released by the Ukrainian leader’s office. He also emphasized that the U.N. “must ensure the security of this strategic object, its demilitarization and complete liberation from Russian troops.”

According to Zelensky’s office, the two officials agreed to the terms of a potential International Atomic Energy Agency mission to the power plant.

Their meeting on the fate of the nuclear facility comes at a delicate time, as Ukrainian defense intelligence is claiming that Russia ordered staff for the plant not to show up to work on Friday. On Twitter, the defense-intelligence service accused Russia of orchestrating a false-flag attack on the facility — a “high-profile provocation” — to coincide with Guterres’s visit to Ukraine.

During Guterres’s visit to the country in April, Russian missiles struck Kyiv while the U.N. official was in the area.

Zelensky also raised the plight of the hundreds of thousands of Ukrainian citizens reported to have been forcibly deported to Russia by invading troops.

“I am asking you personally to help the U.N. representatives get permanent unhindered access to the deported Ukrainians,” Zelensky said to Guterres, according to the meeting summary.

Since invading Ukrainian territory, Russia has reportedly set up several “filtration camps,” where Ukrainian individuals are put into groups, interrogated, and deported to Russia. There are reports of torture and killings in the camps, particularly of Ukrainians suspected to have ties to Kyiv’s military effort.

In a statement on July 13, Secretary of State Antony Blinken said that various estimates — including those offered by the Russian government — say that between 900,000 and 1.6 million people have been deported, “often to isolated regions in [Russia’s] Far East.”

“Eyewitnesses, survivors, and Ukraine’s General Prosecutor have reported that Russian authorities have transported tens of thousands of people to detention facilities inside Russian-controlled Donetsk, where many are reportedly tortured,” Blinken also said. “There are reports that some individuals targeted for ‘filtration’ have been summarily executed, consistent with evidence of Russian atrocities committed in Bucha, Mariupol, and other locations in Ukraine.”

World

Putin Gets Chinese Plaudits for Calling Pelosi Trip ‘Planned Provocation’

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Russian President Vladimir Putin attends a meeting with Chinese President Xi Jinping in Beijing, China, February 4, 2022. (Sputnik/Aleksey Druzhinin/Kremlin via Reuters)

A senior Chinese Communist Party official publicly praised Vladimir Putin after the Russian leader criticized Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s recent Taiwan visit as “a carefully planned provocation.” Beijing’s show of support for Putin follows the recent announcement of joint Sino-Russian military exercises on Russian territory.

Putin made his first public remarks on the heightened tensions in the Taiwan Strait during a global-security conference in Moscow earlier this week.

“The American adventure in Taiwan wasn’t just a trip by an irresponsible politician. It was part of a deliberate and conscious U.S. strategy intended to destabilize the situation and create chaos in the region and the entire world, a blatant demonstration of disrespect for another country’s sovereignty and its own international obligations,” Putin said on Tuesday.

He tied Washington’s alleged provocations in the Indo-Pacific to U.S. support of Ukraine, saying earlier in the speech: “They need conflicts to retain their hegemony.” He also slammed the AUKUS pact between the U.S., Australia, and the U.K. as an example of “aggressive military-political alliances” being formed.

While Pelosi was not the first U.S. House Speaker to visit Taiwan, Beijing seized on the high-profile visit to assert that it is a provocation and an assault on the status quo. The People’s Liberation Army soon after began a series of unusually brazen military exercises, and Beijing imposed sanctions on a number of Taiwanese officials.

A prominent Chinese ambassador, Liu Xiaoming, was quick to publicly praise Putin’s comments on Twitter yesterday, saying that China “highly appreciates” the support.

“The remarks by President Putin demonstrates the high-level strategic coordination between China and Russia, and the firm support the two countries have rendered each other on issues concerning their core interests,” wrote Liu, a senior diplomat who currently serves as Beijing’s envoy on Korean Peninsular Affairs.

Putin and General Secretary Xi Jinping inked a “no-limits” partnership ahead of the Beijing Winter Olympics in February, and since then, the two countries have repeatedly stressed their strategic alignment.

In June, Beijing and Moscow unveiled a new bridge connecting Russia’s Blagoveschchensk with China’s Heihe, a construction project the Russian government expects will dramatically boost bilateral trade, per Reuters.

During a phone call between Putin and Xi five days later, Xi said that “China is willing to work with Russia to continue supporting each other on their respective core interests concerning sovereignty and security, as well as on their major concerns, deepening their strategic coordination, and strengthening communication and coordination in such important international and regional organizations as the United Nations, the BRICS mechanism and the Shanghai Cooperation Organization,” per a Chinese summary.

Although U.S. officials say that China has declined, so far, to provide military assistance to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine, China has openly taken Russia’s side on its brutal invasion of Ukraine, with officials and propaganda outlets claiming that NATO provoked the attack.

During the State Department press briefing yesterday, Foggy Bottom warned about this partnership, which spokesman Ned Price called a “burgeoning relationship.”

“That is of concern because of the vision that the PRC, countries like that PRC, countries like Russia, have for the international order,” said Price. He added, “We’ve been very clear in our engagements with the PRC regarding the consequences” of providing military assistance to Russia for its invasion of Ukraine.

A number of former U.S. officials have also expressed alarm, noting the increased coordination between China and Russia.

Former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley in June warned of a new “axis” of “fanatical dictators” between Russia, China, and Iran. Former secretary of state Mike Pompeo said, in a speech the same month at the Hudson Institute, “We must prevent the formation of a pan-Eurasian colossus, incorporating Russia but led by China.”

On Wednesday, the Chinese defense ministry announced its participation in joint military drills with Russia, alongside India, Belarus, Tajikistan, and Mongolia. The exercises, which begin August 30, are expected to take place in Russia’s Eastern military district, bordering, in part, China.

Law & the Courts

Is Alvin Bragg’s Trump Case Alive after All?

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Left: Then-President Donald Trump at the White House in 2020. Right: Then-candidate for Manhattan District Attorney Alvin Bragg (Leah Millis, Mike Segar/Reuters)

On Monday, Ben Protess, William K. Rashbaum, and Jonah E. Bromwich of the New York Times reported on a plea deal to end the tax-fraud charge brought by the Manhattan district attorney’s office against Allan Weisselberg, the former CFO for the Trump Organization. Subtitled “Allen H. Weisselberg, who was charged with participating in a tax scheme, will not cooperate with the district attorney’s investigation into Donald J. Trump,” the article reported:

[Weisselberg] is nearing a deal with Manhattan prosecutors but will not cooperate with a broader investigation into Mr. Trump, according to three people with knowledge of the matter. If it becomes final, a plea deal . . . would bring prosecutors no closer to indicting the former president but would nonetheless brand one of his most trusted lieutenants a felon. On Monday, Mr. Weisselberg’s lawyers and prosecutors met with the judge overseeing the case, according to a court database. The judge scheduled a hearing for Thursday, a possible indication that a deal has been reached and a plea could be entered then. . . .

Two people with knowledge of the matter said that Mr. Weisselberg was expected to receive a five-month jail term. With time credited for good behavior, he is likely to serve about 100 days. The other terms of Mr. Weisselberg’s deal were not clear, including whether he had made additional concessions to prosecutors to receive it. His lawyer, Nicholas A. Gravante Jr., confirmed that he was in negotiations but declined to discuss the specifics. Another lawyer for Mr. Weisselberg, Mary E. Mulligan, declined to comment, as did a spokeswoman for the Manhattan district attorney, Alvin L. Bragg. . . . Mr. Weisselberg, while admitting his own guilt, is not expected to implicate anyone in the Trump family.

With the reporting by the Times circulated widely and not contradicted, I reviewed on Tuesday why Bragg’s office faced such daunting obstacles in bringing a case that would present more serious problems for Donald Trump, and why the Weisselberg deal appeared to spell the effective end of Bragg’s investigation. But in politics or the law, as Yogi Berra once said of baseball, it ain’t over ’til it’s over. On Wednesday, Molly Crane-Newman of the New York Daily News reported that Weisselberg would testify against the Trump Organization:

The Trump Organization’s longtime chief financial officer is expected to admit to conspiring with the Trump Organization and Trump Payroll Corporation in a criminal tax fraud scheme while head of the company’s finances at a Manhattan court hearing on Thursday, the Daily News has confirmed. Allen Weisselberg is expected to criminally implicate Trump’s family real estate business. . . . As part of the CFO’s plea deal — for which he’ll serve five months max on Rikers Island, the source said — Weisselberg is expected to agree to testify against the Trump companies if they choose to go to trial in October, and he’s called as a witness.

The three Times reporters fired back this morning:

As part of the plea deal, the executive, Allen H. Weisselberg, will be required to testify at the company’s trial if prosecutors choose to call on him, and to admit his role in conspiring with Mr. Trump’s company to carry out the tax scheme. That testimony could tilt the scales against the company, the Trump Organization, as it prepares for an October trial related to the same accusations. . . . The plea deal does not require Mr. Weisselberg to cooperate with a broader investigation into Mr. Trump, and his admissions will not implicate the former president.

As it turned out, that was accurate: Weisselberg pleaded guilty to all charges, but won’t testify against Trump.

What happened here? Partly that two sets of reporters were spinning the same thing differently. The important thing to bear in mind is that the Trump Organization is not a person, it’s a company. As a legal matter, it can only commit a crime — including conspiracy — if some authorized agent or officer of the Trump Organization commits the criminal act with the required criminal state of mind. Who might that someone be? For starters, the obvious answer is Weisselberg himself. If the CFO of the Trump Organization is guilty of tax fraud — and a guilty plea necessarily means he is — then that itself is evidence that the company is guilty, too. It is not necessary for Weisselberg to finger anyone else in order for his admission of his own guilt to be evidence against the Trump Organization.

Where things get trickier is that the indictment also charges a conspiracy. Conspiracies, by definition, have to involve two distinct conspirators. The law gets trickier on the question of when a corporation can be treated as separate from its own agents and subsidiaries. For example, under the federal antitrust-law Copperweld rule, which New York’s own antitrust law follows, a corporation can’t conspire with its own subsidiaries. But that rule exists for reasons particular to antitrust law. New York also follows the rule that an officer or agent of a corporation can’t tortiously interfere with the corporation’s contracts unless the officer or agent acted outside the scope of their employment. But that, too, is a rule designed to prevent every breach of contract lawsuit against a company from turning into a personal lawsuit against the people through whom it acted. By contrast, under the federal RICO statute, which bars a person from running a criminal enterprise through a pattern of racketeering activity, the person and the enterprise can be a company and its sole shareholder. But that, too, is due in part to the purpose of the RICO statute to ban individuals from misusing the form of organizations such as unions and corporations.

To steer clear of this legal thicket, the indictment says that Weisselberg conspired with “Unindicted Co-conspirator #1,” ensuring that the conspiracy is more than just Weisselberg in his personal capacity conspiring with Weisselberg as the agent of the Trump Organization:

From at least 2005 through the date of this indictment, the named defendants and others, including Unindicted Co-conspirator #1, agreed to and implemented a compensation scheme with the object of enabling Weisselberg to underreport his income to federal authorities, and thereby evade taxes and falsely claim federal tax refunds to which he was not entitled…

On or about March 31, 2005, the Trump Corporation, acting through its president, entered into a lease for an apartment on Riverside Boulevard in New York, New York with a rider designating Allen Weisselberg and his spouse as the sole occupants who would use the apartment as a primary residence. On or before April 5, 2010, the Trump Corporation, acting through its agent, Unindicted Coconspirator #1, underreported Allen Weisselberg’s taxable income for the tax year 2009.

Is Donald Trump “Unindicted Co-conspirator #1”? Highly unlikely, given that the indictment discusses Unindicted Co-conspirator #1 immediately before and after a reference to “the Trump Corporation, acting through its president” — that president, in 2005, being Donald Trump. Also, Unindicted Co-conspirator #1 may or may not be an officer or employee of the company: The indictment just says “agent,” which could be the organization’s outside tax preparer. Jose Pagliery of the Daily Beast, recounting this morning’s hearing, argues that it may be Trump Organization company controller Jeffrey S. McConney, who received immunity to testify before the grand jury.

If Weisselberg’s admission of guilt is used at trial, that could move the remainder of the investigation a step closer against the Trump Organization. But unless we see a further plot twist, this doesn’t seem to contradict the original report that Weisselberg is not giving the prosecutors much more than just an admission of his own guilt, so they would still be at a dead end in pursuing Trump himself.

This item has been updated since publication to incorporate news from the hearing.

Elections

Good News for J. D. Vance and Ohio Republicans!

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Republican U.S. Senate candidate J. D. Vance arrives to speak to supporters at an election party after winning the primary in Cincinnati, Ohio, May 3, 2022. (Gaelen Morse/Reuters)

Good news for J. D. Vance and Ohio Republicans! After a long stretch of polls that showed Democrat Tim Ryan in the lead, a new independent poll by Emerson College finds the race a little closer to what you would expect in a state that Donald Trump won by eight points, in what is supposed to be a good GOP year.

Emerson’s survey of 925 somewhat and very likely general-election voters finds Vance at 45 percent and Ryan at 42 percent. Four percent plan to vote for someone else and 10 percent are undecided. Another encouraging point is that Vance appears to have a higher ceiling if turnout increases. Spencer Kimball, executive director of Emerson College polling stated in the release that, “Both Vance and Ryan have strong bases of support, and the race tightens to a one-point lead for Vance among the very motivated and very likely voters in Ohio, whereas Vance leads by a larger margin among somewhat likely and somewhat motivated voters.”

With that said, a three-point lead doesn’t mean this race is locked away; Tim Ryan having the television airwaves to himself for about three months undoubtedly gave him some momentum, but that momentum may be blunted now that the Vance commercials are starting to air.

While I was away, my distinguished colleague Michael Brendan Dougherty wrote, “I’m getting vibes of 2014, when Tom Cotton and Mark Pryor were shown to be neck-and-neck in the summer, only for Cotton to pull away and ride the fundamentals in the end to a massive 17-point victory. The same dynamic played out in Kansas and Iowa.”

Look, maybe Vance will indeed end up winning by 17 points. And yes, back in August 2014, the Tom Cotton-Mark Pryor race was still tight. But Cotton was taking on a two-term incumbent, and the fact that polls were finding Pryor in the high 30s to low 40s (one CNN poll put it him at 47 percent) was a flashing neon sign that Arkansas voters were unhappy with what they had and were looking for other options. (I’d also note that after May, only two polls showed Pryor ahead.) In an open-seat race like Ohio’s this year, the dynamic is different.

And yes, I’ve heard the argument that the polling this cycle is still undersampling just about every demographic without college degrees, particularly whites without college degrees. And no doubt, in recent cycles, we’ve seen several pollsters all separately make the same mistakes in assessing the makeup of the electorate and likely winner.

Last cycle, we saw Quinnipiac almost single-handedly create the narrative that the South Carolina Senate race is a toss up (it never was), Thom Tillis narrowly won when all the polls showed a narrow lead for Cal Cunningham in North Carolina, and an absolutely insane miss in Maine’s Senate race, where Susan Collins won easily after every pollster showed her trailing, often by large margins. Lots of people remember those, and conclude the polls can never be trusted — or they can never be trusted when they show a result they don’t like. But they don’t remember the polls showing Mark Kelly winning in Arizona, John Hickenlooper winning in Colorado, Raphael Warnock winning in Georgia, Gary Peters winning in Michigan, etc.

Maybe we’ll get another result like that this year, where Republicans finish with significantly higher percentages on Election Night than what they had in the final polling averages. Your mileage may vary, but I think Republican campaigns would be whistling past the graveyard to conclude that, “We’re going to overperform our numbers in the public polls by a dramatic margin.”

Sports

Reason 1,265 for the Green Bay Packers’ Superiority

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Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (12) reacts after throwing a touchdown pass during the third quarter against the Chicago Bears at Lambeau Field in Green Bay, Wis., December 12, 2021. (Jeff Hanisch-USA TODAY Sports)

The Green Bay Packers recently held their annual shareholders’ meeting, and it is yet another reminder of how much better the Packers are than every other NFL franchise. Packers shareholders, 8,000 of them, gathered on Lambeau’s bleachers and listened to team president Mark Murphy explain where their funds were applied, the reasons for the improvements, and sharing standing needs. An unassuming demonstration on its face, this is the only such presentation given in the entirety of the NFL because of the Packers’ unique ownership structure.

The New York Times reports:

At the meeting, Mark Murphy, the team’s president, told the shareholders to give themselves a round of applause for helping raise $65 million in a stock sale during the winter.

Murphy said the windfall will go toward the more than $200 million being spent on new infrastructure, including larger video boards, concourse renovations and a second generator to power it all. “It’s not very sexy, is it? But we need it,” he joked. The players and coaches will also get a new training facility with underground parking.

Because the Packers are publicly owned, the team must release annual financial figures that provide a window into all 32 teams, much to the consternation of every other owner who tries to keep prying eyes from learning the specifics of their wealth.

In other words, were it not for the Packers’ public ownership, the public would know almost nothing of the NFL’s finances and internal machinations. And because of the Packs’ ownerlessness — no billionaire to bail them out — they have to be particularly aware of their bottom line. This dynamic makes for a franchise that is Dutch Reformed in its financial management and Roman Catholic in its pursuit of aesthetics and splendor to make the stadium as much of a draw as it can possibly be for football fans of any stripe; the Packers accept payment in greenbacks or gold.

Another benefit of the Packers’ needing broad support is that it keeps them from hiring obnoxious players and making overtly political moves. Wisconsin, a politically divided state, has little interest in its shared institution falling to partisan nonsense, and the team finds it beneficial to its image to remain above the fray. Refreshing.

So if you’re ever up this way, stop at Lambeau and ask your fellow tourists if they are part owners. Likely as not, they will be.

Note: Bears fans and other FIB-aligned persons will guffaw and say that a Packers shareholder is a chump out $300 for a scrap of paper. However, the especially hawk-eyed will observe the naysayer’s chortling devolve into pitiable sobbing when recalling his franchise is entering another rebuilding phase. When framed, that scrap of paper is a fitting accompaniment to christening photos hung above the family’s mantel.

World

Russia Makes Full-Court Press to Get Lavrov a Visa for U.N. Meeting

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Russian Foreign Minister Sergei Lavrov attends a news conference following a meeting with Iran’s Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif in Moscow, Russia, December 30, 2019. (Evgenia Novozhenina/Reuters)

Russia is working hard to secure visas for foreign minister Sergei Lavrov and other officials to enter the U.S. as part of a delegation to the U.N. General Assembly. Numerous Russian officials and propaganda outlets are warning that the Biden administration may not approve his visa to attend the high-level gathering, which will take place in late September — in some cases “demanding” that Lavrov be allowed to enter the country.

According to state-owned news agency Sputnik, Russia’s ambassador to the U.S., Anatoly Antonov, told the Rossiya 24 television station that his team had placed the request with the Biden administration. “Tomorrow I will have another visit to the State Department, where one of the central issues I intend to raise is this problem, the problem of full-scale, full-fledged participation of our minister and delegation at the upcoming September events in New York,” he reportedly said.

Ned Price, the State Department spokesman, said today, though, that Antonov was scheduled for no such meeting.

Russia’s brutal invasion of Ukraine more or less froze bilateral diplomatic initiatives between the U.S. and Russia. Washington has also worked to isolate Moscow at international organizations, successfully leading a push to boot Russia from the U.N. Human Rights Council earlier this year.

Still, despite that and the passage of U.N. resolutions targeting Russia, it has not been totally isolated on the international stage, as countries such as India and Israel — which are aligned with the U.S. on certain issues — have taken a more middle-of-the-road approach to Russia, which they consider a strategic partner. China, meanwhile, has all but taken Russia’s side in the diplomatic sphere, promoting the Kremlin’s talking points and alleging that the U.S. and NATO provoked the invasion.

Russian president Vladimir Putin announced on August 8 that Lavrov would lead the country’s U.N. General Assembly delegation.

In comments on August 15, Lavrov’s foreign ministry publicly grappled with the possibility that Washington might not permit his delegation to enter U.S. airspace. Following the start of the invasion, the U.S. and dozens of other countries closed their airspace to Russian aircraft.

“Washington should refrain from provocative actions that could disrupt the participation of the head of the Russian delegation at the UN General Assembly,” the foreign ministry said in a statement, according to TASS, another Russian state-owned outlet. “All issues related to the Russian special flight are to be coordinated according to the established procedure through bilateral channels between the aviation authorities of Russia and the US.”

According to an earlier TASS report, on August 5, Lavrov even appealed directly to Secretary General Antonio Guterres, telling reporters that he sent the U.N. chief a letter to oblige him “to make the host country behave correctly.”

During the Rossiya 24 interview in which he discussed the visa issue, Antonov also reportedly said he wanted to raise the possibility of discussions with the U.S. about replacing the New START arms-control treaty with a new agreement. President Biden approved an unconditional five-year extension of New START soon after taking office.

World

Rushdie-Attack Suspect: Iran’s Ayatollah Khomeini ‘a Great Person’

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A woman holds a picture of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini during a ceremony to mark the 18th anniversary of his death in the Behesht Zahra cemetery south of Tehran in 2007. (Morteza Nikoubazl/Reuters)

The man who allegedly stabbed novelist Salman Rushdie in a brutal attack last week called the late Iranian ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeini “a great person” in comments to the New York Post today.

“I respect the ayatollah. I think he’s a great person,” said Hadi Matar, the suspect, during a video interview with the Post. “That’s as far as I will say about that.” Matar was taken into custody soon after he allegedly leapt onstage at a literary festival in Chatauqua, N.Y., and is currently awaiting a trial.

Although Rushdie, who was stabbed ten times, suffered serious injuries, he survived and is currently receiving medical care. Matar told the New York Post that he was “surprised” to hear that Rushdie had survived.

The Ayatollah Khomeini, the current regime’s founder, issued a fatwa for Rushdie’s murder in 1989. A bounty, raised in recent years, stood at approximately $3 million at the time of the Rushdie attack.

Matar was reported to have pro-Iranian-regime sympathies and to have posted images of Iranian supreme leaders and General Qassem Soleimani, the Iranian paramilitary leader killed in a U.S. drone strike, to his social-media accounts. Vice News reported that Western officials believe the attack was “guided” by individuals affiliated with the Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.

But despite that, and despite a recent surge of murder plots orchestrated by the IRGC, Matar told the Post that he was not in contact with the group.

Earlier this month, the U.S. indicted a Tehran-based IRGC member for allegedly hiring an individual to plot an assassination of John Bolton, the former national-security adviser. Several other current and former U.S. officials, including former secretary of state Mike Pompeo, are reported to be under threat as well. A man in possession of a gun was arrested in late July outside the Brookyln home of Masih Alinejad, an Iranian-American journalist whom the IRGC previously plotted to kidnap.

Law & the Courts

The Bogus Lawsuit against Ron DeSantis for Removing a Rogue Prosecutor

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Governor Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.) speaks at CPAC in Orlando, Fla., February 24, 2022. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Florida governor Ron DeSantis suspended Hillsborough County state attorney Andrew Warren for announcing his refusal to prosecute entire categories of cases. Warren, a Democrat, is angry and suing the Republican governor to get his job back. But DeSantis is on solid legal ground.

Warren’s effort faces three problems, which I have explained at length. One, Florida’s constitution gives DeSantis the explicit power to suspend a state attorney. Two, the permitted grounds for doing so include “neglect of duty,” and the Florida supreme court has construed that phrase broadly as far back as 1937 to include failure to prosecute classes of cases, and confirmed the breadth of that power as recently as a 2019 decision upholding a DeSantis suspension of a sheriff. Three, the Florida Supreme Court has also recognized since that 1937 case that all the governor has to do is announce legitimate grounds for suspension; by the explicit division of authority in the Florida constitution, deciding whether the facts support the governor’s conclusion is up to the state senate, not the courts. Florida’s Republican-run state senate is unlikely to sympathize with Warren.

Warren has filed suit seeking a writ of quo warranto under Florida law, the same remedy the courts denied in those previous cases. In an attempt to get around the clear Florida caselaw, however, Warren filed his suit in federal court, and tacked on a First Amendment claim. It won’t help him. Warren’s complaint and his press conference announcing it were full of florid rhetoric about how DeSantis is supposedly trying to “toss out the results of an election” by exercising a constitutional power of oversight, and this bit of nonsense: “Warren brings this lawsuit to confirm that the First Amendment still applies even though DeSantis is the Governor of Florida and that the Constitution of the State of Florida means what the courts say it means, not whatever DeSantis needs it to mean to silence his critics, promote his loyalists, and subvert the will of the voters.” Critics of DeSantis who call his move “fascist” and a sign of “autocracy” and ask,  “Since when does the governor have veto power over the people’s choice?” should probably have read the Florida constitution and the cases. So should Warren and his lawyers at Perkins Coie before filing this stunt lawsuit.

First of all, the federal courts are still required to follow how state courts apply state law, including the Florida supreme court’s conclusion that examining the underlying facts is a task delegated to the state senate. Nothing in Warren’s complaint disputes that the failure or refusal to prosecute whole classes of cases is “neglect of duty” under settled Florida law. The best he can do is cite an Eleventh Circuit opinion from 2005 that describes the governor’s suspension and removal power as applying only in “extraordinary circumstances,” but that case did not involve a challenge to a suspension or removal; a judge deciding Warren’s case will be much more interested in what the Florida courts have said in deciding those cases in the past.

Wrapping himself in the banner of “prosecutorial discretion” will get Warren nowhere. As the Florida Supreme Court noted in Ayala v. Scott, upholding Rick Scott’s power under a similar provision to reassign potential death-penalty cases away from a prosecutor who ruled out seeking the death penalty:

Ayala and her amici urge this Court to invalidate the reassignment orders by viewing this case as a power struggle over prosecutorial discretion. We decline the invitation because by effectively banning the death penalty in [Florida’s] Ninth Circuit—as opposed to making case-specific determinations as to whether the facts of each death-penalty eligible case justify seeking the death penalty—Ayala has exercised no discretion at all. As New York’s high court cogently explained, “adopting a ‘blanket policy’” against the imposition of the death penalty is “in effect refusing to exercise discretion” and tantamount to a “functional veto” of state law authorizing prosecutors to pursue the death penalty in appropriate cases. . . . Under Florida law, Ayala’s blanket refusal to seek the death penalty in any eligible case, including a case that “absolutely deserves the death penalty” does not reflect an exercise of prosecutorial discretion; it embodies, at best, a misunderstanding of Florida law.

Warren contends that two of the policies cited by DeSantis — “presumptive non-enforcement for certain criminal violations, including trespassing at a business location, disorderly conduct, disorderly intoxication, and prostitution” and “against prosecuting crimes where the initial encounter between law enforcement and the defendant results from a non-criminal violation in connection with riding a bicycle or a pedestrian violation” — are merely presumptive guidelines and not blanket refusals to enforce the law. That is, however, precisely the sort of dispute that the law has assigned to be decided by the Florida senate, not the courts. In the 1937 case, there was no announced policy, just a conspicuous record of not prosecuting a particular offense (illegal gambling).

Warren’s theories don’t fare any better when recast as a First Amendment claim, under which he supposedly suffered retaliation for his public statements about what cases he would or wouldn’t prosecute. Under the Supreme Court’s decision in Garcia v. Ceballos (2006), the First Amendment does not protect public employees for speech about their jobs that arises from their jobs. Garcia also involved a prosecutor who objected to elements of a case he was supposed to prosecute. As the Court explained:

The controlling factor in Ceballos’ case is that his expressions were made pursuant to his duties as a calendar deputy. . . . Ceballos spoke as a prosecutor fulfilling a responsibility to advise his supervisor about how best to proceed with a pending case. . . . When public employees make statements pursuant to their official duties, the employees are not speaking as citizens for First Amendment purposes, and the Constitution does not insulate their communications from employer discipline. Ceballos wrote his disposition memo because that is part of what he, as a calendar deputy, was employed to do. . . . The significant point is that the memo was written pursuant to Ceballos’ official duties. Restricting speech that owes its existence to a public employee’s professional responsibilities does not infringe any liberties the employee might have enjoyed as a private citizen. It simply reflects the exercise of employer control over what the employer itself has commissioned or created. . . .

Ceballos did not act as a citizen when he went about conducting his daily professional activities, such as supervising attorneys, investigating charges, and preparing filings. In the same way he did not speak as a citizen by writing a memo that addressed the proper disposition of a pending criminal case. When he went to work and performed the tasks he was paid to perform, Ceballos acted as a government employee.

Warren’s complaint conspicuously does not allege or argue that he signed the public statements about not enforcing abortion and transgender laws in his capacity as a private citizen, much less that his office policies on presumptive nonenforcement were private speech that DeSantis could not properly use as a justification for his suspension. Indeed, Warren alleges that he signed the two public statements in his capacity as an elected official. He signed both of them as “Andrew Warren State Attorney, 13th Judicial Circuit (Tampa), Florida.” The joint statement on transgender laws states that its signatories “pledge to use our settled discretion and limited resources” as prosecutors to make decisions about what laws not to enforce. The joint statement on abortion laws is similarly framed:

Our obligation to exercise our discretion wisely requires us to focus prosecutorial resources on the child molester or rapist, not on prosecuting the victim or the healthcare professionals who provide that victim with needed care and treatment. . . . Our legislatures may decide to criminalize personal healthcare decisions, but we remain obligated to prosecute only those cases that serve the interests of justice and the people.

No responsible jurist could conclude that these were the statements of a private citizen under the Garcia standard. They are assertions about how the signatories propose to use government power.

This lawsuit is a joke, and if the courts do their job, it will be treated as one.

Elections

The Folly of a Liz Cheney Independent Presidential Bid

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Republican candidate Representative Liz Cheney speaks during her primary election night party in Jackson, Wyo., August 16, 2022. (David Stubbs/Reuters)

A few folks, like the usually astute Quin Hillyer, argue that if Liz Cheney wants to run for president in 2024, she must do so as an independent. I concur that there is no realistic path to Cheney getting the GOP nomination against Trump, either in a one-on-one race, or in a multi-candidate field that included someone like Florida governor Ron DeSantis. (If you’re getting blown out in a one-on-one GOP primary in Wyoming, you’re not gonna win the GOP presidential nomination. Maybe, if you’re lucky, you get a respectable finish in the New Hampshire primary.)

But I am skeptical that an independent or third-party bid by Cheney would have much of an impact at all.

Quin makes the best argument available, pointing to the “22 percent of Trump voters, some 16 million, [who] were motivated more against eventual winner Joe Biden than for Trump. It is from that universe of hold your nose for Trump voters from which Cheney could draw, although she certainly wouldn’t attract all of them.”

Yes, theoretically, Cheney could. The problem is, those 16 million or so all ended up voting for Trump anyway. They could have voted for other candidates, who represented the longest of longshots, but they chose not to do so. Maybe some factor like the January 6 riot would make these people not vote for Trump in 2024. But polling and the 2022 primaries indicate those Republicans are relatively few and far between.

The Libertarian presidential candidate isn’t a perfect comparison, because Cheney would be better known, probably better funded, and hold different positions on several issues. But I think the number of ballots cast for the Libertarian candidate gives us a sense of the portion of the electorate that was intractably anti-Biden, and simultaneously found Trump unacceptable. In 2020, Libertarian Jo Jorgenson got 1.18 percent nationwide; that ranged from 2.6 percent in North Dakota to .6 percent in Mississippi. As much as people complained about the options of Trump and Biden, 98.17 percent of Americans who voted opted for one of the two.

It was a similar story in 2016, when Libertarian nominee Gary Johnson did a little better, but not by much. Johnson won 3.28 percent nationwide; that ranged from 9.3 percent in Johnson’s home state of New Mexico to 1.19 percent in Mississippi. Separately, independent Evan McMullin won .54 percent of the vote (a bit more than one-half of 1 percent) nationwide, ranging from 21 percent in his home state of Utah to effective zero in states where he wasn’t on the ballot.

Once again, as much as people complained about the lousy options of Trump and Hillary in 2016, 94.27 percent of voters voted for one of the two major party candidates.

When push comes to shove, roughly 94 to 98 percent of American voters put aside their complaints and pick one of the major-party nominees. That could change in the coming years, but I wouldn’t bet on it.

As an independent candidate, in which state does Cheney threaten to play spoiler? Wyoming and its three electoral votes? Virginia, where she and her husband own a house? You really have to squint to see a scenario where the conservative-but-anti-Trump demographic ends up swinging a state, and leaving Biden or Harris with the largest plurality.

Quin does offer a scenario where the threat of a Cheney independent bid effectively strongarms Republican primary voters into nominating someone besides Trump:

If keeping the dangerous and increasingly deranged Trump from office again is Cheney’s main motivator, her outsider run would thus pose more of a threat to him (if he is the Republican nominee) than to Democrats. In fact, that might be part of her message: Nominate Trump, and she stays on the ballot and hands victory to Democrats; nominate someone else, and she drops out. Such a threat might motivate just enough GOP primary voters to consolidate around another GOP contender to provide that contender a fighting chance against Trump.

But a scenario of metaphorical hostage-taking where Cheney effectively threatens GOP primary voters, “Nominate DeSantis, or I’ll run as an independent and help reelect Biden,” is a scenario ensuring that Cheney is effectively loathed by Republicans for the rest of her days. It also probably wouldn’t help DeSantis much.

Everyone would know, from the get-go, that Cheney had no shot of being sworn in at noon on January 20, 2025. If she launched an independent bid against Trump, everyone would know she was doing so just to ensure that the Democratic nominee won the election. And Republicans have a word to describe a person whose primary objective is to ensure Joe Biden or Kamala Harris or Gavin Newsom or some other like-minded figure heads the executive branch for the next four years. They call people like that “Democrats.”

Elections

Oregon Could Be a Surprising Exception to the GOP Summer Swoon

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Gubernatorial Candidate Christine Drazan (R., Ore.) speaks during an interview (Screengrab KGW News/YouTube)

Amid a banner couple of weeks for the Democrats, worrying polls, and a clutch of less-than-competitive Republican nominees across the country, there’s been a recent dampening of Republican optimism about the scope and size of the projected red wave in November. As Matt Continetti noted earlier this month in a column titled “The GOP Summer Swoon,” Republicans “may have thought that the Democratic majority would collapse under its own weight. They learned this week that it won’t.” Continetti writes:

This caps off the worst week yet for Republicans in the 2022 campaign cycle. Their troubles began with Senate passage of the Chips and Science Act on Wednesday, July 27, and culminated in the Kansas pro-life rout on Tuesday, August 2. Before last week, the party was riding a red wave to victory in November’s elections. Now, one month before the campaign begins in earnest on Labor Day, aimless Republicans must fend off a Democratic Party that is playing offense.

I expressed my own pessimism about a particularly worrying candidate, Mehmet Oz, on the Corner yesterday

Dr. Mehmet Oz, the Republican Senate nominee in the battleground state of Pennsylvania, is flailing. He’s down by about eleven points in the polls, despite the fact that his Democratic opponent, John Fetterman — the goateed, heavyset, six-foot-eight-inch lieutenant governor of the state whose down-home, working-class public presentation is straight out of Pennsylvania central casting — was off the campaign trail for the past three months after suffering a stroke. (Fetterman held his first post-stroke public rally late last week.) Oz needs a course correction, and quickly. Whatever he’s doing right now clearly isn’t working.

But one little-noticed race where Republicans might have an unusually solid shot — and where the GOP nominee is, by all accounts, serious, focused, and competent — is my home state of Oregon. (This is on my mind because I arrived back here last night, and am currently writing from my family’s home in Hood River.) Christine Drazan, the Republican nominee for Oregon’s 2022 governor’s race, continues to poll neck-and-neck with her Democratic opponent, Tina Kotek. If Drazan wins, she’d be the Beaver State’s first Republican governor since 1987. I profiled Drazan back in May:

If there’s any year for a long-overdue GOP victory, it’s 2022. And long-suffering Oregon Republicans — who have often opted for fringe, unelectable nominees over broadly appealing moderates in recent years — tapped a serious contender for governor. Christine Drazan, a 49-year-old mother of three and former minority leader of the Oregon House of Representatives, made it out of a crowded 19-candidate field with the GOP nomination last Tuesday. As the general election kicks into gear, Drazan said she thinks this is the GOP’s year: “The political environment itself is reflective of the fact that Oregonians are seeing with a level of clarity, for the first time, what single-party control has meant in their own lives,” she told National Review. “Whether or not it was Covid or homelessness or rioting or affordability — you know, the price of housing, or labor costs, or just the price of goods and services in Oregon — the stark impacts of the last couple of years have been very, very kitchen-table-focused. And that has created this environment where Oregonians, in record numbers, are saying Oregon’s on the wrong track, because single-party leadership has not helped them.”

On top of the red-wave environment, Drazan is facing a specific set of political conditions in Oregon that benefit her, given that “the general election features an unusually viable left-leaning independent candidate, former Democratic state senator Betsy Johnson, who could peel votes from Kotek,” as I reported at the time. To be sure, this is still Oregon — it would be naïve to be overly confident about the prospect of a Republican victory. But if the GOP’s summer swoon does deliver unexpectedly poor returns in other parts of the country, Oregon could prove to be the surprising exception.

World

British Resident Sentenced by Saudi Court to 34 Years in Jail for Retweeting and Following Dissidents

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Saudi Arabia’s Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman in Riyadh, Saudi Arabia, December 23, 2018 (Bandar Algaloud/Courtesy of Saudi Royal Court/Reuters Handout)

A Saudi court drastically increased the prison sentence imposed on a Shiite woman who had occasionally engaged with pro-reform Twitter content. The extreme sentence, 34 years, comes just a month after a summit between President Biden and Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman that focused, in part, on Riyadh’s human-rights record.

Salma al-Shehab, a British resident and Saudi citizen arrested in 2021 during a trip to Saudi Arabia, received the record sentence after appealing a previous six-year sentence. The punishment was handed down by the kingdom’s terrorism court.

The Washington Post cites court records that allege Shehab used Twitter “to disrupt public order, undermine the security of society and stability of the state, and support those who had committed criminal actions according to the counterterrorism law and its financing.” The court found that she used her presence on the platform to follow and “rebroadcast” — or retweet — those who violated the counterterrorism law.

The extent of Shehab’s political activities, however, seems limited to occasionally retweeting the tweets of Saudi dissidents, as the Guardian explains:

Her Twitter profile showed she had 2,597 followers. Among tweets about Covid burnout and pictures of her young children, Shehab sometimes retweeted tweets by Saudi dissidents living in exile, which called for the release of political prisoners in the kingdom. She seemed to support the case of Loujain al-Hathloul, a prominent Saudi feminist activist who was previously imprisoned, is alleged to have been tortured for supporting driving rights for women, and is now living under a travel ban.

Al-Hathloul was also convicted of terrorism-related charges.

Shehab is a student at Leeds University in Britain, where she was getting a doctorate. The Guardian reports that she might be able to file another appeal with the court.

Despite the grisly murder of journalist Jamal Khashoggi by a Saudi hit team, bin Salman is sometimes described as an underrated reformer who has quietly advanced social change, including women’s rights. Shehab’s new sentence — which the Post reports is a record length for a human-rights advocate — seems likely to significantly undercut that narrative.

The Post’s editorial board, meanwhile, wrote that bin Salman’s promises to Biden regarding human rights during a summit last month are farcical:

When President Biden visited Saudi Arabia last month and fist-bumped MBS, the White House said he “raised specific cases of concern” about human rights, including “the egregious murder of Jamal Khashoggi.” The president “received commitments with respect to reforms and institutional safeguards in place to guard against any such conduct in the future.” Now the crown prince shows exactly what safeguards were in place: none. The Saudi promises to Mr. Biden were a farce.

Woke Culture

AP Decides It’s Okay to Say ‘Pregnant Women’

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Abigail Anthony reported on the Associated Press Stylebook’s “Topical Guide” for transgender coverage, which included this advice: “aim to use the phrase ‘pregnant women’ only when it’s known everyone the term applies to identifies as a woman.”

The Associated Press has since softened this, announcing:

Pregnant women or women seeking abortions is acceptable phrasing. Phrasing like pregnant people or people seeking abortions is also acceptable to include people who have those experiences but do not identify as women, such as some transgender men and some nonbinary people.

Use judgment and decide what is most appropriate in a given story. Neutral alternatives like abortion patients are also acceptable, but do not use overly clinical language like people with uteruses or birthing people.

Evidently, the AP would rather individual journalists take on the burden of deciding which terms to use. Consider how ridiculous it is, though, to state “pregnant women or women seeking abortions is acceptable phrasing.” How could it be anything else?

World

U.N. Report: China Is Enslaving Uyghurs

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Ethnic Uyghur men work at a farming area near Lukqun town, in Xinjiang province October 30, 2013. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

An independent U.N. expert charged that the Chinese government is carrying out forced-labor programs in Xinjiang that could amount to crimes against humanity. That report comes as the U.N.’s top human-rights official, Michelle Bachelet, continues to delay the release of an official investigation into the mass detention of Uyghurs and other ethnic minorities.

Tomoya Obokata, the U.N. special rapporteur for contemporary forms of slavery, released that assessment in a report dated July 19.

“Based on an independent assessment of available information, including submissions by stakeholders, independent academic research, open sources, testimonies of victims, consultations with stakeholders, and accounts provided by the [Chinese] Government, the Special Rapporteur regards it as reasonable to conclude that forced labor among Uyghur, Kazakh and other ethnic minorities in sectors such as agriculture and manufacturing has been occurring in the Xinjiang Uyghur Autonomous Region of China,” he wrote.

The report, which covers forced labor and slavery across the world, also finds that “similar arrangements have been identified” in Tibet, where the Chinese Communist Party has implemented similar programs to eliminate ethnic minority groups.

It concludes that Beijing’s actions “may amount to enslavement as a crime against humanity, meriting a further independent analysis.” Previously, the U.S., other governments, and human-rights groups labeled the CCP’s campaign against Uyghurs a “genocide” and “crimes against humanity.” Research by the Australian Strategic Policy Institute has also identified government-sponsored schemes featuring the transfer of forced laborers to factories across China.

Adrian Zenz, a researcher whose work has played a large role in bringing the atrocities to light, called the report “extremely significant and strong.” He noted on Twitter, “The report’s timing is quite sensitive in light of China’s very recent ratification of two [International Labor Organization] conventions forbidding the use of forced labor.”

The timing is also significant because it increases pressure on Bachelet, who visited Xinjiang in May, to release her office’s own report. Human-rights advocates worry that Bachelet, who has said she will not seek another term after her current one concludes at the end of August, will leave the post without publishing the assessment.

“The case against the Chinese government at the UN level continues to build. It should now be impossible for UN agencies and member states to ignore atrocities of this magnitude,” Omer Kanat, the director of the Uyghur Human Rights Project, said in a statement on the report.

While China has pressured its international partners to support its position in Xinjiang at the U.N. and elsewhere, Obokata’s report, which will be considered by the Human Rights Council this fall, sets the stage for a renewed international focus on Beijing’s atrocities.

Music

Sounds of Music

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Outside at the Salzburg Festival, August 2022 (Jay Nordlinger)

Up there is a rocky little glimpse of Salzburg — the town in Austria where the world’s leading music festival is held. I’ll get to that in a moment. Here, though, is a music podcast. It’s called “Horne-o-rama.”

Lena? No, Marilyn. They were great friends of each other, by the way. They would say to each other, “We’re sistahs under the skin.”

I had a long sitdown with Marilyn Horne, the great mezzo-soprano, in June. My piece about it is here. And now I’ve done a podcast to accompany the piece. I have tracks of music that we talked about, etc. What can beat hearing, right?

Anyway, a Horne-o-rama: everything from the first song she ever sang for her legendary teacher, Lotte Lehmann, to her favorite folk song. (The first of those songs: “Die junge Nonne,” by Schubert. The second: “Shenandoah.”)

About the Salzburg Festival, I will have a piece in the forthcoming National Review — a piece about the festival and Mozart in particular. (Salzburg is Mozart’s hometown.) In the meantime, I’d like to throw a few posts at you.

This one reviews Yefim Bronfman in recital. (He is a pianist, and one of the best ones on the scene.) This is an unusual post — it describes a rehearsal of the Vienna Philharmonic Orchestra. The VPO was conducted by Riccardo Muti, the venerable Italian.

Maybe I could paste the last couple of paragraphs:

I would like to end on an actuarial note — but not a macabre one, I don’t think. I had a thought when Muti was conducting the children’s choir. A few of them will live into the twenty-second century. And then will be able to say that they sang under Muti, born in 1941 — some of whose teachers were born in the nineteenth century.

The continuity of music: a blessed thing.

Finally, a post about a production of Aida, the opera by Verdi. Maybe I could paste the last few paragraphs of that one, too:

. . . I suppose I think that people ought to write new operas, on any subject they like, rather than rewrite other people’s operas.

The Met has a production of Rigoletto — yet another Verdi masterpiece — set in the Las Vegas of the Rat Pack (Frank Sinatra, Dean Martin, et al.). I think an opera about the Rat Pack in Las Vegas is a splendid idea. Someone ought to write one. Rigoletto belongs to the Mantua of long ago.

Thus endeth my dinosaur song.

A dinosaur in politics. A dinosaur in the arts. But I like to think I’m more of a Rex than one of those plant-eaters.

Capital Matters

Walmart, Target: Not Quite Paradise Aisles

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A shopper walks down an aisle in a newly-opened Walmart Neighborhood Market in Chicago in 2011. (Jim Young/Reuters)

Late in July, Walmart cut its profit forecast, warning that inflation was squeezing household budgets, leading consumers to ease back on discretionary purchases. Making matters worse, the company, worried about the post-pandemic disruption in supply chains, had boosted inventories where it could, leaving it with a lot of merchandise that would now need shifting at sharply cut prices. I’ve posted about this issue, which has affected other companies (not least Target, as we see below) here and here.

Fast forward three weeks or so, and the picture appears to have brightened. Things were not as bad as thought back then.

CNN:

Walmart had good news Tuesday for investors and economists worried about a looming recession, as the retail giant gave a much rosier picture of consumer spending than it offered less than a month ago.

On July 25, Walmart warned about its earnings for the rest of the year, saying that high fuel and food prices were prompting consumers to cut back on other spending, forcing the chain to cut prices on some non-essential goods, such as clothing, electronics and home goods. The earnings warning was seen as another sign of growing weakness for the economy overall.

But Tuesday the nation’s largest retailer said it got a good customer response from those price cuts last quarter. Although Walmart continues to expect earnings will fall in the second half of the year, it now predicts a smaller drop in profit going forward than it had previously expected. Earnings per share for the year are expected to drop 8% to 10%, excluding divestitures, but that’s better than the 10% to 12% drop it forecast on July 25.

“We’re pleased to see more customers choosing Walmart during this inflationary period,” said CEO Doug McMillon.

The stock rose, and that was after a good run recently. But look carefully, and the news does not appear to have been as good as all that. The (positive) revision in the profit warning was good news, but, to get that into perspective, profits are going to fall by less than expected. Good news, yes, but falling profits are still falling profits.

Dig into the numbers, and it becomes clear that what these numbers say about the economy is not quite so rosy as might be hoped.

The Wall Street Journal (my emphasis added):

The company’s value-price positioning is clearly paying off in today’s inflationary environment. More middle- and high-income consumers are frequenting its stores, while low-income customers continue to stay loyal, according to the company’s executives during the earnings call. Prices for food at home increased 13.1% in July from a year earlier, according to the Labor Department’s consumer-price index, an acceleration from June and the largest year-over-year increase since 1979. That has led to some trade downs within food: Walmart is seeing consumers opt for cheaper hot dogs, canned tuna or chicken instead of deli meats, for example.

So, squeezed consumers are basically trading down. That said, it’s interesting to see that low-income customers are “stay[ing] loyal,” given that Dollar Tree and Dollar General beat expectations in the first quarters as consumers put increased weight on value. Both companies report next week.

Target released its second-quarter results today. The story there was the hit that it took on inventories.

Target on Wednesday said its quarterly profit fell nearly 90% from a year ago, as the retailer followed through on its warning that steep markdowns on unwanted merchandise would weigh on its bottom line.

The big-box retailer missed Wall Street’s expectations by a wide margin, even after the company itself lowered guidance twice.

Yet the company reiterated its full-year forecast, saying it is now positioned for a rebound. It said it expects full-year revenue growth in the low to mid single digits. Target also said its operating margin rate will be in a range around 6% in the second half of the year. That would represent a jump from its operating margin rate of 1.2% in the fiscal second quarter.

Walmart, by contrast, appears to have had less of a clear-out.

The FT:

Walmart’s inventories stood at $60bn at the end of July. That is up from $48bn a year ago, but down from the $61bn reported three months ago. The number still does not fully reflect a clear-out of excess merchandise. Inflation accounted for about 40 per cent of the $12bn year-on-year increase in the absolute value of inventory on hand. A chunk of inventory is “wanted” goods. These will cover spikes in demand when kids go back to school and around Halloween and Thanksgiving.

Those red reduced price stickers come at a cost. Gross margins fell 132 basis points in the quarter. But sometimes bitter medicine is the best kind. Walmart is now better placed to focus on selling products to which Americans have shifted their spending — groceries and essential goods.

Good times just around the corner? Not quite.

Elections

Re: Liz Cheney Was in Danger before Joining January 6 Committee

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Rep. Liz Cheney (R., Wyo.) looks on during her primary election night party in Jackson, Wyo., August 16, 2022. (David Stubbs/Reuters)

In response to Liz Cheney Was in Danger before Joining January 6 Committee

Phil writes that if Liz Cheney had simply condemned Trump over the Capitol riot but then “kept her head down and deflected all questions about Trump by saying something to the effect of ‘what Americans really care about is inflation,’ she likely would have coasted to reelection.”

I think that’s right—if she had stopped short of voting for impeachment on January 13, 2021. But it’s unlikely Cheney would have survived a GOP primary challenge if she had taken that path after voting to impeach Trump for his role in instigating the storming of the Capitol. Just look at South Carolina GOP representative Tom Rice, who voted for impeachment in January 2021, kept his head down, and lost his primary 24.6 percent to 51.1 percent. Trump carried 58 percent of the vote in Rice’s district in the 2020 election, while Trump won 70 percent of the vote in Wyoming.

It’s true that two House Republicans who voted for impeachment — David Valadao of California and Dan Newhouse of Washington — did narrowly survive their jungle primaries. But two other House Republicans who voted for impeachment narrowly lost their primaries: Jaime Herrera-Beutler of Washington lost by less than one percentage point, and Peter Meijer of Michigan lost by 3.6 points.

Republicans who rejected Trump’s efforts to overturn the 2020 election (but did not vote for impeachment) coasted through their primaries: For example, Dan Crenshaw won 74 percent of the vote in his primary, and Chip Roy won 84 percent of the vote in his primary. Brian Kemp and Brad Raffensperger easily won their primaries in Georgia. While a vote for impeachment in 2021 was clearly justified in my view, it was seen as a bridge too far by many GOP primary voters.

Given how Trumpy the Wyoming Republican Party is, Cheney’s impeachment vote alone was enough to make it unlikely that she would prevail in the 2022 GOP primary even if she pivoted to attacking Democrats 100 percent of the time after January 6. Shutting up about Trump, of course, is something Cheney has repeatedly said she could not do in good conscience.

This post has been emended since its initial publication.

The Biden Administration’s Quiet Failure on Monkeypox

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(NR Illustration; Leah Millis/Reuters, Russell Regnery/CDC via Reuters)

In the last few days, Katherine Eban of Vanity Fair, as well as authors at the Washington Post, Axios, and the Wall Street Journal have all published in-depth portraits of the Biden administration and federal health agencies’ response to the monkeypox outbreak, each telling the same bleak story of a sluggish reaction, key missteps, confusion, and miscommunication.

Eban:

As cases of monkeypox ticked upward around the country, spreading primarily via skin-to-skin contact among men who have sex with men, six long weeks passed without significant action to deploy vaccines widely. Vulnerable Americans found themselves hunting for elusive shots and scrambling to add

Law & the Courts

‘Under-Policed and Over-Imprisoned’

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(Pict Rider/Reuters)

That’s how George Mason University economist Alex Tabarrok describes the U.S. criminal-justice system.

In a blog post, Tabarrok highlights a new paper by Christopher Lewis and Adaner Usmani in the American Journal of Law and Equality. It finds that the U.S. is unusual among developed countries, not only in its relatively high prison population (which is well known), but also in its low rate of police officers per capita. They write:

In this country, roughly three people are incarcerated per police officer employed. The rest of the developed world strikes a diametrically opposite balance between these twin arms of the penal state, employing roughly three and a half times more police officers than the number of people they incarcerate.

Lewis and Usmani lay out five facts in their paper that fly in the face of much of the conventional wisdom around policing. They are:

  1. “Mass incarceration is not a world of mass policing.” The U.S. imprisons far more people than other developed countries despite also having fewer police officers per capita than most developed countries.
  2. “Given its level of serious crime, America has ordinary levels of incarceration but extraordinary levels of under-policing.” When looking at the number of prisoners per homicide (instead of per capita) the U.S. is in the middle of the pack. But the number of police officers per homicide is still extremely low. “America has about one-ninth the number of police officers, per homicide, than does the median developed country,” they write.
  3. “Low clearance rates in America are not driven by lack of police focus.” American police aren’t uniquely inefficient in solving crimes, but rather there aren’t enough of them to do the job. The number of police per homicide is extremely low, but the number of homicide arrests per police officer is extremely high, compared to other developed countries.
  4. “America combines low levels of certainty with high levels of severity, especially in its most disadvantaged communities.” By that, the authors mean that your chances of being arrested for a serious crime in the United States are relatively low, but your chances of being imprisoned (and of being imprisoned for a long time) if you are arrested is relatively high. That asymmetry is especially prevalent among African Americans.
  5. “Police violence may be a symptom of under-policing rather than over-policing.” They find that there is a negative correlation between the number of police officers per homicide and the number of police killings. So the countries in Europe and Asia with very low rates of police violence have far more police officers per homicide than the U.S. does.

The authors write, “The United States is ridden with much more serious crime than other comparably wealthy societies. It responds to this exceptionally high level of serious crime with an exceptional combination of relatively small police forces and comparatively long sentences.”

It’s easy to see how that imbalance may contribute to our exceptionally high violent-crime rate. If people think they have a low probability of being caught, they are more likely to attempt violent crimes. The threat of severe punishment doesn’t deter criminal behavior if criminals don’t believe they will ever get arrested in the first place. The authors note that, “The empirical literature on deterrence is unequivocal that increasing the size of police forces is a much more efficient way to prevent crime than increasing the length of prison sentences for those who are apprehended and convicted. . . . Today in the United States, a single dollar spent on policing is almost sixteen times more effective at deterring crime than a dollar spent on incarcerating additional prisoners.”

The authors say that if the U.S. were brought in line with the average relationship between police and prisoners for developed countries, it would have 1.9 million fewer prisoners and 500,000 more police officers. Logically, hiring more police officers would have to come before the reduction in the prison population, so the higher probability of being caught would deter potential criminals.

On levels of policing, the empirical evidence is on the conservative side of the argument. Both from an economic-efficiency point of view and a crime-deterrent point of view, the U.S. needs more police, not less. Once there are more police officers, less punitive incarceration policies become more realistic.

Economy & Business

Today in Capital Matters: Humility and Housing

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Brian Riedl of the Manhattan Institute writes about why economic forecasters should be humble:

The classic phrase “often wrong, never in doubt” is only a slight exaggeration to describe the fields of economic forecasting and, more broadly, economic commentary.

History is filled with examples of confident, consensus economic predictions that were shredded by subsequent events. In 1929, legendary Yale economist Irving Fisher confidently told the New York Times that “stock prices have reached what looks like a permanently high plateau” — right before the crash that precipitated the Great Depression. Even after the crash, the president of the Equitable Trust Company declared, “I have no fear of another comparable decline.”

Douglas Carr looks at the data and argues we should keep an eye on the housing market:

In the last few months, even with recent mortgage-rate declines, year-over-year increases in mortgage payments for average new homes have risen at the fastest ever rate, with only the early 1980s severe recession as a point of comparison. Home sales peaked even before mortgage-rate increases, and, judging from the last crisis, prices soon will follow. House prices are over 20 percent above historical norms relative to incomes, and corrections generally bottom well below average, which would wipe out equity for the most recent generation of home buyers. Whatever happens with prices, home building already is plummeting. The National Association of Home Builders CEO states, “We’re heading into a housing recession.” In the first read of second-quarter 2022 GDP, the housing downturn accounts for virtually all the quarterly decline, and it’s just getting started. On top of China’s even larger housing slide, inflation may be in for a large negative shock.

Elections

Liz Cheney Was in Danger before Joining January 6 Committee

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Republican candidate Representative Liz Cheney speaks during her primary election night party in Jackson, Wyo., August 16, 2022. (David Stubbs/Reuters)

Coverage of Representative Liz Cheney’s defeat in Tuesday’s primary has understandably focused on her participation in the Democratic-run January 6 Committee. But it’s worth noting that Cheney was already in danger of losing before joining the committee.

Just looking at the timeline, Cheney joined the committee in early July 2021. But five months earlier, in February, she was censured by the Wyoming GOP for her impeachment vote. She was ousted from House leadership in May.

The way she could have survived as a Republican clearly would have been to take the hint that it was not safe to be critical of Donald Trump’s actions beyond a brief period around January 6. Had she kept her head down and deflected all questions about Trump by saying something to the effect of “what Americans really care about is inflation,” she likely would have coasted to reelection.

Her participation in the committee may have sealed her fate and made the result as lopsided as it was. But the root of the problem was that she was consistently taking the position that Trump lied about the 2020 election being stolen and was responsible for inspiring the Capitol riot. Even if she had not joined the committee, however, she would have been asked regularly about her views on Trump, and as long as she stated what she really believed, she was going to face an uphill battle.

Education

In Legal Education, the Brits Do It Better

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The mandatory (in nearly all states) path into the market for legal services is three years of study in an accredited law school followed by the state bar exam. Get through all that, and you’re allowed into the guild. It has been that way since the 1920s, when the American Bar Association decided that there were too many people competing for business and threw its lobbying weight behind a campaign to “professionalize” legal education by demanding that it last three years.

Most lawyers will tell you that what they need to know in their work hardly ever involves material studied in law school.

Reflecting on this, in today’s Martin Center article, Matthew Anderson argues that legal education in Britain is far more sensible — from society’s standpoint. He writes, “In Britain, where our common law comes from, the very source and culture of the law is taught as a regular undergraduate subject, and in three years instead of four. In the U.K., you’re considered qualified to begin your legal career with your new LL.B. (Bachelor of Law) or B.A. Jurisprudence degree.”

It could be that way in the U.S., but the ABA would fight tooth and nail to preserve the high barriers to entry that it currently enforces.

Furthermore, Anderson informs us, “The U.K. also hosts an accelerated conversion program, the GDL, or graduate diploma in law, for anyone with a non-law background. This is a qualifying course and covers an entire law degree in one year. Several U.K. universities also allow both undergraduate and graduate law programs to be done through distance learning, online. The highly-rated University of Edinburgh and University of London are two examples.”

Why does this matter? A big reason why it does is that the excessively high cost of entry into the legal-services market drives up the cost of legal help. After investing a huge sum to get over the necessary hurdles, few lawyers can afford to live on fees from poorer people with small cases. The ABA acknowledges that, but its solution is more government-subsidized legal assistance.

We need to liberalize the market for legal education and legal services, and Britain shows how our system could be improved upon.

Politics & Policy

Republican Voters in Swing and Blue States Should Value Electability

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Colorado GOP Senate candidate Joe O’Dea (Campaign image via Facebook)

Republicans have a chance this fall to end the disastrous cavalcade that has come from united Democratic control of the government. But they might blow it.

Ever since the one-two punch of Donald Trump’s losing the 2020 presidential election to the lackluster, doddering old fool Joe Biden and helping cost the Republicans two Georgia Senate seats, Republicans have been in an unenviable position. Democrats have control not only of the House and presidency, but also (with Vice President Kamala Harris as a tiebreaker) a Senate majority – albeit one occasionally thwarted by Joe Manchin and Kyrsten Sinema, the most-moderate Senate Democrats.

But Sinema and Manchin can only do so much. Thus, for most of the Biden administration so far, Republicans have been at Democrats’ mercy as they have led America down a predictably partisan – and harmful – path. There didn’t have to be the $1.9 trillion American Rescue Plan, which economists on both sides of the political spectrum have agreed has contributed in some part to our current and ongoing inflation problem. There didn’t have to be a massive border crisis, or a laughable piece of legislation dubbed the “Inflation Reduction Act.” One could go on and on about the problems that the Democratic trifecta has caused.

All of this could have been avoided if Donald Trump hadn’t thrown his stolen-election tantrum after losing in 2020. But now, Trump-backed Senate candidates might deprive Republicans of the majority they need to stop Biden’s agenda. Once again, Trump’s whims might win out over strategic prudence and political victory.

So far, Republican choices for the Senate midterm elections in Arizona, Georgia, Ohio, and Pennsylvania all feature Donald Trump–backed MAGA candidates who are running tight races or outright behind in what should be an excellent environment for a Republican red wave. Democratic malfeasance will likely be enough for Republicans to win back the House, but it is looking increasingly likely that Democrats could hold on to the Senate.

There’s a certain primal thrill that can come from selecting a candidate who doesn’t have a chance at winning and will go down in flames. But the thing about our Republic is, you don’t win by saying outrageous things, or “owning the libs.” You win by electing enough of “the good guys” to the institutions that the Framers of the Constitution placed power in — Congress and the presidency. What Republicans aren’t seeming to grasp is that many of the candidates they are choosing to run against Democrats in competitive states aren’t electable.

Contrast this with Colorado, my home state. In the June Senate primary, Republicans had a choice between a full-bore MAGA candidate in Ron Hanks and a more-moderate option in Joe O’Dea. In a lot of similar environments, Republicans have chosen a candidate like Hanks. Instead, O’Dea won out. O’Dea is a welcome sight for Republican chances in the Centennial State, which has been trending bluer over the past decade. He’s a self-made construction-business owner whose campaign is focused on inflation and the economic health of America, not stolen elections or the divisive culture-war issues that Hanks pushed on the campaign trail.

I’m sure I’d disagree with Senator O’Dea on some things, maybe even most things, like his stance on abortion and other social issues, but there is no question that I would rather have him as my senator than Michael Bennet. And it’s simply the case that politicians like O’Dea have the best shot at appealing to moderates and beating Democrats in purple states.

This isn’t to say Joe O’Dea will win, but the prudence that Coloradans put on display in June reflects, among other things, the wisdom of William F. Buckley’s own advice: to “be for the most right, viable candidate who could win.” If Republican voters in other states had followed this advice, November would be looking a lot better right now for the GOP.

If Republicans don’t learn this lesson, America will continue to see more bad legislation and more of the Democratic agenda that harms Americans’ daily lives. Alas, many of these key primaries have already happened, so Republicans are stuck with these candidates. Going forward, however, we should hope that, for our Republic’s sake, Republicans start choosing more wisely.

Economics

On ‘Zero Inflation’

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President Joe Biden delivers remarks on the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022 at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 28, 2022. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

I know I’m a few days late to this, but confusion persists around the web about President Biden’s claim to “zero inflation” in the July inflation report.

Here’s what the inflation report said: The consumer-price index (CPI) increased by 0 percent from June to July and by 8.5 percent over the past twelve months.

Here’s how these numbers come to be:

The CPI is a regular old number, not a percentage. It is calculated by the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and it represents the price level of a group of items that people commonly purchase. In July, it was 295.271. Again, that’s just a number; it’s not dollars or a percentage. That number doesn’t mean much to anyone, which is why the inflation report puts it into context with percentages.

The BLS offers a month-over-month change and a year-over-year change. In June, the CPI was 295.328. To calculate the month-over-month change, find the difference between July and June, then divide by June and multiply by 100.

[(295.271 – 295.328) / 295.328] * 100 = -0.0193%

The BLS rounds to the nearest tenth of a percent, so it’s a 0.0 percent month-over-month change in the CPI.

The month-over-month number is not usually what makes headlines, though. The year-over-year number is what normally gets reported.

To calculate that, find the difference between July 2022 and July 2021, then divide by July 2021 and multiply by 100. The July 2021 CPI was 272.184.

[(295.271 – 272.184) / 272.184] * 100 = 8.4822%

Again, round to the nearest tenth of a percent to get the 8.5 percent year-over-year change.

We generally refer to positive changes in the CPI as “inflation” and negative changes as “deflation.” Both the 0.0 percent month-over-month number and the 8.5 percent year-over-year number are measures of the change in the CPI. They just use different starting points.

You can pick any date you want as the starting point. Since April of this year, the CPI has increased by 2.3 percent. Since April 1999, it has increased by 78 percent. Those are also measures of inflation.

So when Biden said “zero inflation,” he was using political sleight-of-hand to get people to think that inflation went from 9.1 percent, the widely publicized number from the June report, to zero. But he’s conflating the month-over-month number with the year-over-year number. Using the year-over-year number consistently as the meaning of “inflation,” which is how the numbers are most commonly reported, Biden could have more honestly said that inflation declined from 9.1 percent to 8.5 percent between June and July.

The CPI is not the only way to report inflation. There’s also the personal-consumption-expenditures index, which is what the Fed uses. There’s the producer-price index. There’s the employment-cost index. There’s the GDP deflator. There are specific price indices for sectors and products. A positive percent change in any of those variables over any period of time can be reported as “inflation.” (Really, the term “inflation” originally didn’t apply to any of those things, but rather to the money supply.)

But to ordinary people who read the news, “inflation” has become shorthand for “positive change in the CPI on a year-over-year basis as reported each month by the BLS.” Using that definition, inflation for July was 8.5 percent, not zero.

The Manhattan D.A.’s Trump-Organization Case Ends with a Whimper

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New York City District Attorney Alvin Bragg speaks during a news conference at the Supreme Court after the exoneration proceeding of Steven Lopez, a co-defendant of the Central Park Five case, in New York City, July 25, 2022. (David 'Dee' Delgado/Reuters)

Allan Weisselberg, the 75-year-old former chief financial officer for the Trump Organization, is pleading guilty to the fairly piddling tax-fraud charges on which he was indicted by the office of Manhattan district attorney Alvin Bragg last July. The case was always obviously not about Weisselberg or the accused crime, but about showing some progress against Donald Trump and either (1) obtaining Weisselberg’s cooperation against Trump or (2) punishing him for not cooperating. Under the plea deal, Weisselberg is likely to spend only a few months in prison, and he will not cooperate.

What does this all mean? For Bragg, it likely

Economy & Business

Inflation Harder on Young Singles

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The Wall Street Journal reports on how inflation is widening the money gap between young married couples and singles.

The median net worth of married couples 25 to 34 years old was nearly nine times as much as the median net worth of single households in 2019, according to the most recent data from the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis. In 2010, married households’ median net worth was four times as much. And now, after a spell of rapid inflation and more than two years of pandemic living, single people are getting left further behind, say economists at the Fed and elsewhere.

As previously noted here by Dan McLaughlin, research by W. Bradford Wilcox and Lyman Stone points to the higher rates of sexual fidelity, commitment, and relationship quality among religious Americans who marry in their twenties without cohabitating first. Add financial stability to the list.

Elections

Is There Any Evidence That NBA Games on Election Night Reduce Turnout?

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Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry (30) and guard Andre Iguodala (9) during Game 6 of the 2019 NBA Finals at Oracle Arena in Oakland, Calif., June 13, 2019. (Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports/Reuters)

The NBA today announced that no games will be played on Election Day, Tuesday, November 8, declaring that “the scheduling decision came out of the NBA family’s focus on promoting nonpartisan civic engagement and encouraging fans to make a plan to vote during midterm elections.”

Is there . . . any evidence at all that playing NBA games on the evenings of Election Day impedes voter turnout?

The elections are held on Tuesdays, and NBA games usually begin around 7 p.m. local time. The earliest poll-closing times in the country are Indiana and Kentucky at 6 p.m.; the latest is New York at 9 p.m. local. If the Indiana Pacers were to hold a game that evening, the polls would have closed about an hour before tip-off.

Even if the teams, coaches, referees, stadium employees, and other personnel have to get to work well before then, they would have had the opportunity to get to their polling places and cast their ballots since 6 a.m., and that’s not counting the copious early-voting opportunities. In Indiana, in-person absentee voting starts 28 days before Election Day. Only four states — Alabama, Connecticut, Mississippi, and New Hampshire — do not offer pre–Election Day in-person voting options for all voters, though they may offer pre–Election Day in-person voting options for eligible absentee voters. While all of those states have their share of NBA fans, none of those states are home to NBA teams.

On November 6, 2018, the NBA held four games. That day, Americans voted at the highest turnout rate in a midterm election since 1914.

The four games were in Charlotte, where North Carolina’s turnout was a “robust” 53 percent; Dallas, where Texas’s turnout was 46.3 percent; Phoenix, where Arizona’s turnout hit a near-record for midterms at nearly 65 percent; and Portland, where 63 percent of eligible Oregonians turned in a ballot. (Note that in Oregon, everyone votes by mail. There is no way that a Trail Blazers game can be the reason someone didn’t vote.) All four states saw significant jumps compared to four years earlier. For those who didn’t vote in those states, they didn’t decline to exercise their right because the NBA was playing that night.

If the NBA wants to not schedule games on Election Day, that’s their right. But it appears to be a solution in search of a problem.

Elections

Washington State Primary Results Point to a Pretty Good November for House GOP

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Over at RealClearPolitics, Sean Trende has a must-read piece that cuts through the noise about the midterm elections:

In short, in Washington state, all candidates run on the same primary ballot. Because of this, and because of the fact that the primary occurs relatively late in the election season, there tends to be a strong correlation between a party’s combined vote share on the primary ballot and its eventual vote share in November, typically with a slight swing toward Democrats. It’s been helpful in providing a sense of where things really stand in Washington state’s races, and for understanding what the national environment is like.

The results in Washington State, Trende concludes, “suggest that the environment for Republicans is better than it was in 2020 and is certainly consistent with them winning control of the House and being positioned to take the Senate. At the same time, it seems as though, at least for now, the scenario many were pondering last summer, where Republicans won the popular vote for the House by 2010-like margins (if not more) is increasingly unlikely.”

Read the whole thing here.