Politics & Policy

Tucker Carlson’s Populist Cri de Cœur

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Fox News host Tucker Carlson unleashes a monologue about America’s troubles that stirs intense reaction among conservatives, a hard look at whether Americans are properly prepared for the challenges of life, China’s economy stumbles, and beware the “super blood moon wolf eclipse!”

Tucker Carlson’s Diagnosis of America’s Ills

On any given weeknight, Tucker Carlson will sit down in front of the cameras at Fox News and say some bizarre or silly things (Beware the Gypsies!) or downright repugnant things, like that poor immigrants “make our own country poorer, and dirtier, and more divided.” But a lot of people are buzzing about Carlson’s opening monologue from Thursday night, a long and winding journey through what troubles the United States of America as 2019 dawns. Our Kyle Smith calls it “galvanizing” and a “populist cry of dissatisfaction that is underlain by certain grave truths.”

Carlson’s monologue begins:

At some point, Donald Trump will be gone. The rest of us will be gone, too. The country will remain. What kind of country will be it be then? How do we want our grandchildren to live? These are the only questions that matter.

The answer used to be obvious. The overriding goal for America is more prosperity, meaning cheaper consumer goods. But is that still true? Does anyone still believe that cheaper iPhones, or more Amazon deliveries of plastic garbage from China are going to make us happy? They haven’t so far. A lot of Americans are drowning in stuff. And yet drug addiction and suicide are depopulating large parts of the country. Anyone who thinks the health of a nation can be summed up in GDP is an idiot.

Eh, GDP isn’t completely disconnected from the health of the nation, either. But the broader point stands — the United States had a GDP of $19.3 trillion in 2017, twice the GDP of 2000. And yet . . . how many people would argue our overall condition is twice as good as it was then? (Although as I argued last year, we’re in better shape, and have a better record of solving problems, than the daily media coverage would lead you to believe.)

Back to Carlson:

The goal for America is both simpler and more elusive than mere prosperity. It’s happiness. There are a lot of ingredients in being happy: Dignity. Purpose. Self-control. Independence. Above all, deep relationships with other people. Those are the things that you want for your children. They’re what our leaders should want for us and would want if they cared.

Leaders may want those things for us, but we should have no illusion that they can provide those things for us. Dignity, purpose, self-control, independence, and deep relationships have to come from within, and get cultivated and developed by our own actions. Good parents and relatives, teachers and communities can all help cultivate that, but it all starts with the individual — and if the individual isn’t willing to try to cultivate that, no one else can cultivate it for him.

But our leaders don’t care. We are ruled by mercenaries who feel no long-term obligation to the people they rule. They’re day traders. Substitute teachers. They’re just passing through. They have no skin in this game, and it shows. They can’t solve our problems. They don’t even bother to understand our problems.

Which “leaders” does Carlson have in mind? Surely not the president he praises almost every night.

NBA superstar LeBron James opened up a school for at-risk students in his old hometown of Akron that includes STEM summer courses as well as GED courses and job placement for parents. (Around this time, President Trump mocked LeBron James as stupid.) Carlson’s last book, Ship of Fools, depicted Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg and Amazon chairman Jeff Bezos as some of the fools on the cover. Zuckerberg has pledged to give away 99 percent of his fortune during his lifetime, and his personal foundation has built a massive medical research facility. Jeff Bezos just committed $2 billion to a “split between the Day 1 Families Fund — helping homeless families — and the Day 1 Academies Fund — creating a “network of new, non-profit, tier-one preschools in low-income communities.”

Aren’t these folks who have skin in the game and who are demonstrating a long-term obligation to their communities?

Carlson’s monologue veers in some unexpected directions.

Manufacturing, a male-dominated industry, all but disappeared over the course of a generation. All that remained in many places were the schools and the hospitals, both traditional employers of women. In many places, women suddenly made more than men.

Now, before you applaud this as a victory for feminism, consider the effects. Study after study has shown that when men make less than women, women generally don’t want to marry them. Maybe they should want to marry them, but they don’t. Over big populations, this causes a drop in marriage, a spike in out-of-wedlock births, and all the familiar disasters that inevitably follow — more drug and alcohol abuse, higher incarceration rates, fewer families formed in the next generation.

Carlson is right on a lot of this, but he starts with a wildly inaccurate exaggeration that manufacturing “all but disappeared.” There are currently a half-million unfilled manufacturing jobs in the United States. Manufacturers are desperate for workers, calculating there could be 2 million unfilled openings, and a separate 2.8 million new openings spurred by retiring workers in the next decade. Manufacturing wages have steadily increased at varying paces, even during the Great Recession. In this environment, why would men still have a hard time out-earning women and attracting spouses? If modern men are collapsing in the face of these challenges, how much of this is the responsibility of Washington policies or business owners, and how much is the responsibility of the men?

Carlson laments the legalization of marijuana, and I happen to agree with him. But it’s hard to believe that the current legalization of marijuana is dramatically different than drug use in past eras — and we certainly had higher rates of drug-related crime and violence a generation ago. In Colorado, teen use of marijuana actually declined significantly after legalization, and the same thing happened in California. (Maybe legalization makes marijuana less taboo and thus less tempting to teenagers.)

Carlson concludes, “If you want to put America first, you’ve got to put its families first.” The good news is, the vast majority of Americans would agree with him. But we’ve all got very different ideas of what “putting families first” means.

How Do We Get Americans to Become More Successful?

Let’s go back to Carlson’s point about the GDP being a subpar measurement of a healthy country, and whether as a country we’re overall wealthier but less happy than a generation ago.

Americans have dreams. I think as a culture and as a country, we do a better job of encouraging those dreams than teaching people how to achieve those dreams. Everyone gets to gaze at the shop window, but only some figure out how to get the money to buy what’s inside the store.

My belief in freedom means I don’t carry around grudges about conspicuous consumption. But American culture no doubt celebrates ostentatious displays of wealth, which no doubt fuels envy and resentment. It always has — George Washington was one of the first Americans wealthy enough to display a sofa — but the rise of mass media, from Lifestyles of the Rich and Famous, to MTV’s Cribs, to today’s reality television (all of the Real Housewives series, all of the various Kardashian series), celebrity weddings, HGTV’s millionaire homes . . . we’re constantly bombarded with images of what the good life could be, advertisements and commercials and billboards for luxury cars, perfumes and colognes. Then throw in social media showcasing friends’ vacations on Facebook and glamorous models on Instagram. You’re relentlessly reminded of the life that you don’t have.

Americans fantasize about the good life — a big house, a fancy car, stylish clothes, vacations in far-flung exotic locales — and they often envision this luxurious life paid for by a wildly lucrative career, most often in entertainment, athletics, or music. Of course, those are some of the toughest industries to just make a living in, never mind making a fortune.

But research in books such as The Millionaire Next Door demonstrated that a lot of those who ended up wealthy did so by living the opposite of that ostentatious champagne and caviar* lifestyle. About 80 percent are first-generation rich, meaning they didn’t inherit their wealth. And they often did so by working hard, in jobs that required a great deal of education and dedication: medicine, accounting, law, finance. Some formed a small business and steadily built it over a lifetime. Most start-up founders work 18 hours a day, at least at the beginning. The good life rarely “just happens” to people. It’s a combination of hard work and avoiding the most dangerous mistakes in life — drug abuse, alcoholism, early and unplanned pregnancy, and of course, the temptation to quit when life gets difficult.

I’ve written in the past about “effort shock” and David Wong’s essay contending that movies that featured montages leave many people in the audience with a collective misunderstanding of how much time and effort is needed to learn something or improve ourselves. You can chase the American dream, but no one’s going to just give it to you.

I’d prefer a country where before America’s kids and teens stepped into the adult world, they got a heavy dose of Dave Ramsey and Suze Orman discussing the management of personal finances and Mike Rowe discussing professions and career paths. (Think of all the student loan debt that could be avoided.) Throw in some long-married couples talking about relationships and what to look for in a partner for the long haul. Unsurprisingly, financial literacy is often connected to education and income level. We’re only sending a portion of our kids into the world with the lessons and skills they need to succeed.

Step one is getting young people into the world prepared to make the right choices; step two is setting up systems to help them overcome the wrong choices. Crisis pregnancy centers, drug treatment programs, free or low-cost job training programs, anti-recidivism programs to help ensure that a felon’s first run-in with the law is his last . . . there’s a lot of this going on in this country, but it’s not the sort of thing you hear much about in cable-news prime time.

*Ironically, for a symbol of luxury, caviar and champagne aren’t all that expensive. World Market has caviar for $5.99, and Korbel Brut champagne can be found at Total Wine for $9.97.

Chinese Rulers, Using a Ruler

Apple’s bad financial news, and discussion of slower sales in China, is spurring a reexamination of whether that country’s runaway growth is coming to an end — or how much China’s growth has been exaggerated all along.

Although Chinese officials report that GDP have been growing at more than 6 per cent a year for a few years, ‘it looks truly like some sixth grader got out their ruler and drew a straight line with a slight downward slant,’ said Christopher Balding, an expert on the Chinese economy at Fulbright University in Vietnam. ‘It’s totally unrealistic.’

ADDENDUM: Be careful out there today, everybody. The “super blood wolf moon eclipse” is coming.

Do you ever get the feeling that astronomers sometimes get bored, and they come up with really dramatic names for things to cope?

Elections

Bernie Sanders’s Campaign Was a ‘Toxic Environment’ for Female Staffers

Senator Bernie Sanders (I, Vt.) on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., December 13, 2018. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why no wise and ambitious Republican would bother with a primary challenge against Trump in 2020, former female campaign staffers of Bernie Sanders go public with claims of a “toxic environment,” why there’s no sign of progress in the government shutdown, and a little reminder about who your humble correspondent is.

What’s the Incentive for a Primary Challenge to Trump in 2020?

If you’re a Republican official with presidential ambitions, why would you run a primary challenge against Donald Trump in 2020?

Yesterday, senator-elect (or perhaps Utah senator, by the time you read this) Mitt Romney denied that he has any interest in running for president again.

President Trump’s job approval among Republicans is 89 percent, and it’s been in the 80s to low 90s for the entirety of the past year, according to Gallup. None of the missteps of the past two years — the “some very fine people on both sides” statement after Charlottesville; sudden (and quickly reversed) public embrace of gun control; “s***hole countries”; the Stormy Daniels revelations; separating children from their parents at the border; criticism of generals Stanley McCrystal, James Mattis, William McRaven; criticism of allied leaders while praising Vladimir Putin; the shift from a “big beautiful wall” to an 18-foot security fence; the Republicans losing 40 seats in the House of Representatives . . . none of that had any major impact on Republican approval of Trump.

Yesterday’s comments that the Soviet Union was right to invade Afghanistan will probably have no effect either.

How likely is it that Trump will do something in the next two years that spurs Republicans to no longer support him? The vast majority of the Republican party’s voters have tied themselves to Trump the way Ulysses tied himself to the mast — if he rises, they rise, and if he’s going down, they’ll go down with him.

As our J.J. McCullough observed:

A November Quinnipiac University poll found the vast majority of Republicans have enormous, across-the-board confidence in everything about Trump: 82 percent said he had good leadership skills, 77 percent said he was honest, 92 percent said he was intelligent, and 80 percent agreed he was someone who “shares your values.” Trump was given astronomically high approval on the management of basically every issue as well, including 86 percent approval for his handling of “immigration issues.”

Someone like John Kasich could run a protest campaign, but the man just vetoed a bill to restrict abortions, he’s effectively renounced his past NRA endorsements, he fought the GOP’s effort to repeal and replace Obamacare . . .  where’s the appeal to Republicans? He would get a lot of mainstream-media praise and very few primary votes.

If Trump gets a primary challenger from the left, the president will probably squash him in the contests —  but he’ll also have a convenient (if not terribly plausible) scapegoat for any 2020 defeat. You can already see the groundwork being laid out:

Win or lose, any primary challenge would almost certainly hurt Trump’s re-election, warned RNC member Jevon Williams of the Virgin Islands.

“Messrs. Romney, Flake, and Kasich will continue chasing their fantasy of being president, even if that means destroying our party and denying President Trump re-election,” Williams wrote to fellow RNC members in a message obtained by The Associated Press. “Look, the political history is clear. No Republican president opposed for re-nomination has ever won re-election.”

Some Trump supporters may secretly prefer having someone in the Republican party to blame for a 2020 defeat. It would guarantee a market for a “We would have won if the Establishment hadn’t stabbed us in the back” narrative for the next four years.

If you’re a Republican with genuine appeal to the party — let’s take Nikki Haley as a good example — if you choose to run in 2024, the worst-case scenario in the nomination fight is that you’re running against Vice President Pence. That would be tough, but it would be easier than running against Trump in a primary now, and who knows, maybe in 2020 the Republican primary electorate won’t be all that enthused about Pence. American history is littered with vice presidents who did not succeed as presidential candidates: Al Gore, Walter Mondale, Hubert Humphrey, and initially, Richard Nixon.

Yes, in 2024, an ambitious Republican might be taking on an incumbent Democratic president, and there’s been a good run for incumbents in the past few decades: Reagan, Clinton, Bush, Obama. But if there’s a Democratic president in 2024, that means Trump lost his bid for reelection, and the streak is broken. And what are the odds that the next Democratic president will govern moderately and successfully? I think the odds are good that the Left will see the next Democratic presidency as payback time, and approach governing with an attitude of furious vengeance against the deplorables for disrupting the natural order of things on Election Day 2016.

No one has a crystal ball, but if you’re a striving Republican, and you can put your presidential ambitions on hold for another four to eight years, the path ahead may be easier — or at least easier than taking on an incumbent president in a primary when nine out of ten Republicans feel extremely emotionally invested in his success.

The ‘Toxic Environment’ Surrounding Bernie Sanders’ Campaign in 2016

There are two ways to look at the New York Times report that former staffers of the Bernie Sanders 2016 presidential campaign are beginning to publicly complain about mistreatment, sexual harassment, pay disparity, and “an overall toxic environment.”

Accounts like Ms. Di Lauro’s — describing episodes of sexual harassment and demeaning treatment as well as pay disparity in Mr. Sanders’s 2016 campaign — have circulated in recent weeks in emails, online comments and private discussions among former supporters. Now, as the Vermont senator tries to build support for a second run at the White House, his perceived failure to address this issue has damaged his progressive bona fides, delegates and nearly a dozen former state and national staff members said in interviews over the last month.

And it has raised questions among them about whether he can adequately fight for the interests of women, who have increasingly defined the Democratic Party in the Trump era, if he runs again for the presidential nomination in 2020.

In an interview Wednesday night on CNN, Mr. Sanders said he was proud of his 2016 campaign and attributed any missteps with staff members to the explosive growth that was sometimes overwhelming. “I’m not going to sit here and tell you that we did everything right, in terms of human resources,” he told Anderson Cooper.

“I certainly apologize to any woman who felt she was not treated appropriately, and of course if I run we will do better the next time,” he said.

Asked if he knew about the staff complaints, he said, “I was a little bit busy running around the country trying to make the case.”

Option one: Bernie Sanders and the top men around him really were oblivious to an atmosphere of harassment, ignored complaints, and generally believed that their credentials as self-proclaimed feminists freed them of any obligation to ensure that the women on the campaign were being treated fairly and appropriately.

Option two: The kind of women who are likely to volunteer to work on a campaign for a candidate like Bernie Sanders are naturally more inclined to interpret interactions with men as harassment. Having consumed endless accounts of men as sexual aggressors, agents of the patriarchy, and licentious abusers eager to use positions of power as leverage for sex, they will see many innocuous or friendly interactions as a major scandal and injustice.

For those who see sexism, it’s worth noting that Sanders’s past behavior hasn’t always thrilled women. Besides his infamous op-ed from long ago about people’s sexual fantasies, he wrote in 1969 that sexual repression causes breast cancer; he was rather snide and condescending to his 1990 gubernatorial opponent, Democratic governor Madeleine Kunin; and he irked Hillary Clinton supporters in 2015 when he accused her of shouting. (You may have noticed that Sanders doesn’t always use his indoor voice.)

Separately, while different political campaigns will have different atmospheres, my sense had been that quite a few campaigns featured short-lived relationships that often turned into messy affairs. Take groups of young men and women into a high-stress environment, have them work well into the night in offices and an endless series of cheap hotels in Iowa and New Hampshire, add alcohol, and . . . surprise! People start hooking up.

Shutdown Theater Continues

Today the Democrats take control of the House of Representatives . . . and the federal government is still in a partial shutdown. Back on December 21, I wrote:

I guess the plan is to have a long shutdown, put the squeeze on as many federal workers as possible, and hope that the federal workers pressure Democrats to throw Trump a bone and approve a few billion in funding for the wall. But if you’re a Democratic lawmaker, the consequences of the government shutdown have to get really bad before they get worse than the consequences of surrendering to the president on funding for the border wall.

We’re in the twelfth day of the government shutdown. And apparently the pressure on Democrats is nowhere near enough to force concessions:

A White House official said they asked Democrats during a meeting Wednesday with President Trump if they would agree to go higher than their current line of $1.3 billion for border security funding if he agreed to sign a short-term extension.

But Democrats would not signal that they would.

“This is going to go on for a while,” the White House official said.

ADDENDUM: I have no idea who Daniel Black is, but apparently he believes I’m not capable of writing something without Hugh Hewitt’s help.

My first real journalism job was at Congressional Quarterly, back in the late 1990s, where I summarized legislation and covered votes on the floor of the House. (The great Julie Hirschfeld Davis tried to teach me how to be a good reporter and I absorbed very little of it.) Then I had a short but fun ride on the dot-com rollercoaster of Policy.com, IntellectualCapital.com, and Speakout.com, where the proprietor and lead columnist Pete duPont, the former governor of Delaware and presidential candidate, once asked whether I had been dropped on my head as a child. (I’m pretty sure he was joking.) I spent three years at States News Service, where I covered Washington for papers such as the Boston Globe, Bergen Record, Bangor Daily News, Lewiston Sun-Journal and a bunch of others. (The Globe used States News Service to cover the stuff their Washington Bureau didn’t want to cover, like fisheries regulations and right whale migration. I called it “the seafood beat.”( John Aloysius Farrell and

Nina Easton are probably horrified at what a right-wing maniac I’ve become, but back then they trusted my reporting and taught me a lot.) On July 2, 2001, I asked a question of George W. Bush in the Oval Office when he and Dick Cheney met with Bret Schundler, who had just won the GOP primary for governor in New Jersey. And this is all before I started freelancing for National Review in 2002, and came on full-time to write the Kerry Spot in 2004, and went off to Turkey in 2005, and then the three books, and the CPAC Journalist of the Year Award and the Buckley Award and . . . anyway, enough bragging, you get the idea. I’ve been writing for a living for more than 20 years now.

And this punk thinks I can’t write something on my own? Who the heck is he?

Politics & Policy

Mitt Romney Doesn’t Mince Words about Trump

Making the click-through worthwhile: Senator-elect Mitt Romney rips into President Trump’s character but fails to grapple with why Americans, and Republicans, accepted and largely continue to accept Trump’s character; 20 things you need to know about Bernie Sanders (okay, maybe 15 are need-to-know, and the rest are good-to-know); and another multinational corporation bends to the demands of a censorious foreign government.

Mitt Romney, Donald Trump, and the Challenge of Character in Politics

A day before he takes the oath as a new senator from Utah, former governor and presidential candidate Mitt Romney lets us know exactly what kind of relationship he’s going to have with the Trump administration in an op-ed in the Washington Post.

. . . on balance, [President Trump’s] conduct over the past two years, particularly his actions this month, is evidence that the president has not risen to the mantle of the office.

It is not that all of the president’s policies have been misguided. He was right to align U.S. corporate taxes with those of global competitors, to strip out excessive regulations, to crack down on China’s unfair trade practices, to reform criminal justice and to appoint conservative judges. These are policies mainstream Republicans have promoted for years. But policies and appointments are only a part of a presidency.

To a great degree, a presidency shapes the public character of the nation. A president should unite us and inspire us to follow “our better angels.” A president should demonstrate the essential qualities of honesty and integrity and elevate the national discourse with comity and mutual respect. As a nation, we have been blessed with presidents who have called on the greatness of the American spirit. With the nation so divided, resentful and angry, presidential leadership in qualities of character is indispensable. And it is in this province where the incumbent’s shortfall has been most glaring.

Longtime readers of this newsletter will not be surprised to know that I agree with just about everything Romney says. But there’s an ongoing challenge to those of us with this perspective, and Romney never quite acknowledges that challenge.

Somewhere along the line — most likely shortly after Romney’s defeat, in fact — a significant chunk of the American people, in particular, many Republicans, started to believe that character is for suckers. At the very least, a significant number of conservatives concluded that good character was no advantage in politics and possibly a liability. Mitt Romney had good character and lost; John McCain had good character and lost; George W. Bush had good character and barely won and found himself compared to Hitler and a monkey by furious critics for much of his presidency.

We can argue about when exactly the balance started to shift. I suspect a key moment came when Democrats stuck by Bill Clinton throughout the revelations of Monica Lewinsky, Paula Jones, Kathleen Willey, and Juanita Broaddrick. Only 20 years later, when his wife was no longer a likely president, did Democrats begin grappling with the consequences of that choice. President Obama’s presidency was marked by numerous scandals — Fast and Furious, stimulus waste, IRS abuses, the VA leaving veterans dying waiting for care, Benghazi — and the country continued to largely admire him and his presidency. America’s corporate, entertainment, and sports classes offered their own high-profile examples of escaping accountability.

And in Trump’s presidency, we can find at least a few cases where his temperamental and combative style may get results where other presidents did not. American military voices have been grumbling about our NATO allies shortchanging their militaries for a long time; in 2006, every member nation agreed to spend 2 percent of their GDP. For a long time, those benchmarks weren’t met. Military spending by non-U.S. NATO allies has increased by a couple billion every year since 2014 — going up by $17 billion in 2017 and $11 billion in 2018, according to estimates.

Did Trump’s outspoken criticism and public skepticism of the value of NATO spur this change? Or did it reflect European countries waking up to the dangers of a world with a more aggressive Russia, ISIS, Iran, and other threats on the horizon? One thing is for certain: George W. Bush and Barack Obama were much more respectful to our allies than Donald Trump was — and yet those allies refused to make the investments in their own defense that successive administrations believed were necessary.

Romney specifically calls out Trump’s “thoughtless claim that America has long been a ‘sucker’ in world affairs.” Of course, Trump is hyperbolic, but didn’t our alliance have a “free rider” problem?

Trump’s character may ameliorate some problems, but it indisputably exacerbates others. Imagine the problems Trump would have avoided if he had never encountered Stormy Daniels. (Unless you’re one of the terminally naïve who believes Trump never had any relations with her, and that he had Michael Cohen pay $130,000 to her to cover up an affair that never happened.) Imagine if Trump had never hired Cohen! Imagine if Trump had never hired or associated with any of his transparent sycophants — the Omarosa Manigaults and Steve Bannons of the world. Imagine if he had listened to his lawyers’ advice. Imagine if Trump had kept his criticisms of Jeff Sessions behind closed doors instead of raging against him on Twitter for all the world to see. Imagine if he saw his cabinet as trusted advisers, instead of scapegoats-in-waiting.

FourFiveSeconds” is a song that features Paul McCartney, Kanye West, and Rihanna, and one of the lyrics is, “all of my kindness is taken for weakness.” Good character is not an impediment to success. But it is not sufficient for success, either. And if Americans lament the bad character in their political leaders, maybe they ought to look in the mirror and ask some tough questions about who they reward at the ballot box. Congressmen Duncan Hunter and Chris Collins won reelection in 2018, despite being indicted on fraud charges. New Jersey senator Bob Menendez won reelection easily. Trump’s a symptom, not the disease.

Romney concludes with wisdom:

I will support policies that I believe are in the best interest of the country and my state and oppose those that are not. I do not intend to comment on every tweet or fault. But I will speak out against significant statements or actions that are divisive, racist, sexist, anti-immigrant, dishonest or destructive to democratic institutions.

Trump is the president until he retires, is defeated for reelection, or is impeached. Best to try to push him in the right direction on policy as much as you can and call him out when he crosses lines. But Trump’s character isn’t going to change.

This morning, the president’s reaction on Twitter is fairly mild — so far: “Here we go with Mitt Romney, but so fast! Question will be, is he a Flake? I hope not. Would much prefer that Mitt focus on Border Security and so many other things where he can be helpful. I won big, and he didn’t. He should be happy for all Republicans. Be a TEAM player & WIN!”

What You Need to Know about Bernie Sanders

On the last day of the year, I gathered together 20 things you probably didn’t know about Bernie Sanders, and it’s worth a look. He may hold the record for most write-in votes by a non-declared presidential candidate; his old political party thinks he’s a sellout and called him ‘Bernie the Bomber’; as a mayor, he fought to tax a hospital, once declared at a charity event, “I don’t believe in charities”; he attended a Nicaraguan government rally where the crowd chanted “Here, there, everywhere, the Yankee will die”; he cultivated friendships with representatives of the Irish Republican Army; expressed a belief in psychosomatic cancer; and once said that no one should ever be paid more than $1 million per year — which just happens to be his total income for the past few years.

Whatever you’ve heard about Bernie Sanders, the truth is wilder and stranger than you ever imagined.

Netflix Programming, Now Brought to You by Saudi Arabian Censors

Want to know why “multinational corporations” gets expressed with a sneer in politicians’ speeches? Stories like this one:

Netflix has taken down an episode of a satirical comedy show critical of Saudi Arabia in the country after officials from the kingdom complained, sparking criticism from Human Rights Watch, which said the act undermined the streaming service’s “claim to support artistic freedom”.

Or Google helping China develop a censored search engine, European banks helping Iran evade sanctions, Silicon Valley’s social-media companies leaving the door wide open for foreign intelligence, companies that fail to take reasonable steps to protect customer data . . .

Guys, those of us who want companies to not be tied down by endless regulations would have an easier time if you guys could demonstrate some semblance of a moral compass.

ADDENDUM: Washington governor Jay Inslee is running for president.

In other news, obscure former congressman Jay Inslee was elected governor of Washington in 2013.

Politics & Policy

Predictions for 2019, Reflections on 2018

(Photo: Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

This is the last Morning Jolt of the year. National Review will still be posting new articles and Corner posts over the weekend, and if news breaks — on the shutdown, presidential actions, scandals, terrorism, war, whatever — rest assured, NR’s writers will weigh in on what’s happening. The next Morning Jolt will be on January 2, 2019.

The Hard-News Predictions for 2019

The “serious” predictions for 2019:

  • Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not retire or meet her maker and ends 2019 on the court. The 85-year-old justice has recently endured three broken ribs and had a lobe of her lung removed. She’s beaten cancer twice and had a stent put in her right coronary artery in 2014.
  • Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito come under increasing pressure from conservative legal minds to retire, so that a GOP-controlled Senate can replace them with younger, like-minded judges. Thomas turns 71 in June, Alito turns 69 in April.
  • Scared of both a hard exit and denying the results of the referendum, the U.K. government and the European Union will, near the last minute, announce an extension of negotiations about the details of the departure, and when that fails, announce a second “Are you sure you want to leave the EU?” referendum for 2020. Certain British officials and media voices begin openly and explicitly making arguments that “Some issues are too important to be left to the people.”
  • The vast majority of Democratic presidential campaigns fizzle out quickly.
  • Joe Biden will run for president, but stumble by showing his irritated side and remind primary voters more of the unsuccessful candidate from 1988 and 2008 and less of the goofy, easily likeable vice president for eight years.
  • Bernie Sanders learns, much to his disappointment, that a significant chunk of his support in 2016 stemmed from the fact that he wasn’t Hillary Clinton, and those supporters are more interested in other options this cycle.
  • Michael Bloomberg and Howard Schultz spend a lot of money on perfectly marketed, image-driven campaigns that are beloved by the national media but have no real appeal to Democratic presidential-primary voters. Tom Steyer’s impeachment-centered messaging is more popular but few Democrats see him as a potential option.
  • Hillary Clinton does not run for president.
  • Cory Booker is “just kind of there” in the presidential field for most of 2019.
  • As the year ends, the conventional wisdom is that it is a four-person race, with Biden, Beto O’Rourke running surprisingly strong, Kamala Harris running a less combative campaign than everyone expected, and Amy Klobuchar emerging as the dark-horse candidate.
  • Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report finds no evidence of Donald Trump colluding with Russia but showcases a long history of possibly illegal and indisputably unethical behavior from before he ran for president. This sets off serious arguments about whether a sitting president can be indicted. The Department of Justice concludes he cannot be indicted during his presidency, but a prosecutor could pick up the case afterwards (presuming the statute of limitations hasn’t expired). That decision generates furious outrage among Trump foes and prompts House Democrats to pursue impeachment. On an almost entirely party-line vote, the House impeaches the president. The Senate declines to convict Trump on another almost entirely party-line vote.
  • Beyond the impeachment effort, not much gets done on Capitol Hill. Despite Republican hopes that the new chairmen of the committees become an angry, partisan freakshow, there’s just too much else going on to get the public to pay attention to Financial Services Chair Maxine Waters, Judiciary Chairman Jerrold Nadler, or Appropriations Committee Chair Nita Lowey.
  • Even beyond the impeachment effort, President Trump has a difficult year. His White House ignores many subpoenas from House Democrats, setting up further legal battles. His relationship with Congressional Republicans is tense and angry, with even more unattributed quotes from lawmakers ripping the president. He experiences even more turnover in his cabinet, as former administration officials trash him in print as an insufferable, erratic, irresponsible, blame-shifting narcissist.
  • The economy has a mild bear market and not-quite recession. It’s not a terrible year, but many media voices are eager to blame it on President Trump. Trump blames the Democratic House.
  • Vladimir Putin will deny rumors of serious health issues.
  • Safest prediction possible: more war in the Middle East. Israel fights Hezbollah on its northern border; Syria has more massacres; Iran rattles its saber; and in Saudi Arabia, Mohammed bin Sultan, far from being embarrassed by the Jamal Khashoggi killing, grows even more paranoid about internal threats.
  • North Korea’s leadership continues to be schizophrenic and contradictory — belligerent and threatening one moment, calling for more diplomatic summits and saying all the right things the next. The general status quo continues on the Korean Peninsula.

And the Lighter Stuff . . .

The fun predictions for 2019:

  • At least one major political scandal will come and go with no serious public reaction because it occurs at the same time as a Kardashian breakup.
  • The 2019 NBA Finals feature the Golden State Warriors beating the Boston Celtics in six games — the first finals to not feature LeBron James since 2010.
  • The 2019 NHL Finals feature the San Jose Sharks beating the Tampa Bay Lightning in six games.
  • The 2019 World Series features the Houston Astros beating the Chicago Cubs in seven games. Fox’s television coverage can be described as extensive shots of Kate Upton in the stands with some intermittent images of baseball mixed in.
  • With the first overall pick in the 2019 NFL draft, the Arizona Cardinals select Nick Bosa, defensive end, Ohio State. With the second pick, the San Francisco 49ers select Devin White, linebacker, LSU. With the third pick, the New York Jets select offensive tackle Jonah Williams of Alabama.
  • Avengers: Endgame earns rave reviews as the way to end an epic story and set up a new era of Marvel films.
  • The trailer for the still-unnamed Star Wars Episode Nine has a subtext that practically begs fans to put the controversies of The Last Jedi aside and promises good old-fashioned Star Wars fun. When it’s released, critics compare it to Return of the Jedi and complain that J. J. Abrams played it safe and stuck to the old formulas, but audiences are pleased again.

Looking Back at 2018 with Gratitude . . .

I don’t know how your year went, but mine was phenomenal.

Thank you to the Leadership Program of the Rockies for inviting me out to speak in February. This past year brought me to Palm Springs for the Koch Seminar Network winter meeting and Dallas for the NRA Convention, encountering plenty of smart and friendly folks who I don’t get to see often enough. Thank you to the Leadership Institute for inviting me out to help with “Conservative Podcasting School,” and thanks to all who attended.

The Trump administration is willing to invite those who are not always its cheerleaders to events like the Opioid Summit at the White House — and despite all of the drama and circus surrounding this administration, good people who are deeply concerned about this crisis are indeed working hard, across multiple federal agencies and departments, fighting the scourges of addiction and overdose. I appreciate the invitation and hope these efforts receive more consistent attention and succeed in their imperative goal.

Thank you to Greg Corombos, for making the Three Martini Lunch podcast so easy — I just show up and talk. I understand our listenership has grown dramatically over 2018, and so I thank you for listening. Mickey and I restarted the pop-culture podcast, and more will be coming in 2019.

Cruisegoers, thank you for joining me for another year — I hope to see you again, in August around New England, if the rumors are correct.

Without getting into specific numbers, it’s been a great year for readership of NR as a whole and of my work, and so I thank you for reading. Readers seemed to particularly enjoy the deep-dive profile of Devin Nunes, retired FBI agents reacting to former FBI Director Jim Comey becoming a celebrity, sorting out the truth from the rumors about George Soros, America’s long-overdue reckoning with the Kennedy family, updates on the construction of security fencing on the southern border, and “The Beatification of Beto.” In a year when conservatives spent a lot of time fighting with each other, Rush Limbaugh, Townhall, and Newsbusters had some appreciated kind words for my work, and the year found my writings discussed by the Smithsonian Institution, and the New York Times, and not in a “this guy stinks” context.

It’s been a mostly disappointing football season for Jets fans, but I’ve gotten the chance to dip my toes into sports talk, thanks to Scott Mason and the guys at TurnOnTheJets.com. Just wait until next year!

Our family trip to Germany and Austria was enlivened by a surprise dinner with Jay Nordlinger.

Through South Carolina and closer to home, none of the snakes we ran into on our walks bit us. (That is not metaphorical.) I managed to not kill myself despite some serious falls on the ice in broomball. My sons were left jaws agape by the feats of American Ninja Warrior in Philadelphia.

And of course, like so many men, I’d be nowhere without my family.

ADDENDUM: While we’re expressing end-of-the-year gratitude, for most of this year the Jolt was and is edited by Marlo Safi — thank her for clarifying my sometimes-written-before-the-coffee-kicks-in prose, and when she’s not around, Mark Wright steps back into his old shoes. Thanks to Teddy Kupfer for when he steps in during my travels, and everyone who helps make this newsletter what it is.

See you in 2019.

World

The Compromising Background of Jamal Khashoggi’s Work

Saudi dissident Jamal Khashoggi speaks at an event hosted by Middle East Monitor in London, England, September 29, 2018. (Middle East Monitor via Reuters )

Making the click-through worthwhile: how customs and border-patrol agents can make the argument for a security fence, three easily overlooked comments from President Trump’s visit in Iraq, and some surprising revelations about Jamal Khashoggi that complicate the initial narrative about his work.

Finally, Trump Will Make His Fencing Argument at the Border

The first rule of storytelling and writing is “Show, don’t tell.” It probably applies to presidential arguments as well. In Iraq yesterday — more on that surprise trip below — President Trump said he would soon travel to the border and showcase what’s been built, and what needs to be built:

We’ve also built new wall a lot.  But we just gave out a contract that, when it’s all completed out, it’ll be 115 miles.  That’s a lot.  We’re talking about 500 to 550 miles.  And this will be — just this one contract is 115.  I’m going there — I assume you’re coming with me — on probably the end of January, a little bit before the State of the Union.  I think we’re going to do it before the State of the Union Address.  I’ll be going to Texas, and we’re going to be sort of having a long — we’ll have a long groundbreaking, because it covers a lot of territory.  But we’re going to have a groundbreaking for the wall.

Under previously passed legislation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection continues to pay contractors to replace sections of spotty or insufficient fencing with 18-foot-tall bollard walls — tall steel bars with gaps in between them so that Border Patrol officers can see what’s happening on the other side. As of this month, about 40 miles of spotty or insufficient fencing has been replaced with 18-foot-tall bollard walls.

The total length of the U.S.-Mexico border is 1,954 miles; as of August 2017, 705 miles have at least one of four kinds of barriers: pedestrian primary fence, pedestrian secondary fence, pedestrian tertiary fence, and vehicle fence. (The New York Times put together a good series of graphics illustrating the types of fences and where they’re located.)

On the campaign trail, Trump could make his vision sound like the Great Wall of China — 30-foot tall bulwarks of concrete. What’s being put up looks quite different, but to those in charge of enforcing the law, this works better.

People know what they think of Trump, and everyone who doesn’t like him is likely to oppose his ideas and everyone who likes him is likely to love his ideas — and in a highly polarized, angry political environment like this, merits of proposals can be obscured.

Back in June of 2017, Brandon Judd, president of the National Border Patrol Council — the labor union that represents U.S. Border Patrol — testified before Congress, and I wish everyone in America would watch it and read it. His arguments are well-informed from personal experience, succinct and clear . . . and his notion of the best practical solution probably would not completely satisfy everyone. Among his comments:

I want to emphasize first off, I will not advocate for 2,000 miles’ worth of border [wall]. That is just not necessary. But what I will advocate for is a border wall in strategic locations, which helps us secure the border…

…as an agent who worked in two of the busiest sectors in the history of the Border Patrol, I can personally tell you how effective border barriers are. When I got to the Tucson sector, we had next to nothing by way of infrastructure, and I can confidently say that for every illegal border crosser that I apprehended, three got away. The building of barriers and large fences, a bipartisan effort, allowed agents in part to dictate where illegal crossings took place and doubled how effective I was able to be in apprehending illegal border crossers. As an agent who has extensive experience working with and without border barriers and as the person elected to represent rank-and-file Border Patrol agents, I can personally attest to how effective a wall, in strategic locations, will be.

…With a barrier, it’s estimated that all we need is one agent per three, four linear miles. Without a barrier, I need one agent per linear mile. So the cost effectiveness of a barrier in manpower is—it’s extremely successful.

In addition to the 353 miles of primary fencing that we already have, we believe that we need an additional 300 miles of primary fencing. This fencing should be strategically placed in areas such as Del Rio and Laredo Texas and the Tohono O’odham Indian Reservation in Arizona.

Judd testified that significant amounts of non-wall funding were also needed:

Every day we deploy Agents with equipment that is inadequate. Let me give you two simple examples. Forty percent of our vehicles are past their service life. Patrolling off road for 10 hours a shift takes a toll and some of these vehicles are literally falling apart. The cost of replacing older vehicles would be $250 million. In many areas of the border, the Agents have no communications. Forget interoperability, we do not even have operability and this is a real threat to Agent safety. We estimate that we could dramatically increase border interoperability for $125 million.

That’s $375 million; back in 2016, the U.S. government gave San Diego a bit more than $1 billion to extend its trolley line.

By the way, lest you think that the National Border Patrol Council is some deeply pro-Trump partisan outfit, this union endorsed Claire McCaskill (D-Mo.), Jon Tester (D-Mont.), and Heidi Heitkamp in the last election cycle, greatly irking the administration.

In Judd’s assessment, 300 miles of border fencing would make a big difference. Would Trump supporters accept a “partial” fencing? Could Democrats live with that?

Yesterday in Iraq, Trump sounded like he could live with this, although he left the door open to building more miles of wall later: “We have a lot of great wall going in the most important places.  We’re starting in the most important places, which I would say history says, fellas, that’s a good thing to do, right?  Do the most important places first and do the least important places last.”

If and when Trump appears at an event on the border, he should let the border patrol officers and officials explain, with the national media watching, what they see and what they experience as they perform their duties. Ask the country — and Congress — to put aside what they think of Trump and focus upon what options would help these men and women do their jobs most effectively.

Three Observations about Trump in Iraq

One: Yes, there are a lot of military and national security minds inside and outside of government who vehemently disagree with Trump’s move to remove troops from Syria. But the president is not supportive of an across-the-board withdrawal from the region.

Q Do you have any plans to pull the forces out of Iraq as well?

 

THE PRESIDENT:  No plans at all, no.  In fact, we could use this as a base if we wanted to do something in Syria.  If — I will say this, if you take ISIS and if we see something happening with ISIS that we don’t like, we can hit them so fast and so hard, they won’t — they really won’t know what the hell happened.

The Pentagon does not give out specific figures about how many U.S. personnel are in countries with armed combat, but it has been reported that there are about 5,000 U.S. armed services personnel in Iraq and about 2,000 in Syria.

Two: President Trump is now singing the praises of Turkish President Erdogan.

. . . We’ve knocked them out.  We’ve knocked them silly.  I will tell you that I had some very good talks with President Erdogan, who wants to knock them out also.  And he’ll do it.  And others will do it, too, because we’re in their region; they should be really sharing the burden of cost, and they’re not.

. . . Now, if you look at what happened in Syria, President Erdogan stepped up, and he says he wants to knock out ISIS.  We say, “Whatever’s left.”

Trusting Erdogan is almost certainly going to come back to haunt the president.

Three: an easily overlooked comment from the president, early in his remarks at Al Asad Air Base in Iraq:

And I want to thank the press.  You’ve made a journey.  You knew where you were going, and we appreciate your coming with us, very much so.  That takes courage also.  We very much appreciate you coming with us.  So thank you very much.

I’m surprised we haven’t seen some “Trump praises courage of press” headlines.

The Truth about Jamal Khashoggi Is Much More Complicated than Originally Claimed

The brutal murder of Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi consulate in Istanbul was an outrage, and the Saudi regime needs to endure some short-term consequences from the United States government in order to deter them from ever pulling a reckless stunt like this again.

That having been said, it is now clear that the narrative around Khashoggi’s work as a columnist that was reported immediately after his death was not entirely accurate. Credit the Washington Post for going back and doing additional reporting — and relaying to readers the revelations that are not so flattering or reassuring about their former colleague.

For starters, he was the odd sort of regime critic who sought funding from the regime he criticized:

In September 2017, at the same time he was embarking on a new role as opinion columnist for The Washington Post, he was pursuing up to $2 million in funding from the Saudi government for a think tank that he proposed to run in Washington, according to documents reviewed by the paper that appear to be part of a proposal he submitted to the Saudi ministry of information.

And whether he intended it or not, Khashoggi ended up playing the role of something of an off-the-books government spokesman:

In one case, Khashoggi told the ambassador that he had been contacted by a former FBI agent working on behalf of families of victims of the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks — in which 15 of the 19 hijackers were Saudi. He said he would go forward with the meeting and emphasize “the innocence of my country and its leadership.”

But here’s where it gets really uncomfortable for the Post:

Perhaps most problematic for Khashoggi were his connections to an organization funded by Saudi Arabia’s regional nemesis, Qatar. Text messages between Khashoggi and an executive at Qatar Foundation International show that the executive, Maggie Mitchell Salem, at times shaped the columns he submitted to The Washington Post, proposing topics, drafting material and prodding him to take a harder line against the Saudi government. Khashoggi also appears to have relied on a researcher and translator affiliated with the organization, which promotes Arabic-language education in the United States.

This . . . makes Khashoggi look less like an independent journalist and more like an agent of another country that was, if not an enemy of Saudi Arabia, then certainly a rival.

The article goes on to quote:

Editors at The Post’s opinion section, which is separate from the newsroom, said they were unaware of these arrangements, or his effort to secure Saudi funding for a think tank. “The proof of Jamal’s independence is in his journalism,” Fred Hiatt, editorial page editor of The Post, said in a statement. “Jamal had every opportunity to curry favor and to make life more comfortable for himself, but he chose exile and — as anyone reading his work can see — could not be tempted or corrupted.”

Boy, how awkward must that conversation between the news section and the editorial section have been?

There’s also this curious detail:

She noted that Khashoggi’s English abilities were limited and said that the foundation did not pay Khashoggi nor seek to influence him on behalf of Qatar.

If Khashoggi’s English abilities were limited . . . how did he get a gig as a Washington Post columnist?

ADDENDUM: Once the Senate works through a deal to reopen the government, it has a huge pile of work to get to: confirmation hearings for at least five cabinet officials; about 30 judges awaiting a confirmation vote; 45 nominees to be ambassadors; and about 150 other nominees for positions throughout the executive branch, including director of the U.S. Census Bureau, U.S. Marshals Service, National Park Service, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the Bureau of Labor Statistics, and inspector generals for the Departments of Energy, Homeland Security, HUD, director of the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy, and White House director of National Drug Control Policy.

Oh, and the debt ceiling is reinstated March 2, meaning that they need to raise it sometime in the months after that.

Politics & Policy

People Believe ‘Fake News’ Because They Want it to Be True

A news stand outfitted with “Fake News” headlines in a stunt by the Columbia Journalism Review in New York, N.Y., October 30, 2018. (Carlo Allegri/REUTERS)

There was a time that this was the second busiest shopping day of the year, as everyone went back to the stores to return the gifts that they didn’t like or that didn’t fit. This year, it’s projected to be the eighth busiest shopping day of the year.

No, Really, We’re Talking about Literal ‘Fake News’

One more major journalistic scandal before the year closes out:

Der Spiegel has announced that it will press charges against a former star reporter accused of systemically faking interviews and articles, in what might be the biggest journalism scandal in Germany since another newsmagazine published fake Hitler diaries 35 years ago…

On Saturday night, the magazine announced in one of the many articles documenting Mr. [Claas] Relotius’s misdeeds that the editors would be filing a criminal complaint against him after it emerged that he had set up a private donation drive ostensibly to help two Syrian orphans that he had profiled.

According to Der Spiegel, only one of the two orphans exists, and the aid money went to the reporter’s private bank account.

Quite a few noticed Relotius’s “Gorillas in the Mist”-style reporting among conservatives in the American heartland, and Richard Grenell, the pugnacious U.S. Ambassador to Germany, contends that this is a systemic problem at the publication: “Spiegel hasn’t answered as to how this fraud happened. One reporter was able to publish anti-American propaganda for years without an editor or fact-checker?! It’s absurd for them to pretend this is only about one reporter.”

In the Washington Post, Charles Lane points out the hard truth that a lot of mainstream journalists prefer not to think about too much:

Reporters and editors are as susceptible to motivated reasoning and confirmation bias as readers are, though we say, and believe, that professional norms and training equip us to resist distorting influences.

Yet the power of stereotype remains… While many German journalists report honestly from this country, going to great lengths to travel and meet ordinary people, the gun-toting, death-penalty-seeking, racist American nonetheless remains a stock character of much superficial coverage, particularly in left-leaning outlets such as Hamburg-based Der Spiegel.

But notice that this section at the end of the magazine’s apology letter:

As an editor and section head, your first reaction when receiving stories like this is to be pleased, not suspicious. You are more interested in evaluating the story based on criteria such as craftsmanship, dramaturgy and harmonious linguistic images than on whether it’s actually true. And Relotius always delivered excellent stories that required little editing and were very rewarding.

That sentence in bold should be a giant, flashing, red and neon danger sign. Spiegel is offering a good description of the job of a fiction editor.

Why do people believe stories that aren’t true? Because they either find it plausible enough that they don’t feel any need for wariness or further investigation, or because they want it to be true.

You may recall viral tweets and stories about the tax cut claiming that “school teachers can no longer deduct the cost of their classroom supplies on their taxes” or that  “a letter from Medicaid and Social Security” told a man his “severely disabled autistic 7 year old son just lost his healthcare and benefits” because of the tax bill. These were spread virally because a lot of people think backwards from the conclusion towards the evidence — that is, they think the tax bill is bad, and sick kids and overburdened teachers are bad, ergo, the tax bill must be making these bad things happen.

Sure, Claas Relotius is primarily responsible for the appalling scandal, and his editors are the next most responsible. But part of this is on the German high-end, left-of-center, vaguely or sometimes not-so-vaguely anti-American Der Spiegel audience that ate up his stories with a spoon. They believed his stories because they wanted to believe his stories. Because if he painted a different portrait — of a United States with a thriving economy, very low unemployment, declining crime, an all-time low abortion rate, record-low teen pregnancy, record-high high school graduation rates, and a significant drop in teen drug use — then the readership wouldn’t feel quite as superior about all of those toothless, hapless, ignorant Americans.

This comes as Germany’s got its own problems — its own long-term economic anxieties, a government held together by complicated alliances among political parties, social tensions exacerbated by taking in about a million refugees, serious doubts around the continent about the future of the European Union . . . no wonder the readership preferred to read about how bad things were in America.

Beto-Mania Lives and Thrives

CNN asked its contributors, “Which Democrat running for president will lead the polls of Democratic voters at the end of 2019?” (Notice this asks not who do you like or prefer, but who is the one who you think will be leading the polls.) Beto O’Rourke was the most frequent answer, named by S.E. Cupp, James Gagliano, Joey Jackson, Scott Jennings, Peniel Joseph, Jen Psaki, Alice Stewart, and Jeff Yang. The next-closest was Joe Biden, named by three contributors.

If nothing else, this tells us that Beto O’Rourke’s name is still in the forefront of the minds of folks in the news business, and these folks think he has a shot. It’s easier to be a winner if you’re perceived as a potential winner.

Unmentioned by any of the 14 contributors who participated: Julian Castro, Cory Booker, Eric Holder, Michael Bloomberg, Sherrod Brown, Kirsten Gillibrand, Tom Steyer, or Elizabeth Warren.

The Coming Year of Confirmations

The U.S. Senate will have a busy 2019. Many conservatives had hoped it would be busy with confirmation hearings for more federal judges, but it will have to spend at least some portion of the early year on confirmation hearings for the Trump cabinet replacements. The country is operating with an acting attorney general, an acting administrator of the Environmental Protection Agency and starting in a few days, an acting Secretary of Defense. A new Secretary of the Interior and ambassador to the United Nations will need to be confirmed. Oh, and the White House has an acting chief of staff, which does not require Senate approval.

While we should always take claims that “Trump is about to fire X” with a grain of salt, there are reports that Trump is frustrated with Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin, Homeland Security Secretary Kirstjen Nielsen, and acting chief of staff Mick Mulvaney.

Trump has repeatedly complained about the slow pace of confirmations in the Senate. One wonders whether at some point, Majority Leader Mitch McConnell will grow irritated that so much of the Senate calendar is getting eaten up by the need to confirm replacement-cabinet secretaries.

ADDENDUM: From now until New Year’s, the end-of-the-year awards of the Three Martini Lunch continue.

Politics & Policy

James Mattis Can’t Work for Trump Anymore

Secretary of Defense James Mattis attends a news conference at the Defence Ministry in Paris, France, October 2, 2018. (Philippe Wojazer/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: It’s all pretty grim today. Defense Secretary James Mattis resigns, the pullout from Syria appears likely to happen, and the government shutdown starts soon. Hey, Merry Christmas, everybody!

The Resignation of James Mattis Is the Scariest Moment of Trump’s Presidency

This is bad. Really, really bad.

Defense Secretary James Mattis was arguably the best and most important cabinet decision that President Trump made. Indisputably qualified and brimming with experience, he personified what the Trump administration presumably wanted to be: tough, smart, thoroughly reassuring, and sometimes intimidating. As a man who had seen war up close many times, Mattis sought to avoid it. If it couldn’t be avoided, Mattis was ready to fight it and win it.

Foreign-allied leaders who were freaked out by Trump came away comforted and encouraged by Mattis. Military leaders often have to work with their foreign counterparts on joint exercises, coalition operations, on foreign bases, or as military attachés, and our uniformed officers often end up becoming adept diplomats, used to working out differences, figuring out common ground, soothing egos and making reassuring gestures of respect. No matter what Trump said or did, Mattis and the other experienced folks around him reassured the world that the president’s furious passions could be channeled into constructive directions: bombing ISIS into oblivion. Sending retaliatory airstrikes at Bashar al-Assad when he used chemical weapons. Taking a tough line on Iran. Standing with the Japanese against Chinese expansion and South Korea against North Korean threats, and protecting the sea lanes.

Mattis was also clearly not a sycophant or yes-man. He could be counted on to tell it exactly as he saw it, whether the president wanted to hear it or not. Whether or not any president likes hearing these sorts of assessments, every president needs to hear them.

The funny thing is that the man once known as “Saint Mattis of Quantico, Patron Saint of Chaos” could become such a assuring figure of order and stability.

And now he’s quit, concluding that he can no longer work for this president.

Yesterday while defending the withdrawal of U.S. forces, Trump tweeted, “Time for others to finally fight…..” which is a stunning insult to the Kurds, the Iraqi army, and Syrian Defense Forces, who did most of the fighting on the ground against ISIS.

Mattis’s letter does not pull any punches.

One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies. Like you, I have said from the beginning that the armed forces of the United States should not be the policeman of the world. Instead, we must use all tools of American power to provide for the common defense, including providing effective leadership to our alliances…

It is clear that China and Russia, for example, want to shape a world consistent with their authoritarian model — gaining veto authority over other nations’ economic, diplomatic, and security decisions — to promote their own interests at the expense of their neighbors, America and our allies. That is why we must use all the tools of American power to provide for the common defense.

My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.

Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position.

The fact that Mattis is laying this out so openly — I believe our alliances are valuable and that Russia and China are threats, and the president does not agree with me — should frighten us, as should the fact that Mattis found their differences irreconcilable and worth resigning over.

How Syria Is a Textbook Example of Eliminating Threats with Minimal Casualties

Like the dog that didn’t bark in the old Sherlock Holmes story, there’s something strange about public response to our military efforts in Syria, and President Trump’s call to remove all U.S. personnel from that country: Where’s the old anti-war movement? Remember when we had anti-war protesters regularly? Code Pink?

Polling revealed that most anti-war protesters lost interest right around Obama’s election — indicating that it was never that much of an anti-war movement and always more of an anti-Bush movement. A lot of people chanting in the streets during the Bush years were perfectly fine with vastly expanded drone strikes, a presidential “kill list,” and airstrikes or military raids in Afghanistan, Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen, Somalia, and Pakistan. As long as a Democratic president was ordering it all, they were fine with it.

But today, even with another Republican in the Oval Office, there is no vocal movement to get U.S. troops out of Syria — or anywhere else, really. I know those crowds back in the 2000s looked old, but they couldn’t have all died off, could have they?

You know how many U.S. servicemen have lost their lives in Syria?

Five.

That’s not Vietnam. That’s not Iraq. That’s not even Panama. The Pentagon never likes to say exactly how many U.S. armed forces are in a country, but as of last December, we had 2,000.

The operations killed between 8,000 and 9,000 ISIS members, as of an estimate last month by the Syrian Observatory of Human Rights.

The intervention in Syria is pretty much a textbook example of how to influence events on the ground in once-hostile territory without severe casualties. As mentioned above, the vast majority of the ground fighting against ISIS was handled by the Syrian Defense Forces, the Kurds, and the Iraqi army. We provided the airstrikes, the intelligence, some training, and occasional work alongside other allied groups on key missions. If you want to get a sense of how the forces work together, you can watch helmet-cam footage of a Kurdish Peshmerga special forces working with U.S. Delta Force Hawija Operation Iraq in October 2015. The mission freed 70 prisoners from an ISIS-held compound during a nighttime raid. During that operation, Army Master Sgt. Joshua Wheeler was killed, the first U.S. military casualty against ISIS. From what can be seen on the video, the operation is well-planned, methodical, and quick.

Could we reduce the number of U.S. troops in Syria? Sure, if the conditions warranted it and the people running the operation and folks on the ground thought it was a good idea. If this is the right move, make the case for it, beyond tired lines about “being the world’s policeman.” If the Kurds and Free Syrian Army don’t need us as much as they used to, show us. Consult allies. If the generals and national security council and intelligence community all said a gradual, measured withdrawal was a good idea, then it wouldn’t be shocking or troubling.

The editors conclude that Trump’s decision is . . . Obama-esque.

Trump is reportedly disregarding the counsel of his own national-security team. They have allegedly talked him out of previous retreats, articulating many of the reasons outlined above, but today’s announcement is proof that, for all the supposed consolation that an inexperienced president has surrounded himself with capable national-security advisers, his decision is the one that matters.

One would think that a GOP administration would have learned the lessons of Obama’s reckless withdrawal from Iraq. American retreats often create power vacuums that are often filled by American enemies. Now, after all the blood spilled and tears shed since the rise of ISIS, Donald Trump is set to make his own version of Obama’s deadly mistake.

Here Comes the Third Government Shutdown of 2018.

I suppose Trump deserves credit for not surrendering on the wall in his last spending bill until the Democrats take over the House — or at least not yet. But now he’s in a showdown with limited leverage. He seems to be following a variation of the strategy from those gnomes from South Park:

  1. Veto any spending bill that doesn’t fund the wall and shut down the government.
  2. ???
  3. Democrats surrender and agree to fund the wall.

Democrats might surrender if they feared they were being blamed for the shutdown. But that’s a much harder public argument to win, now that the president has declared, on national television in the Oval Office:

I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.

This morning, Trump is warning, “If the Dems vote no, there will be a shutdown that will last for a very long time.” If this occurs, it would be the third government shutdown of the year. Why would the Democrats be afraid of this? In fact, some might argue that now they have to vote “no,” to prove that they can’t be bullied by this president.

I guess the plan is to have a long shutdown, put the squeeze on as many federal workers as possible, and hope that the federal workers pressure Democrats to throw Trump a bone and approve a few billion in funding for the wall. But if you’re a Democratic lawmaker, the consequences of the government shutdown have to get really bad before they get worse than the consequences of surrendering to the president on funding for the border wall.

Trump’s alterative backup plan is to argue that Mitch McConnell should nuke the filibuster and pass the wall funding with 50 votes. But this isn’t a decision that the Senate majority leader makes alone. He needs 50 votes to do this, and he doesn’t have those votes. He’s got about half, according to Ted Cruz earlier this year.

Separately, Democrats are about to take over the House. No more conservative or mostly GOP-supported legislation is going to becoming over to the Senate starting in January, so the filibuster is about to become irrelevant. And if they nuke it now, and Democrats win 50 seats in November 2020 . . . the GOP will have no way to stop the entire Democratic agenda from becoming law.

But I suppose this argument gives the president the next best thing, which is a scapegoat.

ADDENDUM: Starting today: the Three Martini Lunch podcast End-of-the-Year Awards, inspired by the old McLaughlin Group episodes. Over the next six weekdays, Greg and I will select the most underrated, most overrated, and most honest political figures; the political figure we’re sorry to see go, the rising star, and the figure fading into oblivion; the best scandal, the best political theater, and the worst political theater; the best political idea, the worst political idea, and the boldest political tactic; the most underreported story, the most over-reported story, and the best story; and finally, the person of the Year, the turncoat of the year,  and our big prediction for 2019.

White House

Trump Blew His Chances of Building the Wall

President Donald Trump speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., December 18, 2018. (Jim Young/REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Suddenly President Trump is lamenting that there’s “so much talk about the wall” and that the “border is tight”; the president announces, with little warning, that he wants to repeat Barack Obama’s worst mistake in the Middle East; and a trio of odd stories worth discussion in the Corner.

It’s December 20. If you haven’t bought that Christmas gift yet, you had better order it now.

Wait, Now the President Thinks People Are Too Focused on ‘The Wall’?

This morning brings an extremely odd presidential statement that people seem too focused on the wall as a component of border security: “With so much talk about the Wall, people are losing sight of the great job being done on our Southern Border by Border Patrol, ICE and our great Military. Remember the Caravans? Well, they didn’t get through and none are forming or on their way. Border is tight. Fake News silent!”

Eight days ago, this president sat in the Oval Office arguing with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi and explicitly and loudly drew a red line over the issue of the border wall. He was not vague, and he did not leave himself wiggle room.

THE PRESIDENT: You know what I’ll say: Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other — whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government. Absolutely.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER SCHUMER: Okay. Fair enough. We disagree.  

THE PRESIDENT: And I am proud — and I’ll tell you what — 

SENATE MINORITY LEADER SCHUMER: We disagree.  

THE PRESIDENT: I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country. So I will take the mantle. I will be the one to shut it down. I’m not going to blame you for it. The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work. I will take the mantle of shutting down.

HOUSE SPEAKER-DESIGNATE PELOSI: That is (inaudible).

 THE PRESIDENT: And I’m going to shut it down for border security.

And the president was explicit and clear in that televised meeting: without the wall, the border is not really secure.

BLOCK Q (Inaudible), Mr. President. You say border security and the wall. Can you have border security without the wall? There’s a commonality on border security.

THE PRESIDENT: No, you need the wall. The wall is a part of border security.

Now he’s insisting that the “border is tight”?

Everything he said in that meeting was a bluff. Pelosi and Schumer called his bluff. And now Trump has to slink away from the table with a loss and lamely insist that the border wall that was the centerpiece of his campaign wasn’t really needed all along.

Whatever happened to “He’s a fighter”? I thought everybody who disagreed with him was a squish and a cuck and a wimp and simply wasn’t as strong and tough as the president.

This was the guy who declared in his convention speech, “Nobody knows the system better than me, which is why I alone can fix it.” We’re two years into his presidency, and he had a GOP Senate and GOP House . . . and he didn’t get significant wall funding. (About 40 miles worth of old, damaged, or porous fencing have been replaced or are being replaced by bollard fencing in six spots.) He’s going to have a much harder time with a House of Representatives controlled by Democrats. This negotiation was his last chance — and he folded.

Apparently, We Are Doomed to Repeat the Same Mistakes in Counterterrorism Forever

Yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast, discussing President Trump’s announcement that we’re withdrawing all U.S. troops from Syria, offered the darkest of dark humor: “Come on, Greg! When’s the last time we withdrew all of our troops from a Middle Eastern country and then watched a whole bunch of Islamists come in and take over? That hasn’t happened for five or six years now.”

As Detective Rust Cohle declares in the first season of True Detective, “Time is a flat circle. Everything we’ve ever done or will do, we’re gonna do over and over and over again.”

It would be nice if American policymakers, military leaders, and the people could confront a difficult possibility and have an open, honest discussion about it: “Keeping dangerous, terrorism-supporting Islamists from coming to power in certain places in the Middle East (and probably Afghanistan as well) will require a permanent, or near-permanent, military presence comparable to the presence of our forces in Germany, Japan, and South Korea.”

That’s a really unappealing course of action. But the return of ISIS or the rise of some other Islamist, terror-supporting enclave or statelet is almost certainly worse.

Think about how differently modern history unfolds if the United States and Iraq work out that Status of Forces agreement back in 2011, after the 2008 one expired. With U.S. troops still in the neighborhood, ISIS probably doesn’t capture Fallujah and Mosul in 2014 and Ramadi in 2015. Iraqi forces probably don’t run and abandon their weapons knowing that American airstrikes have their back. The near-genocide of the Yazidis probably never happens. The Syrian civil war would probably still happen, but it wouldn’t be nearly as bloody and horrific on such a vast scale. Fewer refugees head towards Europe, and the resulting social tensions never roil European politics. And maybe attacks like San Bernardino and Orlando don’t happen, or the 2015 Paris attacks, the Brussels airport attack, Istanbul’s international-airport bombing, the 2016 truck attack in Nice, France, or any one of the dozens of deadly attacks attributed to ISIS around the world. ISIS never becomes the best-known, most-feared, most-inspiring-angry-losers Islamist terror group in the world and just blends into the crowd of al-Qaeda, Boko Haram, Ansar-al-Islam, the Taliban, Abu Sayyaf . . .

Back in March 2015, Graeme Wood wrote in The Atlantic what was at that time probably the best, most detailed, and most illuminating portrait of ISIS, and part of his article examined Western options for dealing with the threat it posed. But the overall tone was grim and pessimistic, and the essay concluded:

That the Islamic State holds the imminent fulfillment of prophecy as a matter of dogma at least tells us the mettle of our opponent. It is ready to cheer its own near-obliteration, and to remain confident, even when surrounded, that it will receive divine succor if it stays true to the Prophetic model. Ideological tools may convince some potential converts that the group’s message is false, and military tools can limit its horrors. But for an organization as impervious to persuasion as the Islamic State, few measures short of these will matter, and the war may be a long one, even if it doesn’t last until the end of time.

But by November 2017, ISIS controlled no significant territory. A combination of U.S. and coalition airstrikes, the Iraqi army, the Syrian Democratic Forces, and the Kurds hammered away at them, and month by month liberated cities and eventually scattered the ISIS forces. It’s gone as a state, but not as a terrorist group.

But perhaps one of the reasons we hear so much less about ISIS this year, compared to the days of San Bernardino and Orlando, is because part of the ISIS mystique was controlling territory, running a state, and claiming to be the new caliphate. As Wood wrote:

One way to un-cast the Islamic State’s spell over its adherents would be to overpower it militarily and occupy the parts of Syria and Iraq now under caliphate rule. Al‑Qaeda is ineradicable because it can survive, cockroach-like, by going underground. The Islamic State cannot. If it loses its grip on its territory in Syria and Iraq, it will cease to be a caliphate. Caliphates cannot exist as underground movements, because territorial authority is a requirement: take away its command of territory, and all those oaths of allegiance are no longer binding. Former pledges could of course continue to attack the West and behead their enemies, as freelancers. But the propaganda value of the caliphate would disappear, and with it the supposed religious duty to immigrate and serve it. If the United States were to invade, the Islamic State’s obsession with battle at Dabiq suggests that it might send vast resources there, as if in a conventional battle. If the state musters at Dabiq in full force, only to be routed, it might never recover.

Why would we take the risk?

Even as Trump defends his decision to pull all U.S. troops out of Syria, he’s contradicting himself. The president tweeted yesterday, “We have defeated ISIS in Syria, my only reason for being there during the Trump Presidency.”

This morning he tweets, “Does the USA want to be the Policeman of the Middle East, getting NOTHING but spending precious lives and trillions of dollars protecting others who, in almost all cases, do not appreciate what we are doing? Do we want to be there forever? Time for others to finally fight . . . Russia, Iran, Syria & many others are not happy about the U.S. leaving, despite what the Fake News says, because now they will have to fight ISIS and others, who they hate, without us. I am building by far the most powerful military in the world. ISIS hits us they are doomed!”

If ISIS is defeated, why is it someone else’s responsibility to fight ISIS?

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday: No, America is not one of the most dangerous countries in the world for journalists; one of Rudy Giuliani’s biggest critics of today was one of his biggest fans eleven years ago; and there is, so far, no good reason for any Texas Republican to oppose Shahid Shafi in any position and the recent effort to oust him looks like straight-up religious bigotry.

Politics & Policy

Conservatives Keep Giving Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez Exactly What She Wants

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez celebrates after upsetting incumbent Representative Joe Crowley, June 26, 2018. (Scott Heins/Getty Images)

Making the click-through worthwhile: how Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez needs critical media coverage and why conservatives keep giving her what she wants, even worse news about the police response to the Parkland school shooting, hopes collapse for construction of a wall on America’s southern border collapse, and a look back at previous efforts by Russian intelligence to tear at America’s social fabric and inflame racial and ethnic tensions.

Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez’s Symbiotic Relationship with Critical Media Coverage

Publicly discussing incoming congresswoman Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez is something like the assessment of nuclear war in WarGames: The only way to win is to not play.

If you point out that she doesn’t know what she’s talking about in off-the-cuff remarks, you’ll be accused of being some sort of elitist snob who thinks members of Congress should know that the unemployment rate is not low because of people working second jobs, how many chambers of Congress there are, or have a rough approximation of the size of the defense budget, and not miss by $20 trillion or so.

To the best of my recollection, I’ve written about her twice since her primary win in June and spoken about her a few times on the Three Martini Lunch or other venues. That doesn’t matter; I will inevitably be accused of being “obsessed” with her just for writing this item in today’s newsletter.

Perhaps some venues can be fairly accused of being obsessed with her. FoxNews.com has 16 articles or video segments about her so far this month, nearly one a day. On the other hand, if she didn’t want people talking about her taking a week off for “self care,” she presumably wouldn’t have posted about it on Instagram. And why wouldn’t she attract attention? The story “29-year-old former bartender gets elected to Congress” is the sort of fish-out-of-water story that is usually found in comedy films and sitcoms. You don’t usually see members of Congress who are openly socialist.

But she is also occasionally genuinely surprising. While other New York Democrats such as Governor Andrew Cuomo and Mayor Bill de Blasio celebrated the deal to bring Amazon to New York City, she trashed the deal as corporate welfare. When Matt Yglesias wrote at Vox that she should run for president “and dare the Supreme Court to stop her,” she publicly dismissed the idea. “Sometimes political media is too fixated on personalities instead of policies. The whole country JUST went through an exhausting midterm election. We need a break. Can we instead talk about healthcare, a living wage, legalizing cannabis, GND, & other issues?”

She’s developed a relationship with Fox News (and now, apparently Politico) that is as symbiotic as the one between President Trump and CNN or the New York Times. The media institutions offer stories that cast the politician in a bad light, the politician hits back insisting that the whole thing is made up and part of a personal vendetta, the viewers and readers are pleased because they like juicy stories of politicians looking bad, and the politician’s supporters are pleased because their preferred candidate looks like “a fighter.” Everybody goes home happy until the next news cycle demands the process begin again. Critical media coverage gives Ocasio-Cortez an enemy, a foe that she can claim is unfairly bullying her — or to use her words, “stalking,” and pose as someone standing up to the bully.

Because of the demographics of Ocasio-Cortez’s district, she is likely to have that House seat for as long as she lives or as long as she’s interested. In terms of how she’s is covered, she’s probably a stand-in for audience attitudes about whole demographics — Millennials, socialists, women, Latinas. Audiences that think Millennials are clueless probably eat up stories of her gaffes like potato chips. Audiences that think Millennials are the vanguard of a better future relish every time she tells someone off.

There are going to be a lot of, “Oh my God, can you believe Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez said this?!” pieces until the political-news audience gets bored with her. But we should believe that she said this latest thing because . . . that’s what she does. She doesn’t face the voters for another two years and there’s really no comment about Trump or the media that could cost her any serious ground in her district.

Ocasio-Cortez is one of 43 new Democratic members of the House, but she’s a lot more likely to make news in her comments than, say, Florida’s Donna Shalala or South Carolina’s Joe Cunningham, still pledging to fight against a plan to drill off the coast that will never happen. The relentless coverage of her, positive and negative, gives House Democrats an important tool for amplifying their preferred message. Right now, her primary value to the rest of the party is as a megaphone, getting the media to talk about whatever she’s talking about. If the media — left, right, and center — covered her as just another freshman House member, the path ahead of her would become much more difficult.

Good Luck, Broward-County Citizens

If you thought the story of the police response to the school shooting in Parkland, Fla., couldn’t possibly get any worse . . . it just got worse:

In the weeks after a deadly school shooting in Parkland, Fla., widespread criticism was focused on Scot Peterson, the armed sheriff’s deputy who heard the exploding gunfire but failed to run in and try to stop the massacre.

But a state commission that has been investigating the Feb. 14 attack at Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School for the past 10 months found that the shortfall in the police response went much further: Seven other sheriff’s deputies who raced to the school and heard gunshots also stayed outside the building, the commission found, and officers lost even more time scrambling to retrieve bulletproof vests from their cars.

A total of 17 students and staff members lost their lives in an attack that spanned a full six minutes; 17 others were injured.

How is Sheriff Israel still employed?

And has anyone at CNN looked at their atrocious nationally televised “town hall meeting” where Dana Loesch was the scapegoat for the nation’s gun violence and gasped, “Dear God, how did we botch this story so badly? How did we allow the leader of the police force who completely fumbled the response to the crisis to blame everyone but his own department for what happened?”

Forty Miles of Big, Beautiful Bollard Fence

A week ago, I wrote:

. . . what makes this current ongoing fight over a spending bill different from all the others [is that it is] probably Trump’s last chance to get a big chunk of funding for “the wall.” If Trump runs for reelection with just 40 miles of bollard fencing complete, he’s probably toast. People voted for him because they believed he could get things done.

And now . . . it appears funding for the wall will not be arriving.

Ms. Sanders offered the first glimmers of a way out of the impasse in an interview Tuesday morning on Fox News, in which she said Mr. Trump — who only a week ago said he would be proud to force a shutdown over wall funding — did not want to see government funding lapse. She said the president was open to spending options short of the $5 billion lump sum he has demanded, and would find “different funding sources” to finance the wall.

“The president has asked every agency to look and see if they have money that could be used for that purpose,” she told reporters later.

Still, that would require approval from Congress, which Democrats said they would not grant.

Whatever happened to, “If we don’t get what we want one way or the other, I will shut down the government”? What happened to “I am proud to shut down the government for border security” and “I will take the mantle of shutting it down”?

ADDENDUM: Last night I wrote on the Corner about how Russian intelligence has always tried to exacerbate racial tensions in the United States. A retired KGB colonel admitted in his memoir, “Attempting to show that America was inhospitable to Jews, we wrote anti-Semitic letters to American Jewish leaders. My fellow officers paid American agents to paint swastikas on synagogues in New York and Washington. Our New York station even hired people to desecrate Jewish cemeteries.”

Evil men in Moscow want us to hate each other.

Politics & Policy

Ringing in the New Year with a Recession

A trader at the New York Stock Exchange at closing bell, February 5, 2018. (Reuters photo: Brendan McDermid)

Making the click-through worthwhile: some ominous signs about the health of the economy and the outlook for 2019, Russia takes aim at Robert Mueller, the New York Times explores the upside of human extinction, and an out-of-the-box idea for paying for a new border wall.

Should We Be Worried about the U.S. Economy in 2019?

After a while, we start to tune out the dramatic swings in the stock market — a huge plunge one day, a rebound the next, an hour-by-hour roller coaster the day after that. A lot of us figure it will sort itself out eventually, and things will probably turn out okay. Maybe we shouldn’t.

Both the Dow Jones Industrial Average and the S&P 500 are on pace for their worst December performance since 1931, when stocks were battered during the Great Depression. The Dow and S&P 500 are down 7.8 percent and 7.6 percent this month, respectively.

December is typically a very positive month for markets. The Dow has only fallen during 25 Decembers going back to 1931.

The New York Times summarizes a whole lot of suddenly grim data:

The market has been buffeted by a range of concerns, from signs that the trade war between China and the United States is beginning to weigh on global growth to worries that higher interest rates will eat into corporate profits . . .

When the dust had cleared, the S&P 500 was down 2.1 for the day and 4.8 percent for the year. Should the market fail to recover, 2018 would be Wall Street’s worst year since the financial crisis a decade ago.

This year’s sell-off is nothing like the collapse of stocks a decade ago, when the S&P 500 fell more than 38 percent. But in its own way, 2018 is emerging as a remarkable year for financial markets, with almost every type of investment and asset class — stocks, bonds, commodities, even safe Treasuries — posting negative or minuscule returns.

Economists who are skeptical of President Trump’s outlook on trade and tariffs — and perhaps his policies as a whole — expected things to go south pretty quickly after he was inaugurated, and that didn’t happen. Instead, the markets soared, and the economy roared. But every economic boom ends eventually, and this one has been going for 97 months. Last week, a survey of U.S. chief financial officers found that half believe a recession will strike the U.S. economy by the end of 2019; 80 percent think it will arrive by the end of 2020.

Keep in mind a recession does not necessarily mean another “Great Recession.” Economists define a recession as two consecutive quarters of declining gross domestic product. In the third quarter of 2018, the United States GDP was 3.5 percent; the one before that it was 4.2 percent.

Is it being driven by trade? Our trade deficit is up slightly, but U.S. exports are also slightly up, compared to the last two years. (Our exports just aren’t keeping up with our imports, even with the tariffs in place.)

There were some signs that 2019 was going to be a big year for the markets. Uber, Lyft, Palantir, Slack, and perhaps Airbnb were all discussing launching “initial public offerings,” which is when a company moves from being privately owned to publicly traded. Those moves are generally seen as a sign of economic confidence.

If the economy goes into recession in 2019, President Trump may well relish having the Democratic-controlled House to blame. It’s unlikely that House Democrats will have much ability to influence U.S. economic policy, other than blocking any new initiatives from the Trump administration. But the timing for them would be pretty bad — they step into the new majority and the economy suddenly slows on their watch.

Are Russian Bots Eating Away at Robert Mueller’s Reputation?

A natural follow-up to yesterday’s Jolt — are the not-so-great public-opinion numbers for Robert Mueller a reflection of a Russian effort on social media?

Months after President Trump took office, Russia’s disinformation teams trained their sights on a new target: special counsel Robert S. Mueller III. Having worked to help get Trump into the White House, they now worked to neutralize the biggest threat to his staying there.

The Russian operatives unloaded on Mueller through fake accounts on Facebook, Twitter and beyond, falsely claiming that the former FBI director was corrupt and that the allegations of Russian interference in the 2016 election were crackpot conspiracies. One post on Instagram — which emerged as an especially potent weapon in the Russian social media arsenal — claimed that Mueller had worked in the past with “radical Islamic groups.”

Do you think there are a lot of real-life, flesh-and-blood, non-bot American people walking around who believe a former FBI director “worked with radical Islamist groups”? U.S. Marine rifle platoon leader in Vietnam; chest full of medals including a Bronze Star and Purple Heart; U.S. attorney for twelve years; oversaw the prosecutions of Manuel Noriega, John Gotti, and Lockerbie bombers; taking a pay and prestige cut to prosecute murders in Washington D.C. in the Clinton years; FBI director during 9/11; every decision reviewed by the 9/11 Commission; defender of NSA surveillance; God knows how many background checks throughout his career . . .  and the guy is supposedly a secret Islamist? People have been watching too many Homeland episodes.

Yesterday, a couple people scoffed that the public-opinion numbers of Robert Mueller don’t matter, because he’s investigating crimes and matters of law, not public opinion. Well, yes and no. When he and his team are in a courtroom, then yes, all that matters is what the judge and jury think.

But if this is all building up to criminal charges against the president, then public opinion matters a great deal. Impeachment is an inherently political process, and the outcome of that effort will depend a great deal on whether the American public trusts Mueller’s assessment and conclusions, or whether enough people believe that Mueller has a political agenda or that he was simply determined to keep looking until he could plausibly charge the president with a crime, even if it was far afield of his original mandate of Russian interference into the 2016 elections.

Professor: Hey, Maybe We’ve Been Too Quick to Judge this Human Extinction Thing

Robert Frost once described a liberal as “a man too broadminded to take his own side in an argument.”

We can update that to being too broadminded to fully take our own side on the issue of human extinction.

Todd May, a professor of philosophy at Clemson University, writes in today’s New York Times:

 . . . what I am asking here is simply whether it would be a tragedy if the planet no longer contained human beings. And the answer I am going to give might seem puzzling at first. I want to suggest, at least tentatively, both that it would be a tragedy and that it might just be a good thing… Humanity is the source of devastation of the lives of conscious animals on a scale that is difficult to comprehend.”

Let me guess, when he went to watch the Avengers movie, he rooted for Thanos?

ADDENDUM: On Fox News, Michael Goodwin calls for a GoFundMe for a border wall. Well, that’s one way to work around obstinate congressional negotiators.

Culture

The Weekly Standard, RIP

Bill Kristol at CPAC 2011 (Gage Skidmore)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Robert Mueller apparently isn’t interested in fighting in the court of public opinion, and that might be a major advantage to President Trump; some thoughts on who’s hurt most by the end of The Weekly Standard; debating the folks who are angered or upset by discussions about the contributions of minorities throughout American history; and some quick comments on Fox News yesterday.

Trump’s Scoring Points against Mueller in One Venue

Special counsel Robert Mueller hasn’t spoken on camera, hasn’t done any press conferences, and is, as far as we can tell, focusing his energies entirely on winning his battles in the courtroom. President Trump is focusing on winning in the court of public opinion.

At some point, the national guessing game ends and Mueller issues his final report, and perhaps that will change everything. But so far, Trump and his allies are slowly gaining ground in their effort to chip away at the public’s trust in the former FBI director.

CNN’s most recent poll found that only 29 percent of Americans approve of how President Trump is handling the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election. (This number has never been higher than 34 percent.) But when asked what they think of how Mueller is handling the investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 election, 43 percent approve and 40 percent disapprove. That’s down from 48 percent approval and 36 percent disapproval in October. 

Using a different but related question to measure public opinion, Mueller’s approval rating is also down in that same poll: 43 percent approve and 40 percent disapprove. That compares to a 48 percent approval and 36 percent disapproval in early October. CNN concludes, “The dip in Mueller’s numbers comes almost entirely among independents, among whom approval has fallen 10 points to 36 percent.”

That same poll finds Trump’s job rating as president at 39 percent approval and 52 percent disapproval.

Are independents getting a little tired of what they deem to be “process crimes”? Do they not buy the idea that Michael Cohen was a dishonest jerk when he worked for Trump but is a reliable witness now that he’s cooperating with prosecutors? Or are they just impatient and feel like this investigation has been going on long enough and want to get some answers?

The same poll found 50 percent think that it is “likely” that the Mueller investigation will implicate Donald Trump personally in wrongdoing, while 43 percent said that they thought it was “not likely.”

Whatever Mueller finds and unveils, the decision about the consequences to President Trump will be hashed out in the public debate and, in all likelihood, in Congress — where a Democratic House is extremely likely to impeach the president no matter what Mueller finds, and a Republican Senate is extremely unlikely to convict the president no matter what Mueller finds.

When Mueller’s report is unveiled, presumably he and his staff and allies will fully engage in the public debate. But will Trump and his team have already inflicted irreparable damage to Mueller’s reputation by then?

Missing a Standard

If you want to gripe about William Kristol, fine; I have major beefs with folks who jump from anti-Trumpism to full-blown cheerleading for Democrats and abandoning their past views and positions on a wide variety of issues because of the rise of one particular political figure. But Kristol stopped editing The Weekly Standard back in December 2016, and he was always only one of many voices over there. If you’re cheering the demise of The Weekly Standard as a way of “getting” Kristol . . . one way or another, Kristol is going to be fine. Shutting down the Standard doesn’t punish Kristol. It punishes the John McCormacks, the Mark Hemingways, the Haley Byrds, the Rachel Larimores, all the folks in the art department, running the website, copy editors, the fresh-faced editorial assistants, ad-sales folks, and so on.

For those who argue that the Standard’s demise represents a triumph of the free market, note that almost no political magazine makes money. (My understanding is that National Review has done this twice. This is why it feels like we’re always asking for money. A broad base of small donors is more secure than being dependent upon one big one.) Advertisers are and probably always will be frightened of political magazines. If you want to run a profitable magazine, you probably make it look like Vogue, with lots of glossy pictures of models, showcasing the products of a luxury industry inclined to buy many pages of ads.

The Weekly Standard wasn’t much more or less profitable now than in previous years. If the money had simply run out, the story would be sad enough but common, for those of us who remember The American Enterprise, Policy Review, The Public Interest, the print version of Human Events and National Journal and when CQ and Roll Call were separate.

But in this case, there are claims that the owners of The Weekly Standard rebuffed inquiries from those interested in buying the magazine. They didn’t just want the financial loss taken off their hands; they allegedly wanted to eliminate a potential competitor for the relaunched Washington Examiner magazine. They closed it and laid off the entire staff, with little warning but plenty of ominous rumors, about a week before Christmas.

(Gee, it’s so hard to understand why employees are showing so little loyalty and respect to their employers, huh?)

The urge to see publications you disagree with fail is one step removed from censoriousness.

Why Are Some People So Insistent that Certain Chapters of History Not Be Discussed?

Friday’s article about the contribution of minority groups throughout American history brought some fascinating reactions. First, quite a few folks who aren’t usually fans of me or of National Review actually reached out and said, “Thank you for writing this.” No doubt a lot of people hunger for the message, “Your ancestors helped build this country, too” and perhaps with it an alternative to a well-established and not-all-that-accurate narrative that minority groups’ role in America was almost entirely that of the helpless victims.

But it was perhaps even more amazing to see the (admittedly mostly anonymous, possibly bot-like) responses on Twitter — who appeared deeply upset by a list of how minority groups shaped America from the beginning.

One declared: “The goal is to repeat it enough to make people think whites barely had a hand in building the nation.”

Really? You think people are going to forget or overlook the first 43 presidents, the Pilgrims, John Smith, Paul Revere, Thomas Paine, Ben Franklin, Henry Knox, Thomas Edison, Lewis and Clark, Buffalo Bill, Butch Cassidy, Wild Bill Hickock, Wild Bill Donovan, Wyatt Earp, Eliot Ness, General George S. Patton, Neil Armstrong, Mark Twain, Andrew Carnegie, J. P. Morgan, Elvis Presley, the Wright Brothers, Chuck Yeager, Will Rogers, Douglas MacArthur, Charles Lindbergh, J. Edgar Hoover, Ernest Hemingway, John D. Rockefeller, Charlie Chaplin, Babe Ruth, Billy Graham, Henry Ford, T. S. Eliot, Davy Crockett, Jim Bowie, Upton Sinclair, General John J. Pershing, Robert F. Kennedy, Earl Warren, Andy Warhol, Allen Dulles, Frank Lloyd Wright, Norman Rockwell, F. Scott Fitzgerald, Edgar Allen Poe, Walt Whitman, the Minutemen, the Green Mountain Boys, the Texas Rangers . . . Is there anyone who’s even remotely historically literate who believes that “whites barely had a hand in building the nation”?

I completely understand the fear that kids today are learning too little American history and that they’re getting an airbrushed version that overcompensates for any past hagiography of the Founding Fathers by embracing a relentless demonization of them for owning slaves and failing to live up to today’s visions of equality and justice. But why must it be all or nothing? Why does acknowledging the Founders’ flaws and hypocrisy mean that we can’t marvel at how they defied amazing odds to make a giant step forward in the cause of human liberty? And why does saluting their groundbreaking accomplishments mean we can’t or shouldn’t acknowledge their moral failings?

You don’t make people less informed by giving them more information about their country’s history. History is not a zero-sum game where paying attention to the contributions and efforts of one group means you automatically lessen or downplay the contributions and efforts of another group.

(Separately, it takes a real gift to make kids bored when learning about American history. Battles, assassinations, heroes, bravery, duels, discoveries, long journeys through dangerous terrain, spies, affairs, secret alliances, treachery and betrayals — kids, our history is a combination of Game of Thrones, Star Wars, and the Marvel movies, all rolled into one.)

Question: “Sir, who has appointed YOU the nation’s history teacher?”

Who do I have to be? Friday’s article was full of links — don’t take my word for it, read historians and the direct sources.

Another responded, “The theme is you are being paid to push a orchestrated narrative [sic]. Who is paying you?”

What “orchestrated narrative”? I moderated a panel discussion on identity politics on the NR cruise and started wondering whether we would be a more unified country if we stopped thinking about separate African-American history or Native-American history (as showcased in excellent Smithsonian museums) and started thinking about it all as one giant story of America as a whole.

Nobody’s orchestrating anything; this is history — much less-covered and -discussed history. Why do the stories of Revolutionary War spy James Armistead and independence ally General Bernardo de Gálvez and Chinese-born Gettysburg soldier Joseph Pierce threaten people so much? Why would someone get so invested in the idea that these stories can’t or shouldn’t be told or heard? As for who’s paying me, it’s the usual — National Review.

Another responded, “Wow, we should let unlimited meso Americans into our country with free everything now.”

That’s . . . not what was said in the article; it’s revealing that someone would instantly believe that the statement “Minorities have been shaping America from the beginning” must automatically be an argument for open borders, or that the reverse is true — that a secure border and orderly legal-immigration process requires us to downplay or ignore the contributions of past generations of immigrants and minority groups.

ADDENDUM: Here’s segment one and segment two of my appearance on Howard Kurtz’s MediaBuzz on Fox News Channel Sunday morning.

Elections

John Kasich Winning the 2020 Presidential Primary Is a Pipe Dream

Ohio governor John Kasich in 2016 (Reuters file photo: Aaron Josefczyk)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Ohio’s favorite son of a mailman suddenly realizes he’s not as popular as he hoped, an important look at minorities who have fought for America since the beginning, some bad numbers on the deficit, and where you can catch me this weekend.

John Kasich: Hey, a Primary Challenge against Trump in 2020 Might Not Work!

This is an unexpected acknowledgement of reality from a man who’s spent much of the past two years in stubborn denial of that reality.

In an interview with The Associated Press, [John] Kasich acknowledged he probably couldn’t defeat President Donald Trump if the election were held today.

He says he’s seriously considering his options and letting his advisers monitor the daily troubles Trump is facing, including talk of impeachment.

“If you’re going to run as a Republican you have to have a sense that if you get into primaries you can win. Right now, probably couldn’t win,” he told the AP. “But that’s today. It’s ever changing.”

There’s one school of thought that says that politically active Americans, the kind who vote in presidential primaries, are too quick to dismiss candidates who already have run for the Oval Office and lost. In any big endeavor, few people achieve perfect success in their first effort. Candidates who have run before hopefully have learned what to expect and can be better prepared for the inevitable bumps in the road. One-quarter of our presidents ran and lost before they won — including some likely favorites on the right such as Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush.

But there’s a part of me that feels as if any candidate who wants a second shot needs to demonstrate a clearer revised strategy beyond, “The American people suddenly realize what a terrible mistake they made by rejecting me the first time and, driven by shame and regret, they swarm, en masse, to my now-obvious wisdom and leadership.”

I guess Kasich is counting on special counsel Robert Mueller’s report coming out and making Trump absolutely radioactive, even among GOP primary voters. Trump’s job approval is currently 43 percent in the RealClearPolitics average, which is about where it’s been for a long time. The majority of that 43 percent is Republicans, obviously.

A substantial percentage of Republicans will only abandon Trump if he looks like a sure loser in 2020, and people will only feel like they know Trump’s odds for reelection when they know who the Democratic nominee is going to be. While it’s possible that Democrats unite behind one figure, it’s also possible that a divided party doesn’t determine its nominee until the convention, which will be held from July 13 to 16.

Republicans hold their convention from August 24 to 27, so it’s theoretically possible that during that six-week span, Republican delegates could conclude, “Wow, there’s no way Trump can win this matchup, he’ll lose badly and take down a lot of other candidates down-ticket, so we had better nominate someone else!” but this is not a particularly likely scenario. It’s also theoretically possible that Trump would prefer to not run for reelection so as not to experience an embarrassing defeat.

But even if the Republican delegates in summer 2020 are desperate to find a nominee to replace Trump, how likely is it that they would pick Kasich? Mike Pence would be more disciplined, Nikki Haley has much broader appeal, and both would presumably be acceptable to most Trump fans.

John Kasich is not a man who was just one or two unlucky bounces from winning the nomination last time. On paper, Kasich could have and should have run better than he did in 2016. As a John Weaver client named “John,” on paper, Kasich is tailor-made to run in New Hampshire. He won 15 percent, 20 points behind Trump. That was the lowest-hanging fruit for a candidate like him in the early stretch — Kasich went on to finish fifth with 7.5 percent in South Carolina and 3.6 percent in Nevada, and he flopped on Super Tuesday. In the Arizona primary, he finished behind Rubio, who had already withdrawn from the race.

You know who loved Kasich in 2016? The New York Times editorial board and Joy Behar. Of course, not only do those folks not vote in Republican primaries, their praise can be seen as sort of an anti-endorsement.

As I wrote in a profile of the Weaver clients, “How many consecutive cycles must Republicans continue to watch reruns of the same campaign — a strategy that wins rave reviews from liberals in the media and yawns from grassroots Republicans? How many more candidates will dust off the old Weaver playbook and boast of their independence, their determination to put ‘country first,’ and how they’re not like those other Republicans?”

America Was Always Diverse . . . Which Is a Big Part of What Made It Great

Few articles have been more fun to research, assemble, and write than this one, inspired by a discussion on the National Review cruise about identity politics. How do you cultivate a healthy pride in one’s heritage while making sure it doesn’t turn into factionalism? How do you ensure that everyone feels a uniting sense of national kinship without denying the different experiences that different groups have had in this country since the founding?

You start by recognizing that most of the groups that are seen as “outsiders” have been here and have been contributing to — and, in particular, fighting for — this nation, for a long time. In some cases, they’ve been fighting for what became America since the beginning.

Maybe you’re familiar with some of the individuals and groups mentioned in the piece: Crispus Attucks; the Navajo Code Talkers; the Four Chaplains of World War Two, or “Hi Jolly”; and the use of camels during westward expansion. I had some familiarity with Spain’s navies and forces opening up a second southern front during the Revolutionary War.

I had no idea that perhaps as much as one-quarter of the troops at the Battle of Yorktown were black. Nor that so many Hispanics served on both sides of the Civil War, nor that some of the first Asian Americans were fighting in that war as well. I had no idea that Filipino Americans founded small communities in Louisiana and fought alongside Andrew Jackson at the Battle of New Orleans. As I note, almost everyone knows the basics about Japanese internment, but I had never heard about a battalion of Japanese Americans fighting in Italy during World War Two. I had run across the name Haym Salomon but didn’t realize how important he was to keeping the Continental Army fed and clothed during the toughest parts of the Revolutionary War. I certainly hadn’t known that hundreds of Syrian Americans were on Henry Ford’s earliest assembly lines, or that thousands of Indian Sikhs had formed communities in California before World War One. I certainly had no idea that one out of every eight Native Americans alive during World War Two served in the U.S. armed forces.

I didn’t even mention some of the brave minority communities that popular culture or pop history have covered — Juan Seguin at the Alamo, the Tuskegee Airmen, the 54th Massachusetts Infantry Regiment depicted in the movie Glory, the Buffalo Soldiers.

The upshot of it all is that almost every group has been here, in bigger numbers than most think, much earlier than most think. And everybody contributed to the building of this great nation in one way or another — through their labor, through their culture and arts, and as covered in the piece, in many, many cases, fighting and dying to protect this nation. This would be a good point for our leaders to emphasize — that there are very few true newcomers to this country, and everyone has had something to contribute over our 242 years . . .

The Worst November Budget Deficit Ever?!?

If we still worried about this sort of thing, this is the sort of thing that would be very worrisome:

The U.S. posted the widest November budget deficit on record as spending doubled revenue.

Outlays jumped 18 percent to $411 billion last month, while receipts were little changed at $206 billion, the Treasury Department said in a monthly report on Thursday. That left a $205 billion shortfall, compared with a $139 billion gap a year earlier.

The U.S. ran the largest deficit in six years in fiscal 2018, the first full year of Donald Trump’s presidency when his Republican party enacted a tax-cut package and raised federal spending for the military and other priorities. The measures have added to the growing federal deficit, which is forecast to push past $1 trillion by 2020 when the U.S. next holds presidential elections.

Obama had a couple years of trillion-dollar deficits, but he at least had the excuse that the economy was slowly recovering from a deep recession and unemployment was high, so tax revenues would be lower than usual. Unemployment is low and the GDP is still going strong, so tax revenues shouldn’t be terribly low, and our pace of military operations is low compared to the past two decades. What happens if we hit an economic slowdown, recession, or a major military conflict?

ADDENDUM: I’m scheduled to appear on Howard Kurtz’s MediaBuzz on Fox News Channel this Sunday, which airs at 11 a.m. Eastern.

Politics & Policy

Nancy Pelosi: Term Limits for Thee, but Not for Me

House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi in Washington, D.C., November 15, 2018. (Yuri Gripas/REUTERS)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Nancy Pelosi announces her support for term limits for other people, Theresa May announces she’s on her way out, and Hallmark reaches another milestone in made-for-television saccharine.

House Democrats Get Busy Breaking Their Campaign Promises

In November 2002, after Democrats had failed to make gains in midterm elections, Dick Gephardt stepped down as House minority leader — and prepared for an ill-fated, short-lived presidential campaign. He passed the baton to Nancy Pelosi.

After a bit more than 16 years of leading her party in the House — as minority leader and then as speaker again and then minority leader again and now, soon to be speaker again — she says it’s time for term limits!

Rep. Nancy Pelosi all but ensured Wednesday that she will become House speaker next month, quelling a revolt by disgruntled younger Democrats by agreeing to limit her tenure to no more than four additional years in the chamber’s top post.

On Wednesday, she gave in to her opponents’ demands that she limit her service. Under the deal, House Democrats will vote by Feb. 15 to change party rules to limit their top three leaders to no more than four two-year terms, including time they’ve already spent in those jobs.

Everyone after her will be limited to eight years in leadership slots . . . but only after she has served two decades at the top.

You may recall that 58 Democratic House candidates pledged to not vote for Pelosi as speaker on the campaign trail; 15 of them won in November, and we’re still waiting to see how the allegations of voter fraud in North Carolina’s eleventh district shake out. Remember the names Anthony Brindisi, Ben McAdams, Mikie Sherrill, Jared Golden, Max Rose, Jeff Van Drew, Gil Cisneros, Andy Kim, Joe Cunningham, Jason Crow, Abigail Spanberger, Elissa Slotkin, Haley Stevens, Rashida Tlaib, and Jahanna Hayes? All of those new Democratic House members pledged on the campaign trail they wouldn’t vote for Pelosi — and now Pelosi will end up becoming speaker anyway.

Theoretically, these folks can say they kept their promise by not voting or writing in “Mickey Mouse” or whomever, but the fact remains that they attempted to distinguish themselves from the “old Democrats” under Pelosi . . . and now the new House Democrats don’t look all that different from the old House Democrats. Pelosi’s still the speaker, Steny Hoyer’s still majority leader, and Jim Clyburn is still House whip — the same as when they relinquished power back in 2010.

Oh, and House Democrats plan on bringing back earmarks.

A Democratic House leader on Tuesday predicted Congress will bring back earmarks early next year . . .

Incoming House Majority Leader Steny Hoyer (D-Md.) made the earmark forecast at a reporter briefing. He said they are a key part of Congress’ constitutional authority to tell the executive branch exactly where federal money should go.

“I am for what the Constitution says: Congress has the authority and responsibility to do: to raise and spend money,” he said.

You’ll notice that Democrats did not run on this in 2018; if fact, they ran on the opposite, signing a letter lamenting, “We hear day in and day out that special interests are drowning out the voices of everyday citizens — to the point where many Americans no longer believe their votes even count” and pledging to “quash the political influence, real or perceived, special interests currently have in our government.”

Just what do these people think earmarks are?

Looking Ahead on the Calendar to the End of May

In recent months, I started to wonder if the only reason Theresa May was prime minister of the United Kingdom is because no one else wanted the burden of responsibility of trying to enact Brexit with a divided public, stubborn European Union, and a pit of vipers in Parliament.

We won’t have her to kick around much longer:

British Prime Minister Theresa May has confirmed that she will step down before the country holds its next scheduled national election in 2022. Arriving at an EU summit in Brussels on Thursday, May said, “I think it is right that another party leader takes us into that general election.”

The editors of National Review conclude that her approach to Brexit has been tried, and it has failed, and it’s time to move on to new leadership:

Mrs. May can unite neither her party nor the country on a Brexit policy, and numerous opinion polls make plain that her own solution is the least popular of those canvassed. If she were to leave or be ousted by an internal Tory vote of confidence as a result, there would follow a contest for the leadership of the Conservative party. In addition to choosing a new leader, that contest would enable a serious discussion of how best — with what mix of policies — the Tories can achieve the Brexit that both the referendum and the 2017 election committed them to achieve. Conservative-party MPs should start that process tomorrow.

As Rich put it in his column, “Presiding over a divided party, facing a pro-Remain British establishment and negotiating with a hostile EU, May never had an easy task. She has nonetheless not only failed to rise to the occasion but been crushed by it.”

Most of my colleagues are impassioned supporters of Brexit, and I’ve heard from friends over in the United Kingdom who think it’s a colossal mistake and that it will reverse the recent enormous economic boom. I’d consider myself a soft supporter, but even more fundamental than whether it’s good economics, if you hold a referendum on a proposal, and the referendum passes — even if it’s just by small a margin of 51.8 percent to 48.1 percent — you have to make a good faith effort to enact that proposal. You can’t just throw up your hands after a while and say, “This is too complicated and too hard.” Even if you think Brexit is a bad idea, sometimes the people need to experience a bad idea to understand why it’s a bad idea. This is how you kill off bad ideas like Prohibition or special taxes on yachts.

A political establishment that says, “We know what we promised before the referendum, but you can’t have this,” is just asking for angry populism to spread. And yet here we are, where the people have voted for a policy that almost no one in the government really wants to enact or is willing to work hard to enact.

As Michael Brendan Dougherty puts it:

The result of the no-confidence vote is to create more uncertainty ahead of a vote on May’s withdrawal agreement. The fact is that Brexit was an attempt to reassert the sovereignty of Parliament. But the balance of power in the U.K. Parliament is against Brexit, whether it be a no-deal crash out, or Theresa May’s negotiated version. Britain is sliding into the constitutional crisis that exists between a sovereign Parliament and government-by-referendum. Has the Tory party even noticed?

The Hallmark-Movie Assembly Line Shifts into a Higher Speed

Hallmark now has . . . 38 different Christmas movies that they’re airing this holiday season.

At least, technically they’re different. Some might say they’ve told the same story with 38 different cosmetic changes.

As I put it last year, at least a few times between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the Mrs. and I check in to see how Candace Cameron is aging. Because they’re so formulaic, you more or less know what every character is going to say and what’s going to happen in every scene before it happens. At least one of the romantic leads will be returning for the first time in many years to a picturesque elaborately decorated small hometown, they’ll face a supremely implausible work deadline right around Christmas, they’ll have a best friend who incessantly mentions the handsome carpenter/Christmas- tree farmer/amnesiac/reindeer veterinarian who’s restoring the town gazebo/volunteering at a new youth center/going to be a last-minute substitute to be Santa in the town parade . . . the contrived misunderstandings, the magic mistletoe, the overwrought declarations of lost Christmas spirit . . . and dear God, so many decorating montages.

Then, after putting up with a Hallmark movie or two, I can suggest re-watching a real Christmas movie featuring Clark Griswold or John McClane.

You could probably make a funny Hallmark movie by just having one character openly express greater incredulity at all of the standard plot points: “Wait, why is this big corporate CEO trying to evict the town’s artisan Christmas ornament workshop? How does that make any financial sense? Why is the deadline for preventing the takeover on Christmas Eve? Who in their right mind writes that into a lease? Why is everyone in town trying to get me under the mistletoe with that hunky widower carpenter, when I just met him? And why is Ed Asner stalking me?”

ADDENDUM: Someone called my attention to the fact that if you tweet out this Publisher’s Weekly review of my 2014 novel The Weed Agency, the first words are “Nonfiction Review.”

White House

Trump’s ‘Great Wall’ Isn’t What’s Being Built

Construction workers place a section of new bollard wall on the U.S.-Mexico border in Santa Teresa, N.M., April 23, 2018. (Jose Luis Gonzalez/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: what you’re not hearing about the slowly spreading wall or bollard fence along our southern border, trying to make sense of President Trump’s negotiating strategy in the funding fight, an ugly scene in France, and some kind words for the Three Martini Lunch podcast.

What You’re Not Hearing about the Slowly Growing Border Wall/Bollard Fence

Trump in yesterday’s meeting with Chuck Schumer and Nancy Pelosi: “One thing that I do have to say is, tremendous amounts of wall have already been built, and a lot of — a lot of wall. When you include the renovation of existing fences and walls, we’ve renovated a tremendous amount and we’ve done a lot of work.”

As I’ve detailed in two articles for NRO, it is more accurate to say that under previously passed legislation, U.S. Customs and Border Protection continues to pay contractors to replace sections of spotty or insufficient fencing with 18-foot-tall bollard walls — tall steel bars with gaps in between them so that Border Patrol officers can see what’s happening on the other side. (A border-wall contractor argued in March, “If your wall is see-through, you’re basically a fence.” For what it’s worth, the Border Patrol prefers the slats because it’s easier to see migrants approaching, attempting to climb the wall, or trying to evade authorities.)

You can get a sense of the bollard wall in this CBP photo of Commissioner Kevin K. McAleenan touring the San Ysidro port of entry with Rodney S. Scott, the chief patrol agent for San Diego Sector, and CNN reporter Chris Cuomo.

About 40 miles worth of old, damaged, or porous fencing have been replaced or are being replaced by bollard fencing in six spots, near the communities of Calexico and San Diego in California; Santa Teresa in New Mexico; and McAllen and Mercedes in Texas.

The 18-foot-wall is not impossible to climb, but not easy, either. On Friday, a pair of Guatemalan teens sustained severe injuries after they fell off the wall while attempting to illegally enter near Yuma, Ariz. According to CBP, “Border Patrol agents arrived on scene and requested assistance from local Emergency Medical Services. Additional Border Patrol agents certified as Emergency Medical Technicians arrived with a backboard and assisted EMS with stabilizing the two subjects. The remaining four illegal aliens were taken into custody.”

The wall has signs posted reminding people that climbing is dangerous:

(It is not exaggerating to say that U.S. Customs and Border Protection does something dramatic and fascinating every couple of days. They seized more than a ton of cocaine from a boat in the Eastern Pacific on December 2. CBP seized nearly $7 million worth of methamphetamine, cocaine, and heroin hidden in a tractor trailer at the border crossing near Pharr, Texas on December 9. They caught more than 240 people, largely Guatemalan nationals, in a 48-hour period this weekend, near the Lukeville, Ariz. port of entry. Also this weekend, agents patrolling near Hidalgo, Texas, captured two groups, totaling 172 illegal aliens from Guatemala, Honduras, and Nicaragua, comprised of family units and unaccompanied children.)

On the campaign trail in 2016, Trump made his wall project sound like building the equivalent of the Great Wall of China from the Pacific to the Gulf of Mexico; in January 2016, he said, “My ambition is for ours to be much higher” than the Great Wall, and a month later, he described it as “probably 35 to 40 feet up in the air.” Obviously, that’s not what’s being built. But from the way Trump is talking now — “tremendous amounts of wall have already been built” — in his mind, this is close enough.

Not all of his supporters may agree. As Ann Coulter sees it, “Not one inch of Trump’s wall has been built.”

The Art of the Deal Is Apparently Abstract

That, of course, is what makes this current ongoing fight over a spending bill different from all the others — it’s probably Trump’s last chance to get a big chunk of funding for “the wall.” If Trump runs for reelection with just 40 miles of bollard fencing complete, he’s probably toast. People voted for him because they believed he could get things done.

The irony is that back in January, Senate Democrats were willing to agree to $20 billion (some reports said $25 billion) in funding for the wall — in exchange for “Trump’s support of permanent protections for the nearly 700,000 young undocumented immigrants covered under the Obama-era Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program.” The author of The Art of the Deal got a major concession, then asked for even more, then walked away with no deal.

Trump is going about these negotiations with some . . . counter-intuitive moves. For starters, he tossed away the option of blaming Democrats for a government shutdown, declaring on camera in the Oval Office that he’s “proud to shut down the government” to get additional border security funds.

THE PRESIDENT:  You know what I’ll say: Yes, if we don’t get what we want, one way or the other — whether it’s through you, through a military, through anything you want to call — I will shut down the government.  Absolutely.

SENATE MINORITY LEADER SCHUMER:  Okay.  Fair enough.  We disagree.

THE PRESIDENT:  And I am proud — and I’ll tell you what —

SENATE MINORITY LEADER SCHUMER:  We disagree.

THE PRESIDENT:  I am proud to shut down the government for border security, Chuck, because the people of this country don’t want criminals and people that have lots of problems and drugs pouring into our country.  So I will take the mantle.  I will be the one to shut it down.  I’m not going to blame you for it.  The last time you shut it down, it didn’t work.  I will take the mantle of shutting down.

Second, Trump is gambling that in a government shutdown, his leverage increases. The political risks of a shutdown are probably smaller than usual, as the elections in November 2020 are not likely to be strongly influenced by a shutdown in December 2018 that perhaps extends into January 2019. But once January 3 arrives, Nancy Pelosi has a stronger hand than she does now, shifting from having 194 Democrats to having 235 Democrats.

Then again, if we’re heading into a presidency-defining fight, then maybe congressional Democrats are wildly misreading Trump’s incentives here. Surrendering on wall funding amounts to accepting defeat in 2020. A government shutdown hits federal workers hardest — right before Christmas! — and Trump doesn’t see them as part of his base anyway.

As Kevin Williamson writes today:

Republicans used to fear being blamed for [shutdowns], a part of the more general Republican tendency to fear being blamed for things. But they have discovered that the political price for these acts of theater is pretty low. They are slow learners, but they learn — or at least they can, where there is a question of self-preservation. Mainly, shutdowns inconvenience the federal workers who get furloughed, which upsets their household finances. One feels for them. What’s rarely said aloud but surely appreciated by Republicans is that practically all of them are Democrats, as are the great majority of non-military government employees. If you have to hurt somebody, very few Republican voters are going to weep for the bureaucracy.

Republicans might also ask, “What is a government shutdown going to do? Cost us our majority in the House?”

But Trump might be misreading the motivations and incentives of Democrats, too. Trump taunted Chuck Schumer yesterday, “The last time, Chuck, you shut it down, and then you opened it up very quickly.” Indeed, that is a reasonably accurate description of what happened in January’s three-day shutdown, but Schumer was worried about red-state Democrats such as Claire McCaskill, Heidi Heitkamp, Bill Nelson, Joe Donnelly, and Joe Manchin back then. Schumer had a strong incentive to keep that quintet (and maybe a few more) out of difficult votes in early 2018; he doesn’t have nearly as strong an incentive to compromise now.

It’s likely that a Democratic argument about Trump in 2020 will be, “He can’t govern. It’s constant chaos. The circus came to town and it never left. Tirades, tantrums, brinksmanship, threats, sudden shifts, reversed positions — it’s endless drama that prevents the government from doing its job.” Warren G. Harding ran on the slogan, “A Return to Normalcy.” Democrats will contend that multiple shutdowns (not counting one that lasted less than a day in February) are another sign that Trump exacerbates Washington’s problems instead of solving them.

The Only Terrorists I Want to See around Christmastime Are in Die Hard

Another jihadist who was on the “watch list” but should have been on the “do something about him list.”

A suspect on a terrorist watch list was being hunted Wednesday after three people were killed and more than a dozen others wounded in a shooting near a Christmas market in the French city of Strasbourg.

Police had raided the suspect’s home hours before Tuesday’s attack as part of a burglary probe.

Cultural sites and sports centers were closed on Wednesday as 350 police officers were deployed in the manhunt.

The shooting took place shortly before 8 p.m. local time (2 p.m. ET) near a Christmas market that attracts millions of tourists every year. Strasbourg considers itself the “capital of Christmas.”

The suspect fled the scene and exchanged shots with police between 10 p.m. and 11 p.m. local time, according to Interior Minister Christophe Castaner. He said the suspect has a criminal record in France and Germany.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Townhall for listing the Three Martini Lunch podcast among the “Top 20 Conservative Podcasts Keeping You Sane From Left-Wing America.” Greg Corombos and I are about to start our 3ML End of the Year Awards, which we usually air between Christmas and New Year’s.

White House

Reviewing Trump’s Achievements before Democrats Control the House

President Donald Trump prior to his address to the United Nations General Assembly, September 25, 2018 (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: the disquieting possibility that the active part of Donald Trump’s presidency is coming to an end; the revelation that the Women’s March had an infamous hidden ally all along; Paul Krugman admits what he really thinks; and some podcast cheer, just in time for the holidays.

Is the Active Part of the Trump Presidency Ending?

Congressional Democrats may offer the White House $1.3 billion in funding for the border wall in year-end negotiations — a small fraction of the $5 billion President Trump wanted.

Soon, the Democrats will control the House of Representatives. The odds of Congress sending any major pieces of legislation to Trump’s desk will shrink even more.

Trump is not the first president to see his party lose control of a chamber of Congress during his presidency; it happened to Barack Obama, George W. Bush, Bill Clinton, and Ronald Reagan too. But it’s also worth remembering that none of those presidents saw their party recapture that lost chamber during their presidencies.

Trump did not begin with much patience for the legislative grind of Congress, and what little he had disappeared after the attempt to repeal Obamacare and the passage of tax cuts.

This White House had great difficulties stewarding legislation through Congress on its best days. During the first effort to get the House to pass legislation to repeal and replace Obamacare, Steve Bannon attempted to bully the House Freedom Caucus, telling them, “This is not a discussion. This is not a debate. You have no choice but to vote for this bill.” The House members, neither intimidated nor impressed, refused. The Senate rejected the second attempt at repeal and replace — perhaps the most frustrating moment for conservatives in Trump’s presidency so far — on July 28, 2017. The day before, when Obamacare-repeal proponents in the Senate needed the White House to be reinforcing their arguments in favor of the bill as much as possible, the news cycle was eaten up by Anthony Scaramucci furiously ranting to the New Yorker about Bannon’s anatomy.

“Amateur hour” is not an accurate description of this mess, because amateurs try.

Every few weeks, Trump tweets about something Congress must do, but Congress rarely does it.

April 4 of this year: “Our Border Laws are very weak while those of Mexico & Canada are very strong. Congress must change these Obama era, and other, laws NOW!” April 17: “House and Senate must quickly pass a legislative fix to ensure violent criminal aliens can be removed from our society. Keep America Safe!” May 4: “Our Southern Border is under siege. Congress must act now to change our weak and ineffective immigration laws. Must build a Wall.” July 5: “Congress must pass smart, fast and reasonable Immigration Laws now.” July 11: “Democrats in Congress must no longer Obstruct – vote to fix our terrible Immigration Laws now.” July 29: “Congress must act on fixing the DUMBEST & WORST immigration laws anywhere in the world!”

Trump got a lot of likes and retweets on those, but Congress did not pass a serious immigration reform. In late June, an immigration bill that Trump supported went down in the House, with just 121 votes in favor, 301 votes against. Stalemate continues. The administration can control how it enforces the laws on the books, but it can’t change the laws that are on those books, nor how judges will rule on how those laws must be interpreted.

There are some issues on which the White House has pushed hard for legislation, such as prison anti-recidivism programs and criminal-justice reform in the First Step Act. Every policy wonk and activist I’ve talked to about this issue says that Jared Kushner has pushed this through, worked out compromises, and handled everything quite deftly. But Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell says he can’t guarantee the bill will get debated and passed by the time the chamber adjourns for the year — the Senate still has to pass a spending bill, a farm bill, renewal of the Violence Against Women Act, and disaster-relief funding. If the First Step Act doesn’t get passed, the bill would have to be reintroduced, and Democrats who control the House might want to go further — wrecking the current bipartisan consensus.

Trump tweeted about the First Step legislation once, but it’s not as if he’s barnstorming the country, making a detailed case for what the bill does and why it would help the country. Trump never really figured out how to persuade a reluctant legislator.

As for that spending bill and wall funding, Democratic congressional leaders don’t trust Trump to hold up his end of the bargain, so they say they’re not willing to make many concessions.

The agenda of the Trump administration in the next two years will look much like his Twitter feed lately: a lot of angry denunciations of a “WITCH HUNT” and “NO COLLUSION”; more declarations that the news media is “the ENEMY OF THE PEOPLE”; more mocking and sneering at figures such as James Comey, “Da Nang Dick Blumenthal,” Rex Tillerson, and so on, with the president occasionally enjoying himself with presidential duties such as the Army-Navy game.

Of course, the GOP still controls the Senate, and President Trump can still nominate judges to the 142 current judicial vacancies. (Right now, 70 nominees are pending.) If Ruth Bader Ginsburg and Steven Breyer step down or otherwise depart the court in the next two years, Trump could rank as the favorite president of many conservatives a generation from now.

The brief era of GOP control in Washington passes with some major accomplishments — sweeping tax cuts; the repeal of the individual mandate from Obamacare; drilling in ANWR; new sanctions on Iran, North Korea, and Russia; the Right to Try Act for experimental medication; reforms of the Department of Veterans Affairs; laws designed to make it easier to fire federal workers; expansion of job-training and technical-education programs; a sweeping change to copyright law; reducing the impact of Dodd-Frank on banks; and repeal of at least 15 last-minute regulations enacted under the Obama administration.

But they leave a lot of work unfinished. Back in January, our Ramesh Ponnuru outlined a bolder and more expansive election-year agenda: relaxing Obamacare regulations, make the middle-class tax cuts permanent, welfare reform, and sweeping changes to how students finance college education. Change is unlikely to come in any of those areas until there is one-party control in Washington again.

Obama learned the hard way over the past two years that policy changes enacted through regulations and executive orders can be easily undone by a future president: the Iran deal, the Paris accords, the Trans-Pacific Partnership, the Clean Power Plan, various EPA rules, “temporary protected status” for groups of refugees in the United States. But a future Democratic president could undo Trump’s changes as easily as Trump undid Obama’s.

The Women’s March, Brought to You by the Nation of Islam

Did you expect that the Women’s March would have its security handled by . . . the Nation of Islam? From a piece in Tablet yesterday:

It was around this time that [activist Mercy] Morganfield says she first heard that Nation of Islam members were acting as security detail and drivers for the co-chairs. “Bob called me secretly and said, ‘Mercy, they have been in bed with the Nation of Islam since day one: They do all of our security,’” Morganfield told Tablet.

Two other sources, with direct knowledge of the time, also claimed that security and the drivers for the co-chairs were members of the Nation of Islam. And this was certainly the case in the women’s previous organization. A May 2015 photograph on Sarsour’s Facebook page shows a group of men wearing suits and bow ties in the signature Nation of Islam style. Her caption above the photo reads: “FOI Brothers, security for the movement,” using the acronym for Fruit of Islam.

Disgusted not only with the co-chairs’ connection to Farrakhan but the way they were all handling what she saw as the legitimate public outrage over it, Morganfield, too, asked privately for their resignations.

“I talked to everyone, and I said it to every last one of them: Tamika [Mallory] needs to resign—not just because of her Farrakhan connection, but because of how she handled it afterwards. I said Linda [Sarsour] also needs to step down. Her controversy and the things she keeps saying and doing are detrimental to the movement.” When Tablet asked Morganfield whether she believes the co-chairs are anti-Semitic, she offered a terse answer: “There are no Jewish women on the board. They refused to put any on. Most of the Jewish people resigned and left. They refused to even put anti-Semitism in the unity principles.”

The article ends with a stinging indictment from Morganfield: “The reason I joined the Women’s March is because I believe women could truly be the most powerful voting bloc this country has ever seen . . . The problem with the Women’s March is that in order to stay in the news, they had to be like ambulance chasers: They chased every issue that could get them media coverage. That’s not strategy; that’s tactics.”

At Least He’s Honest about What He Believes

Paul Krugman on Twitter yesterday: “There’s a new axis of evil: Russia, Saudi Arabia — and the United States.”

Usually you need his New York Times op-ed page colleague, Thomas Friedman, to speak to his cab driver to get such deep and nuanced insight.

As Jeanne Kirkpatrick said, “They always blame America first.”

ADDENDUM: Mickey and I found time to record a Christmas-themed podcast, tackling Christmas carols great and awful; Hallmark’s seductively saccharine Christmas movies; how her recent sojourn to Canada did not meet her expectations; remembering that we were laughing about “Baby, It’s Cold Outside” four years ago; and predicting a future ban on mistletoe.

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