Elections

How the Trump Campaign Is Preparing for 2020

(Jim Bourg/REUTERS)

Yesterday, Donald Trump’s reelection campaign and the Republican National Committee announced they had raised a combined $125 million over the past three months and had $156 million in cash on hand — roughly twice as much as President Obama and the DNC had at this point in the 2012 cycle.

The good news for the Democrats in that is that more spending doesn’t always guarantee a win. Hillary Clinton and the DNC out-raised Trump and the RNC in 2016, and her allied SuperPACs outspent the Trump-aligned ones. The bad news is that the game plan for an incumbent president with a gargantuan campaign war chest is clear and relatively easy to execute, and when done correctly, can more or less “win” the presidential race before it even begins.

Why have four of the last five incumbent presidents won reelection? There are a lot of reasons, but a big one is that the structure of the primary calendar, the rules for campaign spending, and party unified behind the president give the party in power an enormous structural advantage. In 1996 and 2012, incumbent presidents had enormous resources to run ads in swing states defining the Republican nominee, when the GOP nominee had used all his money to win the primary and did not have any cash to return fire. The Clinton and Obama campaigns, along with help from their friends the media, defined the image of Bob Dole and Mitt Romney before the contest really started. In 2004, the Bush campaign ran similar advertising against John Kerry in swing states.

Trump won’t have the assistance from the media, but he will have a Democratic primary that will probably go deep into the spring and drain the resources of the eventual nominee and may well leave some bad blood among supporters of the final candidates. And like Bush’s campaign in 2004 and Obama’s campaign 2012, they’ll have the resources to experiment with all kinds of voter-targeting technology and get-out-the-vote apps and gadgets and doodads. Not all of them will work, but not all of them need to work. Well-funded campaigns have the freedom to try new ideas that aren’t guaranteed; they don’t have to put all their eggs in one basket. The last two Republican presidential victories were driven by Republicans turning out in rural and ex-urban precincts in numbers that the Democratic campaigns never imagined.

It’s easy to find compelling arguments about why Trump will have a tough time getting reelected. His approval rating is low in many important states and has been low for a while. His head-to-head polling against the top Democrats is not encouraging at all. The 2018 midterm elections demonstrated a whole bunch of suburban voters who were usually at least open to voting for the Republican Party had sharply turned against the Trumpified Republican Party. Trump is a very nontraditional president, which means he may not enjoy the traditional advantages of incumbency.

But marinating in the political coverage of the New York Times, Washington Post, Politico, BuzzFeed, and the rest could give someone the impression that the dramatic portion of the 2020 election will effectively end when Democrats pick their nominee, and that Trump is toast. Democrats may well be underestimating the difficulty of beating Trump in November 2020.

Let’s get the polling argument out of the way. Nate Silver argued after the election that “Trump outperformed his national polls by only 1 to 2 percentage points in losing the popular vote to Clinton, making them slightly closer to the mark than they were in 2012. Meanwhile, he beat his polls by only 2 to 3 percentage points in the average swing state.” (It’s really worth noting that some key states had very little polling in the final week, and a bunch of the polls that were released had been asking questions ‘out in the field’ for long stretches. The last YouGov poll in Wisconsin was collecting responses from October 4 to November 6. That’s not ideal for perceiving a late break in the direction of one candidate.)

It’s easy to believe that there is a group of voters who intend to vote for Trump but who don’t want to say so to anyone before Election Day. Voting for Trump gets labeled racist, xenophobic, fascist, hateful, sexist, and so on. It’s reasonable to argue that Trump will do better than his late polling numbers, but we don’t know if this “shy Trump voter” demographic is one percent of the voting electorate, two percent, five percent . . .

Trump’s lousy job approval numbers indicate a lot of Americans are getting tired of the daily drama and the constant circus. But the Democrats are not running on a return to normalcy. They’ve publicly and loudly embraced a whole bunch of ideas that don’t poll nearly as well as the candidates themselves do. Medicare for All polls well until people are asked if they’re willing to give up their current private health insurance for it. When told they would have to give it up, support drops from 70 percent to 41 percent.

Only 33 percent think it’s a good idea to create a national health insurance program for people who are in the country illegally, and only 27 percent support decriminalizing crossing the U.S. border without permission. Only 27 percent think reparations for slavery are a good idea. Only 32 percent of American adults think their state should make it easier for women to have an abortion. Only 4 percent of Americans think the taxes they pay are too low; 45 percent think the taxes they pay are too high. Only 35 percent want the death penalty abolished nationwide; only 31 percent think those currently in prison should be allowed to vote.

The 2020 election will see a deep urban vs. rural divide and the Democrats should have the upper hand in the suburbs. On paper, that should add up to a win for Democrats. But there’s a reason that previous generations of Democrats spent a lot of years courting the white working class, farmers, union members, etcetera. In that recent House special election in North Carolina, Democrat Dan McReady did even better than in 2018 in the most heavily suburban county. But he did worse in all of the more rural counties compared to last November, and Republican Dan Bishop won by 2 percentage points. If Democrats don’t pursue votes in these communities, they’re leaving a lot of votes on the table. Montana governor Steve Bullock’s whole presidential campaign is an attempt to pull the fire alarm about this for the rest of the party, and most Democrats are ignoring him.

Trump reelection campaign strategists like Bill Stepien say they’ve identified “2018 disengagers” — voters who enthusiastically turned out for Trump in 2016 but sat home during the mid-term elections in 2018. And there are a handful of states that Trump lost in 2016 that could be won just by getting the Trump vote a little higher. Hillary Clinton won New Hampshire by just 2,736 votes. Clinton and Trump split the congressional districts in Maine, winning one electoral vote each, and she won the statewide total (and the other two electoral votes) by a margin of 20,035 votes. Clinton’s margin in Nevada wasn’t that much bigger at 27,202 votes. And if the Trump team thinks it can outperform their 2016 totals by a five-figure sum in key states, two more states appear within reach. Clinton’s margin in Minnesota was just 44,593 votes; in New Mexico, 65,567 votes.

Thirty-two states and territories will have held their primaries by March 29, 2020; the Democratic nominee may be clear by then. The party nominee’s campaign doesn’t get to control and direct spending of the national party until they’re officially the nominee, which won’t happen until July 16, 2020. In April, May, June, and early July, the Trump campaign will have an enormous window of opportunity to define his opponent as extremist, out-of-touch, reckless, unethical, etcetera.

Oh, and if the Democrats nominate Elizabeth Warren, some big donors may sit out the cycle or switch sides, according to CNBC’s inquiries to Democrats working in the financial industry: “Democratic donors on Wall Street and in big business are preparing to sit out the presidential campaign fundraising cycle — or even back President Donald Trump — if Sen. Elizabeth Warren wins the party’s nomination.” So if Warren really is overtaking Trump, as her fans hope, Trump’s fundraising advantage may grow further.

Now put all of these pieces together: In spring 2020, as the Democratic nominee is becoming clearer, the Trump campaign and RNC take some of that $150 million or so and use it to run ads defining the Democratic nominee as extremist who wants to ban private health insurance, offer taxpayer-funded health care to illegal immigrants, decriminalize crossing the border illegally, raise taxes, make it easier to get an abortion, enact reparations for slavery, and ban the death penalty. They target cost-effective, not-so-big television markets like Green Bay, Madison, Wausau, Marquette, Eau Claire, Erie, Harrisburg Duluth, Cedar Rapids, Flint, Grand Rapids, Lansing, Wilkes-Barre, and Winston-Salem. Maybe if they’ve really got money lying around, they expand into Bangor, Fargo (it reaches into northwest Minnesota) Sioux Falls (southwest Minnesota) Albuquerque-Santa Fe, Mankato, and Rochester, Minn. Suddenly, after months of ads laying out the unpopular stances of the new Democratic nominee, that nominee isn’t polling so well in head-to-head matchups with Trump, and that vulnerable incumbent president doesn’t look so vulnerable anymore.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it, the NRA finds a happy ending in San Francisco.

White House

The State of Impeachment

President Trump after his first address to a joint session of Congress in February 2017. (Photo: Jim Lo Scalzo/Pool/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Democrats strategize how to proceed with impeachment, while Mickey and I record another wide-ranging episode of the pop-culture podcast — including a discussion on how to criticize a film without banning it.

The Inherent Tensions within the Effort to Impeach President Trump

Writing in the New York Times, Elizabeth Drew warns that Democrats are “risking making their target too narrow and moving too fast. In so doing they could end up implicitly bestowing approval on other presidential acts that amount to a long train of abuses of power. And going too quickly could shut off the oxygen that might fuel Republican acceptance that it’s time to break with Mr. Trump — perhaps enough of them to end his presidency.”

That’s the real trick, isn’t it? If impeachment takes a long while — the impeachment of Clinton took six months — the country will acclimate to and digest the latest charges and shrug that it’s just Trump being Trump. The White House can drag this out if it wants to, and it’s probably to the president’s advantage to make this process last as long as possible. And there will always be Democrats who contend they’ve discovered something new that needs to be added to the articles of impeachment.

Monday, lawyers for House Democrats contended that Trump lied to the Mueller investigation about his campaign’s contact with WikiLeaks, creating another reason to pursue impeachment. A Harvard law professor argued that Trump’s tweet about Pastor Robert Jeffress warning about the potential of another civil war is itself a separate justification for impeachment.

Democrats believe that Trump can and should be justified for violating the Constitution’s emoluments clause, for not reporting the payments to Stormy Daniels as a campaign expenditure, for firing James Comey (Rep. Al Green), for “creating chaos and division”, (Rep. Maxine Waters), for “being a clear and present danger” (Tom Steyer), for “undermining the federal judiciary” (Rep. Steve Cohen), for being “the most dangerous president in American history” (DNC Chair Tom Perez), for “betraying his oath of office” (Nancy Pelosi), for offering to host the next G7 summit at his own personal property (the House Judiciary Committee).

All told, Grabien has found 89 reasons Democrats have listed to justify impeaching the president.

The advantage of the Ukraine story is that it is simple and direct. A bunch of the reasons listed above are vague and matters of opinion. (Doesn’t any criticism of any judge or judicial decision “undermine the federal judiciary”? When President Obama mischaracterized the Citizens United decision and rebuked the Supreme Court to their faces during the State of the Union in 2010, that wasn’t undermining the federal judiciary?)

But if the Democrats pursue impeachment over the Ukraine policy, and then it fails in the Senate, they will look like a bunch of maniacs if they then turn around and say, “wait a minute, we forgot his violations of the emoluments clause. Clearly foreign governments buying rooms and booking events at Trump hotels is backdoor bribery, we’re going to start this whole process all over again on a different issue.”

Over at The Intercept, Mehdi Hasan argues that Democrats can’t leave other issues unmentioned in their impeachment effort:

For House Democrats to wait this long and then impeach a reckless, lawless, racist, tax-dodging president only over his interactions with the president of Ukraine would effectively give Trump a clean bill of health on everything else. Going into an election year, Democrats would be unilaterally disarming — unable to offer further substantive criticisms of Trump’s crimes and abuses of power across the board. “Why didn’t you impeach him for it?” Republicans will ask.

But the more counts of impeachment the House Democrats bring, the longer the process will drag on. Even if the Democrats choose to skip hearings — which is not going to reassure people that this is not a partisan vendetta — the Senate is going to have to debate and dissect the evidence on each one of these charges.

Then again, maybe Democrats believe the proper historical consequence for Trump is for him to be the first president impeached by the House multiple separate times. Drew asks, “if a president were to be impeached more than once, what is the meaning of impeachment?” (If you’re talking about going back again a second time, as Pelosi reportedly is, you’re pretty much admitting that you don’t expect to get the 67 votes needed to remove him from office.) This will change impeachment from a rarely used ultimate consequence for presidential lawbreaking — the atomic bomb of our separation of powers — to just another way for Congress to say, “we disapprove of you.” It will turn into a resolution of censure.

What We Won’t Be Talking About While We’re Talking About Impeachment

There are a lot of reasons to be frustrated by the state of American politics right now. Maybe you think the impeachment of President Trump is long overdue; maybe you think this is a de facto coup attempt against a legitimately elected president. Barring some dramatic turn of events, the next few months will be dominated by the impeachment process. The odds of other legislation getting passed were already bad, now there’s almost no chance.

Meanwhile, beyond Washington, life goes on.

But we’re not going to hear much about any of that while Washington is obsessed with an impeachment process that is almost certainly going to fall short of the 67 votes needed to remove the president.

ADDENDA: Mickey and I recorded another wide-ranging edition of the pop culture podcast that discusses the Vontaze Burfict suspension, Ziva returning to the unkillable NCIS, Prodigal Son and Hollywood’s now-almost-clichéd sophisticated, debonair serial killers; The Irishman and how I can prove the trailer makes it look like the most Martin Scorscese-ish Martin Scorscese movie of all time; Kanye West prepares to unveil a gospel album and whether he’s forming the “Branch Kanyedians,” whether Saturday Night Live has turned a corner and is funny again or whether they’re just making fun of Democrats for a change, and why this year’s Emmy awards were a snore.

We also touch on the Joker movie again. My friend Christian Toto, creator of the excellent Hollywood In Toto site, reports that Warner Brothers announced they will not allow reporters to ask questions of the cast, crew and creators at the premiere, a decision Toto calls cowardly. “Our Constitution protects our right to express ourselves. That could mean an offensive painting, a love sonnet or a major motion picture that could captivate the nation on opening day. Warner Bros. should stand aside and let their artists speak.”

As I’ve noted before, we need some sort of space for criticism of an artist or filmmaker’s decision that falls short of “ban it,” something that argues, “this film is arguing in favor of something that is wrong.” The 2002 Denzel Washington medical drama John Q. was meant to be an indictment of America’s health care system, but basically tries to argue that taking hostages and forcing doctors to perform a surgery at gunpoint is a morally justified act. We’re rooting for the protagonist because he’s trying to save his son, and he’s played by Denzel, but the movie’s inherent contention is that it’s morally justified, even heroic, to force people to do things through threats of violence if the stakes are high enough. If you make that movie from the surgeon’s perspective, it’s the story of a maniac with a gun who bursts into the hospital and threatens to kill you unless you save his son.

Christian’s raising money for a redesign of his site; you can help him out here.

White House

The Coming Battle of Exhausting Perpetual Outrages

President Donald Trump speaks to reporters at the White House, September 9, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

One of the factors that may impede the Democrats’ efforts to impeach President Trump is outrage fatigue in the American public. Outrage fatigue is also probably going to be a factor that causes Americans to tune out President Trump’s own metronomic insistence that he’s always the victim of a vast confluence of sinister foes.

There are a couple of defenses you can make of the president’s behavior regarding Ukraine. (I have contended and still believe that attempting to restrict congressionally authorized and appropriated security aid to Ukraine unless the Ukrainian government investigates a potential rival of the president is a straight-up abuse of presidential power.)

You could argue, as Luke Thompson does, that President Trump did nothing wrong. Thompson is correct when he writes that the United States government has a compelling interest in knowing if its private citizens are involved in corruption abroad, either alone or in concert with current, former, or future public officials. The catch is that this is why we have institutions like the Department of Justice and Federal Bureau of Investigation. The lead investigator of allegations of American citizens and officials participating in corruption abroad is not supposed to be the president’s personal attorney. If Trump had said something along the lines of, “if you encounter any evidence that any American committed a crime, be sure to reach out to our Department of Justice, and let me know if the State Department can help with any extradition issues,” this would not have provided much fodder for impeachment advocates, because Trump would be steering the investigation through proper channels.

Defenders of the president could more or less plead ignorance. You periodically hear variations of the argument, “look, Trump’s not a politician, he’s never worked in government before, he just doesn’t know what sort of thing is allowed and what isn’t.” Except that’s his job as president to know the laws that define and limit his authority and the Constitutional boundaries. That’s not a side issue or errata; it’s a prerequisite.

Defenders of the president could argue that Trump wasn’t specifically looking for dirt on Biden out of partisan and personal interests, and that this is just a reflection of a commitment to good and honest government. That argument would be stronger if we had ever heard Trump publicly going on at length about corruption in other countries. It’s not like there’s a shortage of good suspects: North Korea, Sudan, Cambodia, Haiti, Turkmenistan, Nicaragua, etcetera. Cisco, IBM, and SAP share source code with Russian authorities, including Russia’s Federal Security Service, more commonly known as the FSB. I’ve never heard Trump complain that American companies could be inadvertently facilitating Russian hackers, cyber-espionage, or cyber-attacks, or turning a blind eye to their corrupt partners.

Defenders of the president could argue that the security assistance to Ukraine was a bad idea in the first place. As I noted last week, there is a way for the president to attempt to stop the expenditure of congressionally authorized and appropriated funds. It’s called the Impoundment Control Act, and it’s like a veto, complete with Congress having the opportunity to override the veto. Trump didn’t bother.

You could argue that what the president did was wrong but doesn’t rise to the level of impeachment. As Andy McCarthy writes, “Trump should not use the powers of his office solely for the purpose of obtaining campaign ammunition to deploy against a potential foe. But all presidents who seek reelection wield their power in ways designed to improve their chances. If Trump went too far in that regard, we could look with disfavor on that while realizing that he would not be the first president to have done so.” Congress has options to rebuke or punish a president short of impeachment, but few Democrats are interested in those. After all, folks like Rashida Tlaib have impeachment merchandise to sell.

Defenders of the president are likely to deploy some variation of “turnabout is fair play.” There are undoubtedly some people asking how different Trump’s request to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky is from all the favor-trading that went on at the Clinton Foundation in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election.

You may recall those “lock her up” chants. At any point, the new administration could have investigated the Clinton Global Initiative. It’s not like there was never any credible evidence of influence-peddling there. In a 2011 memo to Bill Clinton, Chelsea Clinton, John Podesta, and other members of the foundation’s board, the ex-president’s longtime aide Doug Band laid out how his consulting firm simultaneously gave donations to both the Clinton Foundation and lucrative speaking and consulting gigs for the former president from the same companies and individuals. After the election, foreign governments suddenly announced they were no longer interested in donating to the Clinton Global Initiative, indicating that once Hillary Clinton was no longer likely to be in a position to influence American policy, they didn’t see a point to sending more money. Band also contended that Clinton Foundation funds had been used to pay for Chelesa Clinton’s wedding, although he showed no supporting evidence. Huma Abedin, the longtime aide to former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, worked for a little under a year as a “special government employee” for the State Department, while simultaneously working as a consultant for Band’s firm called Teneo, giving private investors information about the government.

The Department of Justice could have investigated any or all of these claims and unusual arrangements. They didn’t.

In November 22, 2016, Trump said during an interview that he didn’t “want to hurt the Clintons, I really don’t. She went through a lot and suffered greatly in many different ways.”

On December 10, 2016, at a “thank you rally” in Michigan, after the “lock her up” chants began again, President-elect Trump said, “No, it’s okay. Forget it. That plays great before the election. Now, we don’t care, right?”

Why did the Clintons get away with it? Because no one chose to investigate further, probably taking their cues from the incoming commander in chief.

No, what we’re going to get for the next six months is just unending servings of the biggest level of outrage possible from all the major players.

On Thursday, the House Intelligence Committee held a hearing and chairman Adam Schiff attempted to, in his words, “parody” the president’s comments in the call during a hearing on the whistleblower’s complaint that helped bring Trump’s call with Zelensky. This was a bad decision for a lot of reasons. The readout had just come out earlier that morning; some people hearing Schiff’s words may have thought, at least initially, that he was quoting the real words from the president. While various lines hinted at the parodic nature — “I’m only going to say this seven times, so you listen good” — it wasn’t all that funny; it seemed to be some sort of Schiff fan-fiction of how he imagined Trump speaking to foreign leaders like Tony Soprano. Stephen Hayes, formerly of the Weekly Standard and light-years away from being a fan of Trump declared, “The Trump/Zelensky phone call readout is bad on its face. And yet, Adam Schiff, not satisfied with the facts as they are, offers a summary that is a distortion, designed to make it look worse.”

It was a dumb move, and if you’re Nancy Pelosi, you should be fuming that the guy who kept insisting that Russia-gate would lead to impeachment and who then started to complain that Robert Mueller wasn’t doing a thorough enough job kicked off this new stage of investigating the president with some comedy sketch writing.

How does Trump respond this morning? “Rep. Adam Schiff illegally made up a FAKE & terrible statement, pretended it to be mine as the most important part of my call to the Ukrainian President, and read it aloud to Congress and the American people. It bore NO relationship to what I said on the call. Arrest for Treason?”

“Arrest for treason.”

The outrage always has to be turned up to eleven, no matter the issue or circumstances.

ADDENDUM: If you haven’t already, go check out the 3,000-word timeline providing everything you ever wanted to know about Hunter Biden’s employment, work, and connections and deals going back to the early 2000s . . . or at least everything that can be known from public records, public statements, news accounts, and other documents. One aspect that is important is that while many of the particular actions of Hunter Biden — and Joe Biden’s blind eye or tacit approval — can be justified as demonstrations of bad judgment but not quite illegal, a clear pattern emerges when you look at all of them together. Hunter Biden’s clients and business associates always had business before the federal government; they always paid him a lot considering his meager experience; it was often difficult to determine what exactly Hunter Biden offered them beyond his famous surname and connections to power, and they often got arrested and indicted for fraud and bribery schemes, although ones not directly tied to Biden’s work. Collectively, this should probably nuke Biden’s campaign. Every father loves his son, but not every father either allows or assents to his son getting this deep into this many deals with this many shady characters. At some point, Joe Biden needed to say, “for the sake of the public duties I’ve been entrusted with, you can’t do this. The office of the vice presidency comes with a lot of perks, but it also comes with a lot of responsibilities, and one of my responsibilities is to avoid circumstances that create a conflict of interest or even the appearance of a potential conflict of interest. I need you to do something with your talents and abilities that does not involve attempts to shape or profit from U.S. policy.” It would have been a difficult discussion, but it was a needed one.

It didn’t happen, and now we see the consequence.

Elections

Not All Trump Critics Are Sold on Impeachment

Signs at an anti-Trump protest in Vista, Calif., October 31, 2017. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

Raise your hand if you expected the argument against the impeachment of Trump to be led by . . . David Brooks in the New York Times.

This is completely elitist. We’re in the middle of an election campaign. If Democrats proceed with the impeachment process, it will happen amid candidate debates, primaries and caucuses. Elections give millions and millions of Americans a voice in selecting the president. This process gives 100 mostly millionaire senators a voice in selecting the president.

As these two processes unfold simultaneously, the contrast will be obvious. People will conclude that Democrats are going ahead with impeachment in an election year because they don’t trust the democratic process to yield the right outcome. Democratic elites to voters: We don’t trust you. Too many of you are racists!

Impeachment is no longer a rare and grave crisis in American life; it’s becoming a device parties use when the House and the presidency are in the hands of different parties. Democratic House members have already introduced impeachment articles against Trump on at least four occasions. It’s just another partisan thing.

Okay, that’s the . . . er, hard-right MAGA-head Trump loyalist David Brooks. Let’s see what a reasonable Republican like former Ohio governor John Kasich thinks.

[Trump’s phone call with the Ukrainian president] was completely inappropriate, it’s an outrageous thing . . . You just don’t say, ‘okay, I read a newspaper article, or I saw one transcript, and therefore, you throw the guy out of office. I think it is a long process, and there has to be more, in my opinion . . . I’m not going to support Trump, I didn’t support him the last time, I’m not going to support him again. I don’t think he’s conducted himself appropriately in that office — not just these things, but dividing our country. But that’s a long way from impeachment . . .

I think [Pelosi] moved forward too fast, myself. I think she should have waited until this testimony in the intelligence committee. But she felt a lot of pressure from her party. Her party’s saying, ‘we’re in power, it’s time for us to go and do something here.’ They’re all looking for a pound of flesh because they’re so angry at Donald Trump. You cannot proceed on the basis of emotion and anger. You have to proceed logically, carefully. This is really an important matter. This is not just about Donald Trump, this is about the precedents for the future as well.

Okay, fine, that’s Kasich. He’s always been squishy and looked for the middle ground. Let’s turn to our old friend Jonah Goldberg, who’s called it like he sees it every day of the Trump era:

Impeachment is ultimately a question of whether a president violated the public trust. But there’s nothing in the Constitution that says a president must be impeached for violating the public trust. I can list any number of occasions when presidents have done that and it never even occurred to anyone that they should be impeached for it . . .

Absent new facts, the GOP-controlled Senate will not remove Trump. The president would claim “exoneration,” and his behavior would become normalized for future presidents. So I’m not sure Democrats are right to pursue impeachment. I’m sure Republicans are wrong to pretend that what Trump did was totally fine.

If you’re a Democrat, the hesitation about impeachment from consistent Trump critics like Brooks, Kasich, and Goldberg probably ought to strike you as a red flag. Then again, perhaps we shouldn’t expect the party that’s increasingly openly embracing socialism to recognize a signal of “danger ahead” in a red flag.

For the past week, I’ve been pointing out the challenges of the timing for the Democrats, and how the clock is working against them. The closer the country gets to the general election, the sillier it looks to pursue an impeachment effort to remove a president, particularly when everyone knows impeachment proponents are extremely unlikely to persuade 20 Republican senators to vote to remove him from office.

Apparently the Democrats’ upcoming strategy to cope with this challenge is to focus on, as one Democratic aide put it to the Washington Post, “the need for speed.”: “‘Very few hearings, if any,’ said a senior Democratic aide, who said the coming investigative work will largely take place in closed-door interviews.”

Boy, that’s reassuring, huh? Back in 1998, the House Judiciary Committee held seven separate hearings, running from November 19 to December 12.

Have those senior Democratic aides noticed that the House is out of session for three of the next six weeks? We’re simultaneously being told that this is serious enough to remove a president from office, something this country has never done in its history, and that it’s so important it can’t be left to the voters to judge in the upcoming election, and that so far, it doesn’t require any changes to the schedule of the House of Representatives. Fellas, it doesn’t add up.

Here’s an argument in favor of impeachment: Since day one, progressive Democrats have believed that President Trump deserved to be impeached, and that an overwhelming majority of the American people agree with them, and that they would not suffer any backlash at the ballot box for attempting to remove the president from office. No amount of polling or expressions of nervousness and hesitation from freshman Democrats in swing districts can persuade them. The only way to prove to them that this is a bad idea is to let them go through with it and live with the consequences. Political parties crave power and have a difficult time prioritizing anything above the accumulation and preservation of power. The only thing that will prevent the increasingly common weaponization of impeachment against future presidents is the lesson that this approach costs the impeaching party power.

And if we’re honest, none of us can say with absolute certainty what the consequences of this impeachment effort are going to be. The poll numbers are moving a bit on impeachment, but it’s a familiar story: Democrats love it, Republicans hate it, and independents are marginally against it — 44 percent approve, 50 percent disapprove in the new NPR/PBS/Marist survey.

Maybe there won’t be a political backlash against impeachment in the next election. Democrats surely thought the unpopular impeachment that ended in 1999 would hurt the Republicans, but George W. Bush won the next presidential election and Republicans kept their majorities in the House and Senate. By the time November 2000 rolled around, impeachment was old news. (For what it was worth, Al Gore apparently blamed Clinton’s sex scandals and low personal-approval rating for his loss.)

There’s an old saying in politics that migrated to screenwriting and fiction writing: “Hang a lantern on your problem.” In the context of politics, it means instead of avoiding or downplaying your problem, discuss it openly and directly before anyone else can level an accusation against you. In the screenwriting and fiction writing, it means addressing your plot hole or implausible turn of events before the reader or audience can. “Boy, we’re really lucky that this old hidden passageway was back here! I thought we were trapped! No one ever mentioned it before, and it wasn’t on the map.” “Yeah, I read once that they used this place during Prohibition, it must have been installed by bootleggers!” etcetera.

Impeachment fundamentally is an action that undoes the results of an election, and it is inherently a divisive and angry process. Democrats can’t hide from it, so they might as well embrace it. Back in August, our Kevin Williamson appeared on Bill Maher’s program and made an argument that had not-friendly audience surprisingly nodding in agreement, that some principles of the United States were too important to be decided by popular will:

Like me, you don’t trust big masses of people because they tend to be stupid and easy to scare. All of the best things about our Constitution are the anti-democratic stuff like the Bill of Rights, which is America’s great big list of stuff you idiots don’t get to vote on. If we had put slavery up to a vote in 1860, it’d have won, it’d have won 70 to 30. If we put free speech up to a vote today, it’d probably lose.

By pursuing impeachment before the 2020 election, Democrats are declaring this is too important a matter to leave for Americans to vote on. Democrats might as well say, “Yes, we know about half of you love this man, and about half of you believe that whatever he did, it’s probably justified. We know that you may vote against us in the next election if we attempt to remove him from office. But an abuse of power is an abuse of power, whether it’s popular or unpopular. What the president did was wrong; strong-arming an ally for political dirt on a rival violates his oath to preserve, protect and defend the Constitution, and no polling number can change that. Yes, this action will undo the choice of the electorate in 2016. We are indeed overruling the decision of the people, because the people selected someone who cannot perform his duties ethically. Our country is significantly weakened by a president who cannot distinguish between his own personal and political interests and the national interests. This mindset in governing endangers our allies, strengthens our enemies, and makes free and fair elections impossible. This is simply too important to leave in the voters’ hands in 2020.”

A lot of Americans would hate that argument, but few could argue Democrats were not being honest about how they saw the issue. Maybe that’s a bridge too far. But the alternative, as Judge Judy would put it, is to pee on the public’s leg and tell them it’s raining: “We’re not trying to overrule the 2016 election, we’re just trying to remove the president from office.”

I just wish leading Democrats such as Representative Adam Schiff would take the sage advice of this man:

Impeachment is an extraordinary remedy, not to be entertained lightly, and in the case of a president, would mean putting the country through a deeply wrenching process. It is instead a remedy that must be considered soberly, mindful of the fact that removing a president from office should be the recourse for only the most serious transgressions.

Should the facts warrant impeachment, that case will be made more difficult politically if part of the country feels that removing Mr. Trump is the result that some of their fellow Americans were wishing for all along.

That was written by . . . Adam Schiff, back on May 4, 2018.

ADDENDUM: The weeks ahead will inevitably bring a lot of scrutiny about Hunter Biden and his business partners and deals and anything that looks or sounds unsavory or creates the appearance of a conflict of interest for Joe Biden. Surely, no one in the Democratic party could want to fan the flames on that, right?

White House

The Impeachment Fervor Isn’t Going Anywhere

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi leads Democrats in introducing proposed “For the People” legislation on Capitol Hill, January 4, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why a Democratic attempt to impeach President Trump was destined from the beginning; why Democrats suddenly get awkward and tongue-tied when asked to bar children of high-ranking officials from serving on foreign corporate boards; and Alexander Hamilton’s warning about how impeachment efforts will always reflect partisan divisions.

A Democratic House Was Always Destined to Impeach President Trump

More than 218 of the 235 House Democrats are now unified in support of an impeachment “inquiry,” and when push comes to shove sometime in the coming months, the overwhelming majority of House Democrats will vote to impeach the president.

The previous resistance to impeachment from Nancy Pelosi was perhaps the right call in terms of long-term political advantage, but also was fundamentally phony. A significant chunk of the Democratic party has wanted to impeach Trump since early in his presidency, in some cases literally making the argument the day he took office. Liberal activist groups set up an online petition calling for Trump’s impeachment on Inauguration Day, declaring, “From the moment he assumed the office, President Donald Trump has been in direct violation of the US Constitution.”  On February 10, about three weeks into Trump’s presidency, the Democratic polling firm Public Policy Polling offered a survey finding that 46 percent of all respondents supported the impeachment of President Trump, and 80 percent of all self-identified Democrats did. Representative Maxine Waters (D., Calif.) tweeted, “get ready for impeachment” on March 21, 2017. By April, localities such as Berkeley passed resolutions calling for Trump’s impeachment

You may recall that for much of 2018, House Republicans campaigned on the message that Democrats would impeach Trump if they took control of the House. The assessment in many corners of the media was that this was a reflection of Republican paranoia, a desperate hyping of an implausible scenario designed to motivate the party’s base through fear.

In April 2018, representative Dina Titus of Nevada told the New York Times, “They’re trying to encourage us to be more out front on impeachment so then they can use that to rev up their base and say, ‘That’s all the Democrats care about.’”

In August, Perry Bacon Jr. wrote at FiveThirtyEight, “If the Democrats are planning to impeach Trump if they win control of the House, they are doing a really great job of hiding it. Congressional Democrats aren’t talking about impeachment.” That same month, New York magazine explained, “Republicans, not Democrats, want the midterms to be about impeachment.”

In September, CNN’s Rebecca Buck reported, “many Democrats [are] downplaying or rejecting the prospect of impeaching President Trump, while Republicans, including the President and his closest allies, insist his ouster is all but certain if their party loses power in Washington.”

Clearly, some of the newly elected Democrats didn’t get that memo; Representative Rashida Tlaib (D., Mich.), famously vowed on her first day in Congress to “impeach the mother****er.” By March, Tlaib claimed, “I think every single colleague of mine agrees there’s impeachable offenses. That’s one thing that we all agree on. We may disagree on the pace.”

Was Tlaib wrong? Did any House Democrat believe that Donald Trump had not committed any action that qualified as a high crime and misdemeanor, and that impeaching him was morally and legally wrong? Wasn’t it clear that for at least a large majority of Congressional Democrats, the only compelling argument against it was the likely political fallout?

And isn’t the heart of the current moment the Democrats’ belief that Trump’s comments and moves regarding Ukraine are so egregious that there will be no political fallout for pursuing an impeachment effort that is almost certain to fail in the Senate?

During her period of resistance to the #Resistance, Pelosi was forced to say things that we can reasonably conclude she does not truly believe. In March of this year, the newly restored House Speaker declared, “impeachment is so divisive to the country that unless there’s something so compelling and overwhelming and bipartisan, I don’t think we should go down that path, because it divides the country. And he’s just not worth it.”

Much of Nancy Pelosi’s agenda is comparably “divisive to the country,” and she wants to go down those paths.

In May, Pelosi contended Trump was “almost self-impeaching,” which I guess meant the House of Representatives didn’t have to vote on it.

We should give those activists on the Left who called for impeachment on Inauguration a smidgen of credit for their honesty about their views, an honesty that few Democratic lawmakers dared to exhibit. Their contention, if never quite articulated explicitly, is that Constitutional eligibility for the presidency is not enough, and that the American president must meet some other unwritten criteria in order to be a “legitimate” president. In their eyes, Donald Trump was always ineligible for the presidency because of who he is and how he sees the world. In their worldview, he was not merely a mistaken, wrongheaded, or bad president, but one who could not be permitted to continue.

Of course, once a standard or tactic is adopted by one political side in our culture, it will quickly be adopted by the other political side. At some point in the future, there will be another Democratic president and another Republican House. And the forces of negative polarization will drive that House towards impeaching that president.

Warren: A Veep’s Kids Shouldn’t Serve on Foreign Company Boards. No, Wait, They Can.

Just how conditional is the outrage of Democratic presidential candidates when it comes to elected officials leveraging their position for personal gain? Really conditional.

Taking questions from reporters following a town hall event in the first-in-the-nation presidential primary state of New Hampshire, the Massachusetts Democrat was asked if she would allow her vice president’s child to serve on the board of a foreign company if she were president. Warren quickly answered, “no.”

When asked why, she said, in a rare moment where she appeared flustered: “I don’t know. I have to go back and look at the details.”

The “details” to which Warren was referring are from the two ethics plans she’s unveiled to tackle corruption in government. Her campaign later clarified to the Washington Post that the plans wouldn’t prevent any child of a vice president from serving on such a board.

Elizabeth Warren is supposed to be like Xena the Warrior Princess when it comes to powerful business interests influencing government policy. So why was she so confused and contradictory on this question?

Because lots and lots of children of government officials in both parties benefit from lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker. Warren couldn’t propose a strict change like that without stepping on the toes of a lot of colleagues, including ones she probably counts as allies.

Your perspective on how harmful nepotism is probably relates a great deal to who your parents are and whether you harbor secret fears that you benefited from the practice. As I wrote way back in 2014, “nepotism isn’t the only way that America’s most wealthy and powerful ensure that their children will also be wealthy and powerful, but it’s a piece of the puzzle. It’s a thumb-on-the-scale bit of legal cheating that everyone averts their eyes from because acknowledging it too openly would raise the question of how many of the folks in the highest positions of our country actually earned them.”

Democrats may not particularly like the idea of Hunter Biden, who had never worked in the natural gas industry before in his life, getting $50,000 per month to sit on the board of Bursima Holdings although Representative Ted Lieu argues that it’s normal. But most Democrats don’t want to make too big a stink about it, in part because they see it as a small drop in the bucket of inequality and partially because they can justify it to themselves as an inevitable part of the system, or even a justified perk of the office.

Democrats vs. the Clock

Imagine some future president governs relatively free of scandals for his first three and a half years, but then in the summer of his fourth term in office, all kinds of ugly information comes out. Would the Congress impeach him? Or would the general sense be that because the presidential election was so close, the wiser choice is to allow the American people to render their own verdict at the ballot box? Or what about for a president who’s on the tail end of his eighth year in office?

Suppose that a scandalous president was defeated in his bid for reelection. Would the House and Senate attempt to remove a president during the period between Election Day and Inauguration Day? Would some vice president end up with a presidency of William Henry Harrison-level brevity, operating as a caretaker for a short period between November and January 20?

Clearly at some point, removing a president from office so close to Election Day or the end of his term starts to look ridiculous, unless the argument in favor of impeachment looks so ironclad and broadly supported that it can be done quickly. (Impeachment in 1998-1999 took six months.) The White House can drag out this process a great deal. Democrats are likely to make the Senate consider the removal of Trump, about seven months or so before he’s up for reelection.

ADDENDA: Rob Port, a great North Dakota political blogger who I met way back in the day when bloggers had conventions, reminds us that Alexander Hamilton saw the inherent problems with impeachment coming, all the way back in Federalist No. 65:

A well-constituted court for the trial of impeachments is an object not more to be desired than difficult to be obtained in a government wholly elective. The subjects of its jurisdiction are those offenses which proceed from the misconduct of public men, or, in other words, from the abuse or violation of some public trust. They are of a nature which may with peculiar propriety be denominated POLITICAL, as they relate chiefly to injuries done immediately to the society itself. The prosecution of them, for this reason, will seldom fail to agitate the passions of the whole community, and to divide it into parties more or less friendly or inimical to the accused. In many cases it will connect itself with the pre-existing factions, and will enlist all their animosities, partialities, influence, and interest on one side or on the other; and in such cases there will always be the greatest danger that the decision will be regulated more by the comparative strength of parties, than by the real demonstrations of innocence or guilt.

White House

The Dominoes of Impeachment Start to Topple in Sequence

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi holds a weekly news conference with Capitol Hill reporters, July 26, 2019. (Erin Scott/Reuters)

“I am announcing the House of Representatives is moving forward with an official impeachment inquiry.” With those words yesterday evening, House speaker Nancy Pelosi knocked down the first domino in a long line.

That last word in that sentence matters; on paper, nothing changed with Pelosi’s words. The House Judiciary Committee had already started an “impeachment inquiry,” but Democrats insist that this effort is different, because it is simple.

We will get the — likely non-verbatim — transcript of Trump’s call to Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky soon, but at this point, it’s almost moot. If Trump’s conversation includes an explicit quid pro quo, despite his denials, it will create a Category Five political hurricane, but if it doesn’t, many will insist the quid pro quo is implied strongly enough, and it will be “only” a Category Four political hurricane. Democrats have already gone out onto the limb, placed their bets, burned their ships like Cortés. There’s no way they can say, “Oh, wait, this call transcript doesn’t look as bad as we thought it would, never mind.”

At this point, there are far too many national-security officials who are confirming the ugly implications of Trump’s own statements — that the issue he was most interested in discussing with Ukrainian officials was why they hadn’t uncovered and investigated what he believed was obvious, glaring, and far-reaching evidence of the Bidens’ corruption. Notice this paragraph in today’s Post, discussing how White House officials felt about Trump’s lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, suddenly taking such a large role in discussions with the Ukrainian government:

Then-national security adviser John Bolton was outraged by the outsourcing of a relationship with a country struggling to survive Russian aggression, officials said. But by then his standing with Trump was strained, and neither he nor his senior aides could get straight answers about Giuliani’s agenda or authority, officials said. Bolton declined to comment.

Officials whose job was to worry about U.S.–Ukraine relations and the security and stability in Eastern Europe did not find Hunter Biden’s membership and actions on the Burisma board from April 2014 to 2019 to be particularly interesting, troubling, or relevant.

If Hunter Biden or Burisma were involved in something indictable, or at least easily indictable, then prosecutors in Ukraine probably would have moved on it — if not before 2017 then afterward, because hey, what better way to win over the new American president than by nailing the son of one of his potential rivals. That Ukrainian legal authorities still didn’t move on it even after Trump brought it up suggests that there wasn’t enough there to justify even a “we’re reviewing the contracts and decisions from that time period to see if there was anything inappropriate” non-investigation investigation. Foreign leaders attempt to placate one another by going through the motions all the time, and for Trump’s political purposes, any report of an investigation would put a cloud of suspicion over Biden.

Now that the “inquiry” is started, there’s almost no way that the House Democrats can avoid drafting articles of impeachment, and once they’re drafted, the House will have to vote on them. You know that every Democratic presidential candidate except for Tulsi Gabbard will call for impeachment.

According to the New York Times count, 204 House Democrats now support impeachment. After yesterday’s announcement, Pelosi cannot let it fall short of 218 on the final vote. A House vote that falls short would be like the Mueller report all over again; Trump would be twerking on the White House lawn, and the progressive grassroots would be at the throats of the Democratic holdouts. There are 235 House Democrats; all but a handful will end up voting for impeachment.

What do House Republicans do? Some may vote yes, gambling that Trump is damaged goods and there’s no point in defending the indefensible. Many will insist that Trump’s questions to Zelensky were legitimate anti-corruption efforts, that this is no different than the British Government Communications Headquarters contacting their U.S. counterparts when they observed contacts between Trump’s team and Russians. Some will discuss yesterday’s option of concluding that as much as they’re troubled by Trump’s actions, impeachment is silly with a reelection decision approaching in November. The Twitter Left is convinced “let the people decide” is a terrible stance for Republicans. We will see; they also believed that the Senate GOP’s treatment of Merrick Garland was one of the greatest injustices in American history, but for some weird reason, not a single Democrat mentioned Garland at all during their 2016 convention.

Do the Democrats think impeachment polls badly because the American people think Trump is an all-around good guy with a sterling character? Or is it because the American people know they’ll have their own chance to render a judgment on Trump in November 2020, and they don’t want lawmakers attempting to interrupt that choice and make it for them?

The progressive grassroots are also convinced this will all come to a vote soon, which I guess depends upon your definition of “soon.” Back in 1998, the Starr report was released to the public on September 11, and the House Judiciary Committee votes to launch a congressional impeachment inquiry against President Clinton on October 5. Starr testified on November 19. The House Judiciary Committee approves three articles of impeachment on a party-line vote December 11, a fourth one the following day, and the full House vote occurred on December 19.

If the House operates on a similar timetable, they’ll be voting to impeach Trump around Christmas again. The Senate began the impeachment trial January 7, they heard testimony for about a month, and deliberations began February 9. The acquittal vote occurred February 12.

Pelosi knocking over that first domino yesterday means that we will probably spend the next six months talking about this. On the merits, Trump’s behavior is inexcusable, a sadly typical demonstration of his inability to separate his personal and political interests from the national interest. The president’s personal lawyer has no proper role in investigating criminal activity. We have law-enforcement agencies whose duty is to investigate these sorts of things, and the claim that the FBI and Department of Justice are just too partisan to investigate the Bidens is nonsense. Who appointed the FBI director? Who appointed the attorney general? Who appointed the deputy attorney general? The argument that American law-enforcement agencies can’t be trusted, which is allegedly a defense of Trump’s actions, is actually an indictment of him, if Christopher Wray, William Barr, and Jeffrey Rosen really have so little ability to control the institutions they direct and manage.

If a Democratic president ever did this, the reaction from Republicans and conservative grassroots would be comparable to a sun going supernova. For those who insist that the Obama administration’s actions investigating Trump before the election are parallel, the reaction from Republicans and conservative grassroots was comparable to a sun going supernova! But a whole lot of folks on the right have decided that emulating the Obama administration’s blurred lines between political interest and national interests is no longer wrong and that “justice” can only be served when their preferred figures have committed the same acts those folks previously denounced. There is no longer objective right and wrong, only turnabout, under the theory that someday if our side acts badly enough, the other side will suddenly see the light and behave better.

But this isn’t happening in a vacuum. The Democratic party spent the better part of two years claiming that Trump’s election was illegitimate; that the election had been hacked, rigged, and stolen; and in many, many cases, that Trump was a Russian agent. It was a festival of implausible paranoia that approached quasi-religious status, complete with prayer candles. The Democrats and their media allies didn’t just cry “wolf,” they made their cries more ubiquitous and omnipresent than Lil Nas X’s “Old Town Road.” And when the wolf didn’t show up in the Mueller report as expected, a lot of people decided to tune them out.

There’s one other aspect that isn’t going to get nearly as much attention as it deserves. The judgment by both Bidens and the Obama administration surrounding that March 2016 trip to Ukraine was terrible. Secretary of State John Kerry could have carried that “fire Viktor Shokin or you’re not getting the loan guarantee” message, or the ambassador, or anybody else in the State Department, or the U.S. trade representative, or maybe even the military attaché. Anybody who didn’t have a son on the board of a natural-gas company who may or may not have been in the crosshairs of this prosecutor would have been a better choice that would have avoided any allegation of a conflict of interest. The fact that Biden is still telling the story with pride indicates he still can’t see why anyone would object. In his mind, he’s a good guy, his son’s a good guy, and thus no one could possibly have any problem.

Hunter Biden is a familiar figure in American politics — the frequently troubled son of the famous man, who never quite figured out how to carve out his own identity, frequently offered lucrative opportunities by those with an interest in government policies to be a backdoor conduit to his father, and who blindly assumes that everyone who’s being so nice to him (ooh, a 2.8 karat diamond gift, why thank you!) — is on the up and up.

ADDENDA: As noted yesterday, Nancy Pelosi spent much of this past year resisting her own caucus on impeachment and antagonizing traditional allies, making compelling arguments to her own party that impeachment involved considerable political risks . . . only to find herself in the exact spot she spent all that time and effort trying to avoid.

If impeachment took human form, it would be Thanos from the Marvel movies: “You could not live with your own failure. Where did that bring you? Back to me.”

Elections

Slouching toward Impeachment?

May 6, 2019; Washington, D.C., USA; President Donald Trump speaks during the ceremony to present the Commander in Chiefís Trophy at a White House event with the Army Black Knights in the Rose Garden. Mandatory Credit: Scott Taetsch-USA TODAY Sports – 12654045

Making the click-through worthwhile: For the love of God, Democrats, stop telling us how seriously you’re thinking about impeaching the president, and just do it or drop the issue; how Trump’s accusations about Hunter Biden help Joe Biden in the Democratic primary; why some people can’t perceive irony; and straw-gate.

Go Ahead, Democrats. Rip Off the Band-Aid of Impeachment. Get It Over With.

How many times since January 20, 2017 have we heard promises, pledges, and predictions that congressional Democrats would impeach the president? The Washington Free Beacon gathered all of those “the walls are closing in” statements. For months, Democratic members of Congress have contended that Trump’s lawbreaking is self-evident, that he’s trying to “make America white again,” that he’s created a constitutional crisis, and that “this man and his family are the greatest threats to democracy of my lifetime” . . . but then the lawmakers making those white-hot accusations voted against impeachment. Guys, if what you’re saying is more than just a fundraising pitch, then act on your words. But if you don’t mean what you say, stop saying it.

Back in April, after the Mueller report came out, I argued that Democrats ought to get impeachment over with, recognizing that it would probably work against their long-term interests. If they really believed Trump had committed high crimes and misdemeanors, and they really believed impeachment was warranted, they should stop talking about it, do it, and accept the consequences. They could legitimately argue that it was not the sort of matter that should be resolved in the upcoming election. A presidential election is not a trial; the opposing party’s nominee is not a prosecutor and the electorate is not a jury. Our Constitution includes a mechanism for resolving allegations of presidential lawbreaking, and that’s impeachment. In 1998 and 1999, many Congressional Republicans concluded that presidential lawbreaking demanded consequence, whether enforcing that consequence is popular or not. Democrats are free to embrace that philosophy today.

Democrats in the grassroots love to tell themselves a story that they’re the good guys, that they do what’s right even when it’s difficult, and that they don’t duck responsibilities out of political expediency. House speaker Nancy Pelosi’s determination to avoid impeachment is eating away at how grassroots Democrats perceive their party.

Here we are in mid-to-late September. An impeachment process that took six months, like the one against Bill Clinton, would resolve itself sometime in March or so, after the first primaries and caucuses. If you’re a congressional Republican, this is the easiest call in the world. You shake your head in deep concern about what Trump is alleged to have done and then conclude, “while I find the description of the president’s actions troubling, suggesting a blurring of the lines between his political interests and the national interests, we are just months away from the election. I believe this is a matter best left for the American people to judge at the ballot box. I trust the voters to decide, unlike some people who have been throwing tantrums every day since Election Night 2016.”

There’s a chance impeachment could cost Democrats control of the House of Representatives; at least 13 House Democrats who represent districts that Trump won would have to vote “yes” on impeachment for it to get to the Senate. Then again, maybe an impeachment vote creates some headaches for Republican senators like Susan Collins in Maine, Cory Gardner in Colorado, or Thom Tillis in North Carolina.

Oh, and if Democrats genuinely believe that the allegation of an attempt to strongarm Ukraine is a completely different, more serious, and clearer argument for impeachment than the president’s actions described in the Mueller report, they should not have the argument led by people like Adam Schiff who insisted all the Russian collusion stuff was a serious and clear case for impeachment. Chicken Little has a credibility problem.

Ben Domenech argues that President Trump wants to be impeached. “It polls terribly. He won’t be removed from office. And he wants the tribal “they’re crazy, they tried to impeach me for this” narrative.”

That’s undoubtedly a factor at play, although I don’t think Trump is faking his outrage that the Democrats would even think of impeaching a president as self-evidently terrific as he is. As he put it in a May tweet, “Impeach for what, having created perhaps the greatest Economy in our Country’s history, rebuilding our Military, taking care of our Vets (Choice), Judges, Best Jobs Numbers Ever, and much more?” As we all know, Article Two, Section Four of the U.S. Constitution states that Congress may not impeach the president if the national unemployment rate is below five percent.*

As of last week, just 37 percent of registered voters supported impeachment and 50 percent oppose it. Maybe the new allegations about an attempt to strongarm Ukraine will change those numbers, but probably not dramatically.

The conventional wisdom is that an impeachment effort would probably strengthen Trump’s reelection odds. But Democrats might also wonder if their constant talk of impeachment but continued refusal to go through with it adds to the perception that nothing the president has done is out of the ordinary or all that bad. Impeachment might strengthen Trump politically, but it could also conceivably weaken him.

Ann Althouse theorizes that Democrats aren’t so sure that they will win in 2020, and that they might see impeachment as their best tool to hobble Trump going forward.

Either way, time is not on the Democrats’ side. The closer we get to Election Day, the more ridiculous it looks to try to remove the president right before Americans get to decide on whether he deserves a second term. Some Democrats might even be foolish enough to echo the argument of William Weld, that if Trump gets reelected, Congress should impeach him afterward. Impeachment is not meant to be election insurance in case the voters make a choice that Congressional majorities oppose.

*No, not really.

Trump’s Attack on Biden

Because Democrats perceive Donald Trump to be the devil and believe that any allegations the president makes about any Democrat must be a lie, now no Democratic candidate can even bring up Hunter Biden. Reread the Biden sections of Friday’s and Monday’s Jolts. At the absolute minimum, Hunter Biden keeps attracting shady foreign businessmen as partners, is willfully blind to the conflict of interest issues he keeps creating for this father —“I guess this Chinese tycoon just gave me a giant diamond out of genuine friendship, there’s no way he could possibly be trying to purchase a connection to a future president of the United States” — and Joe Biden loves his son too much to recognize or acknowledge the problems his son is creating. Hunter Biden had the audacity to tell The New Yorker that one of his clients going to prison for a “multiyear, multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe top government officials in Chad and Uganda” was simply a matter of “bad luck.”

Hunter Biden’s business partners and clients and potential conflicts of interest are absolutely legitimate issues for any rival of Joe Biden’s to bring up. But now none of the Democrats can talk about them, because it would be seen as at least partially validating Trump’s complaints about the Bidens and corruption.

In an odd way, this is one of the best developments of the primary for Biden. Right now, any attack on him from any rival would be seen as kicking him when he’s down or at least taking fire from Trump.

Elizabeth Warren could and should say, “in November, we Democrats are going to want to have the clearest contrast possible with Donald Trump. This president loves to make counter-accusations of corruption against anyone who criticizes him. If our nominee has a son who’s been involved with all kinds of shady characters, Trump will use this to muddy the waters and leave people thinking all politicians have these sorts of issues. We as a party can’t afford that risk, and we need to nominate someone else.” But if she went out and made that argument now, the grassroots that currently love her would probably get mad that she’s conceding that Hunter Biden is a legitimate issue of concern.

Trump talking about Biden and Biden talking about Trump make it feel like we’ve already moved on to the general election. Good luck getting your message out in this environment, Cory Booker, Julian Castro, and Amy Klobuchar.

By the way, do you notice who hasn’t burst through the wall like the Kool-Aid Man to declare that the allegations about the Bidens are specious nonsense and a smear; to declare that the former vice president’s effort to get the Ukrainians to fire a state prosecutor were right, proper, and motivated entirely by the national interest?

Barack Obama.

Some People Need to Go Back to Irony School

I knew some folks who weren’t the sharpest knives in the drawer would interpret yesterday’s “Inside the Mind of the Warren Voter” as some sort of straight-up personal endorsement of Warren, and contend that National Review had now gone full-on hard-left progressive. (It was a follow-up to the preceding week’s “Inside the Mind of the Biden Voter.”)

Please tell me you spotted the deliberate glaring contradiction below:

You can’t believe anyone’s still giving her grief over the Native American thing. All she did wrong was believe her own family’s stories! Nobody can prove that the claim of Native heritage alone ever got her hired or promoted or recognized. She didn’t tell Harvard Law School to call her a “woman of color.” She says she didn’t even know the school was doing that, and you believe her. Even if she did know about it, a white lie like that never really hurt anyone. It’s a distraction from the main issue: that dishonest elites who cut corners have risen to the top of American society and they’re now trying to get even more power for themselves.

Or this:

As for Bernie Sanders, there are days you love him, but you’re not so certain he can get the job done. He senses the same injustices that you do, but he isn’t willing to do the homework the way Warren was. He railed about this stuff for decades before anybody noticed. You hope his truce with Warren holds, because he deserves a lot of credit for shaking up a complacent, corporatist Democratic party in 2016. But it’s really time for him to pass the torch to someone younger, like the 70-year-old Warren.

To quote the guys on NFL Live, “come on, man!”

There are a whole bunch of folks out there who get offended by something you write and conclude that because you wrote it, you must secretly be on the other side.

ADDENDA: Kevin Williamson shocks the world by coming out against straws. Not plastic straws, just straws in general. Madeline Kearns is left to defend the instrument for imbibing liquids.

Kevin says “everybody wants to give me a straw,” which means he hasn’t encountered the Straw Commissars who are currently rampaging across the Acela Corridor countryside, barring plastic straws from Starbucks and restaurants and replacing them with paper ones that seem designed to dissolve when they come in contact with liquids.

World

What Trump’s Interloping with Ukraine Means for the Future of the Presidency

President Donald Trump in the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, D.C. August 20, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A lot of Trump fans will hate the first part of today’s newsletter; Joe Biden fans will hate the second. That doesn’t make what’s in it any less true.

Every Unprecedented Move Sets a New Precedent

Just picture what happens next if the American people decide that it is legal and ethical for an American president to urge foreign leaders to investigate his political opponents, as it appears Donald Trump encouraged Ukrainian leaders to do in Joe Biden and his son Hunter Biden.

Someday, there will be another Democratic president. The country could see another Democratic president as soon as January 20, 2021, or it could be sometime many years after that. But someday, there will be one, and this future Democratic president could use this exact same tactic against his or her potential Republican challengers.

This future Democratic president could urge Iraq or Afghanistan to investigate Dan Crenshaw’s units to see if they violated any rules of engagement.

This future Democratic president could urge Germany to investigate whether Nikki Haley and the South Carolina state government ever did anything unethical or cut any corners in their agreements to bring BMW production plants to the Palmetto State.

This future Democratic president could urge any of the countries that Mike Pence visited as governor on trade missions — China, Japan, Germany, the United Kingdom, Israel, Canada — to claim that some sort of “shadowy backroom deal” was proposed.

And of course, a future Democratic president could tell just about any foreign government where there is a Trump property — two dozen countries around the world — to announce an investigation to see if there was anything unethical or shady about any Trump organization dealings, just to have more allegations to throw at Donald Trump Jr., Ivanka, etc. if they ever express political ambitions.

The point, of course, would not be whether any of those GOP lawmakers ever did anything wrong. There’s no evidence that any of them did anything wrong. The point would be to create a cloud of scandal over a potential GOP presidential candidate, to generate the headline “[FOREIGN GOVERNMENT X] INVESTIGATING [POLITICAL FIGURE Y] OVER CORRUPTION ALLEGATIONS.” And the odds are good that some foreign official somewhere would be willing to leak something along these lines in order to ingratiate himself with a Democratic president seeking a second term.

When a president does something “unprecedented,” that action creates a new precedent. Every move you use against your opponents can be used against you, too. But in today’s politics, nobody wants to think that far ahead — or they conclude that their opponents are so irredeemably devious and unethical, that any devious and unethical move of their own is pre-justified. “Politics ain’t beanbag,” to quote the cliché that has become the universal excuse for everyone willing to cheat in pursuit of victory.

Trump’s claim Sunday that he merely wanted to fight corruption in Ukraine is pretty rich coming from the guy who hired Paul Manafort, but even if that was the motive, we have institutions of law that are supposed to investigate and prosecute allegations of corruption at home and abroad: the FBI, the Department of Justice, Interpol. If a president wants a foreign country to investigate corruption, he doesn’t tell them to work with his personal lawyer.

You’re Not off the Hook So Quickly, Bidens

The irony is that there is indeed an odor coming off of Joe Biden’s efforts to get Ukraine to replace a state prosecutor, and Hunter Biden’s foreign business partners in general.

Go back to Friday’s Jolt. You don’t have to look hard to find Obama administration officials who were uncomfortable with Hunter Biden’s deals, not because they saw any ipso facto corruption but because it was nearly inevitable that at some point, some Obama administration policy change would end up being beneficial to the interests of Hunter Biden’s clients, leading to accusations of the vice president steering policy in a way to help out his son. While no one has proven Biden acted out of a conflict of interest, there’s no denying that the father and son’s situations created a perception of a conflict of interest, and neither Biden seemed to care.

In the coming week, you’ll see a lot of people acting like only one party has an issue with executive branch relatives trying to make money off their powerful connections.

The State Department’s EB-5 visas are perfectly legal (which is a separate question from whether they’re a good idea). Foreigners who invest at least $500,000 in a U.S. business and plan “to create or preserve 10 permanent full-time jobs” in the U.S. are eligible to apply for the program and get a visa.

But when Jared Kushner’s family held an event in a Beijing ballroom for wealthy Chinese investors in 2017 with brochures that declared, “invest $500,000 and immigrate to the United States,” people understandably perceived a conflict of interest. The family appeared to be cashing in on Kushner’s closeness to the president and role in the White House to convince Chinese investors that they have a better shot of getting a visa by investing in the family’s projects. The SEC announced an investigation (although nothing’s come of it so far), and a few changes have been made to the EB-5 program, increasing in the required minimum investment amounts and clarifying the definition of a “targeted employment area” under the law. (Hey, some of us were reporting about worries that the EB-5 program amounting to a visa-selling scheme way back in 2013 when Terry McAuliffe was running for governor. But did anyone listen? No.)

Go back to the big New Yorker article about Hunter Biden. It is full of Hunter Biden and his former associates insisting there was never any conflict of interest and other people who are less close to the Bidens not being quite so sure. We’re told that there’s been a “decades-old” rule between father and son to never talk business. In 2000, Hunter Biden joins a lobbying firm, the National Group.

[Firm co-founder Vincent] Versage told me that the National Group had a strict rule: “Hunter didn’t do anything that involved his dad, didn’t do anything that involved any help from his dad.”

An informal arrangement was established: Biden wouldn’t ask Hunter about his lobbying clients, and Hunter wouldn’t tell his father about them. “It wasn’t like we all sat down and agreed on it,” Hunter told me. “It came naturally.”

Then when Biden becomes vice president:

Jen Psaki, a State Department spokesperson, said that the State Department was not concerned about perceived conflicts of interest, because Hunter was a “private citizen.” Hunter told Burisma’s management and other board members that he would not be involved in any matters that were connected to the U.S. government or to his father.

We’re constantly being reassured by Joe Biden and Hunter Biden that the son’s lobbying work, consulting work, corporate or foreign clients never influenced the father’s thinking, decision-making, or policy choices. Joe Biden thinks his son is a swell and ethical guy; Hunter Biden thinks his father is a swell and ethical guy, and they assure the world that nothing wrong . . . and I guess we’re all just supposed to take them at their word.

Except the rest of the New Yorker article is full of folks who aren’t quite as convinced.

Timothy Lannon, the university’s president, who offered Hunter the contract, described Hunter to me as “like his dad: great personally, very engaging, very curious about things and hardworking,” adding that he had “a very strong last name that really paid off in terms of our lobbying efforts.”

. . . Hunter had heard that, during the primaries, some of Obama’s advisers had criticized him to reporters for his earmarking work. Hunter said that he wasn’t told by members of the Obama campaign to end his lobbying activities, but that he knew “the writing was on the wall.”

. . . Hunter’s meeting with Li and his relationship with BHR attracted little attention at the time, but some of Biden’s advisers were worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit, would expose the vice president to criticism. The former senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he “was leveraging access for his benefit, which just wasn’t done in that White House. Optics really mattered, and that seemed to be cutting it pretty close, even if nothing nefarious was going on.”

. . . As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

In the article, Hunter Biden describes a 2.8-carat diamond that became an issue in his divorce, worth anywhere from $10,000 to $80,000. In 2018, he had “been given the diamond by the Chinese energy tycoon Ye Jianming, who was trying to make connections in Washington among prominent Democrats and Republicans, and whom he had met in the middle of the divorce.”

Maybe it’s legal, but Americans are entitled to be unnerved hearing that a Chinese tycoon gave the son of the former vice president and front-running likely presidential candidate a giant diamond as a gift. Hunter told the New Yorker that the gift couldn’t possibly be a bribe: “What would they be bribing me for? My dad wasn’t in office.” Er, because everybody thought that there was a good chance Joe Biden would run for president again and a decent chance he could be president someday?

There’s this willful obliviousness that keeps cropping up with Hunter Biden:

Hunter began negotiating a deal for CEFC to invest forty million dollars in a liquefied-natural-gas project on Monkey Island, in Louisiana, which, he said, was projected to create thousands of jobs. “I was more proud of it than you can imagine,” he told me. In the summer of 2017, Ye talked with Hunter about his concern that U.S. law-enforcement agencies were investigating one of his associates, Patrick Ho. Hunter, who sometimes works as a private lawyer, agreed to represent Ho, and tried to figure out whether Ho was in legal jeopardy in the U.S. That November, just after Ye and Hunter agreed on the Monkey Island deal, U.S. authorities detained Ho at the airport. He was later sentenced to three years in prison for his role in a multiyear, multimillion-dollar scheme to bribe top government officials in Chad and Uganda in exchange for business advantages for CEFC. In February, 2018, Ye was detained by Chinese authorities, reportedly as part of an anti-corruption investigation, and the deal with Hunter fell through. Hunter said that he did not consider Ye to be a “shady character at all,” and characterized the outcome as “bad luck.”

These arguments are likely to fall on deaf ears. A lot of Republican voters are invested in President Trump, a lot of Democrats are invested in Joe Biden, and even his primary rivals don’t want to suggest that the Obama administration was steering its policies in foreign countries to benefit the business interests of family members. A lot of people are willing to forgive a little corruption from their preferred political leaders.

ADDENDA: Two great NRO pieces worth reading: first, Jay Nordlinger on the excellent newly expanded International Spy Museum in Washington D.C., and Robert VerBruggen analyzing a new study about Harvard University’s admissions for legacy students (those whose parents attended), athletes, and children of faculty and staff:

The argument against affirmative action has always been that we should judge people as individuals, and the work of Arcidiacono et al. shows that these other preferences do immense damage at the individual level. They let in hundreds of students each year simply because of who their parents are or how well they can throw a ball (or whatever one does to score in lacrosse) — and every preferred student who’s admitted excludes someone more qualified. Worse, these preferences exist not as an attempt, however misguided, to redress America’s reprehensible racial sins but merely to heap more donations on top of Harvard’s $37 billion endowment and to cultivate an amorphous sense of community based around sports teams and family members who attended the school decades ago.

White House

What to Make of the Trump–Whistleblower Kerfuffle

President Donald Trump walks to board Air Force One at Joint Base Andrews, Md., June 26, 2019. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Everything you need to know about the intelligence official’s whistleblower complaint against President Trump, and Hunter Biden’s business dealings in Ukraine.

Of Course Trump Wanted Ukraine to Investigate Somebody. He Always Wants Somebody Investigated.

This is not that complicated.

Donald Trump believes that just about everyone he doesn’t like must be corrupt or engaged in lawbreaking of some manner and should be investigated. Earlier this week, he tweeted out, “Look at the Obama Book Deal, or the ridiculous Netflix deal. Then look at all the deals made by the Dems in Congress, the “Congressional Slush Fund,” and lastly the IG Reports. Take a look at them. Those investigations would be over FAST!”

Last month, after sharing a tweet that speculated that the Clintons were responsible for Jeffrey Epstein’s suicide under suspicious circumstances, Trump indicated law enforcement should investigate the Clintons further: “The question you have to ask is, did Bill Clinton go to the island? Because Epstein had an island. That was not a good place, as I understand it, and I was never there. So you have to ask, did Bill Clinton go to the island? That’s the question. If you find that out, you’re going to know a lot.”

In July, the president called for an investigation of “corrupt government” in Baltimore, and that representative Elijah Cummings must be stealing money, adding “he should investigate himself with his oversight committee.”

That same month, he called on law enforcement to “subpoena all of the records having to do with Hillary Clinton and all of the nonsense that went on with Clinton and her foundation.” He also promised “the Trump Administration will take a look” at claims that Google committed “treason” by working with the Chinese government.

The previous month, he complained that Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian influence into the 2016 election never started looking into “how and why Crooked Hillary Clinton deleted and acid washed 33,000 Emails immediately AFTER getting a SUBPOENA from the United States Congress.” (This is presumably a reference to Clinton’s tech team using software called BleachBit. It is not a chemical and is not related to acid-washed jeans.)

He has twice called for the Federal Elections Commission and Federal Communications Commission to investigate whether Saturday Night Live is colluding with the Democratic party.

In September 2018, Trump called upon the Department of Justice to investigate who wrote an anonymous op-ed in the New York Times, purportedly from an administration official who was attempting to constrain and undermine the Trump administration from the inside. Trump said it was a matter of “national security.”

A few months earlier, Trump “demanded” that “the Department of Justice look into whether or not the FBI/DOJ infiltrated or surveilled the Trump Campaign for Political Purposes – and if any such demands or requests were made by people within the Obama Administration!” That same month, Trump ordered the Department of Commerce “to consider an investigation into whether the imports of automobiles, including trucks, and automotive parts” threaten “America’s national security.”

In November 2017, Trump called for an investigation of the death of an intern in then-representative Joe Scarborough’s office in 2001. The medical examiner determined that she had a heart condition, hit her head on a desk, and that there was no foul play.

You notice that few of these calls for investigations led to any investigations, right? (Also notice that in an era of relentless partisan warfare, you don’t hear very much from FBI director Christopher Wray, and when you do hear him testifying before Congress, he doesn’t generate much controversy. It’s reasonable to worry about the politicization of law enforcement at a moment like this, but so far, there’s not much evidence of it. The overwhelming majority of personnel at the FBI get up every morning, do their jobs, and follow the evidence like professionals, thank God.

It is easy to understand why Trump feels he was treated unfairly by the national news media, why he believes claims of Russian influence on the elections were meant to delegitimize his 2016 victory, and why he feels Robert Mueller’s investigation was a giant waste of time in attempting to find proof to verify a farfetched conspiracy theory. Trump had to endure a long and thorough investigation and now wants his political opponents to have their turn on the hot seat.

What’s more, Trump speaks as if he’s convinced that some sort of colossal, ruinous scandal is lurking behind each one of his foes, and all of them could be ruined if federal investigators would just look hard enough.

So it shouldn’t be the least bit surprising that Trump — and allies like Rudy Giuliani — believe that Hunter Biden’s work for a giant gas company in Ukraine must be not merely unsavory or created the appearance of a conflict of interest, but somewhere along the line, the Bidens must have broken the law. (More on this topic below.)

Should the president of the United States repeatedly call for law enforcement investigations of his political enemies, based upon rumors, media reports, and his own theories? No, of course not. By doing so, he jeopardizes any legitimate law enforcement investigation by giving the targets of the investigations the arguments that they’re targets of a political vendetta.

But Donald Trump does a lot of things that the president of the United States hasn’t traditionally done and shouldn’t do. No doubt he’s been told this by advisors, lawyers, and staffers many times that every time he publicly calls for an investigation of a foe, he does a favor for that foe’s defense lawyer. He doesn’t care. He is who he is, and he’s not going to change.

Does this enter a different area if the president is promising X to foreign officials in exchange for an investigation of American political rival Y? It all depends upon the specifics. “That [insert Trump foe here] is a real crook, everybody knows it, everybody’s saying so, and if you guys caught him and nailed him to the wall, I’d be thrilled,” is probably just Trump being Trump. Some sort of explicit quid-pro-quo, like, “I will authorize the arms exports to your country after you guys indict him” would probably throw another log onto the bonfire of cries of impeachment.

Sooner or Later, Hunter Biden Will Become a Big Problem for His Father’s Campaign

The Washington Post, this morning: “A whistleblower complaint about President Trump made by an intelligence official centers on Ukraine, according to two people familiar with the matter, which has set off a struggle between Congress and the executive branch.” If the discussion is about Ukraine, it probably revolves around the Trump campaign’s interest in what Hunter Biden did for Ukrainian companies in the tail end of the Obama administration.

As usual, partisans are getting wound up about a belief in some sort of secret and explicit lawbreaking, when the legal but unethical actions probably ought to generate sufficient outrage themselves.

When the Obama campaign was vetting Joe Biden to be vice president in the summer of 2008, “one of the most sensitive issues they examined” was the relationship between the senator and his family connection to the large Delaware bank MBNA. The bank was the largest donor to Biden’s campaigns over his career, hired Hunter Biden in 1996, and had made Hunter a vice president by 1998 — when he was all of 28 years old. Hunter departed to do a short stint in the Department of Commerce, but kept a $100,000 a year retainer from the bank after returning to the private sector as a lawyer in Washington, working for a lobbying firm. The Bidens insist Hunter’s lobbying work never crossed paths with his father’s work in the Senate. However, during this time, Joe Biden voted in favor of a bankruptcy reform bill that MBNA and other banks supported, and that many Democrats, including then-senator Barack Obama, opposed. (Elizabeth Warren is most likely licking her chops and waiting for just the right moment to go on the attack over that legislation.)

When you’re the son of a famous senator or vice president, doors keep opening for you. By 2014, Hunter Biden had been a bank vice president, a lawyer, a partner at a mergers and acquisitions firm, attempted to purchase a hedge fund, founded two consulting firms, and shortly after his father started his second term as vice president, joined the U.S. Naval Reserve. That ended badly; he was discharged after about a year for failing a drug test.

Returning to the investment world, Biden’s business partners included Jonathan Li, who ran a Chinese private-equity fund, Bohai Capital. In April 2014, at age 44, Hunter Biden joined the board of directors for Burisma Holdings, the largest non-government run natural gas company in Ukraine.

Not everyone in the Obama administration was comfortable with Hunter’s new business partners, according to The New Yorker:

Hunter’s meeting with Li and his relationship with BHR attracted little attention at the time, but some of Biden’s advisers were worried that Hunter, by meeting with a business associate during his father’s visit, would expose the Vice-President to criticism. The former senior White House aide told me that Hunter’s behavior invited questions about whether he “was leveraging access for his benefit, which just wasn’t done in that White House. Optics really mattered, and that seemed to be cutting it pretty close, even if nothing nefarious was going on.” When I asked members of Biden’s staff whether they discussed their concerns with the Vice-President, several of them said that they had been too intimidated to do so. “Everyone who works for him has been screamed at,” a former adviser told me. Others said that they were wary of hurting his feelings. One business associate told me that Biden, during difficult conversations about his family, “got deeply melancholy, which, to me, is more painful than if someone yelled and screamed at me. It’s like you’ve hurt him terribly. That was always my fear, that I would be really touching a very fragile part of him.”

At the very least, Hunter Biden’s business dealings were creating the appearance of a conflict of interest for the vice president. While no one has yet found evidence where Vice President Biden explicitly changed or pushed for changes in U.S. policy that would benefit his son’s business partners, perhaps the fairest criticism is that both elder and younger Biden simply couldn’t see potential problems that seemed glaring to everyone else:

Several former officials in the Obama Administration and at the State Department insisted that Hunter’s role at Burisma had no effect on his father’s policies in Ukraine, but said that, nevertheless, Hunter should not have taken the board seat. As the former senior White House aide put it, there was a perception that “Hunter was on the loose, potentially undermining his father’s message.” The same aide said that Hunter should have recognized that at least some of his foreign business partners were motivated to work with him because they wanted “to be able to say that they are affiliated with Biden.” A former business associate said, “The appearance of a conflict of interest is good enough, at this level of politics, to keep you from doing things like that.”

In 2018 appearance before the Council on Foreign Relations, former Vice President Biden described the time that he threatened to withhold foreign aid from the Ukrainian government unless they fired prosecutor Viktor Shokin:

I was supposed to announce there was going to be another billion dollar loan guarantee. I had gotten a commitment . . . that they were going to take action against the state prosecutor and they didn’t. And I said ‘We’re not going to give you the billion dollars. They said, ‘You have no authority. You’re not the president.’ … I said, ‘call him.’ I said, ‘I’m telling you, you’re not getting the billion dollars.’ I said, ‘you’re not getting the billion, we’re leaving in six hours.’ I looked at them and said, ‘I’m leaving in six hours. If the prosecutor is not fired, you’re not getting the money.’ Well, son of a bitch! He got fired. And they put in place someone who was solid at the time.”

The argument from the Obama administration was that Shokin was resisting efforts to reform Ukraine’s judicial system and had done a poor job investigating corruption of the previous regime. The European Union and Ukrainian parliament were happy to see Shokin go.

But there’s one other really important wrinkle or at least a hugely consequential allegation. In April, John Solomon of The Hill reported that before Shokin was fired, the prosecutor was preparing a wide-ranging corruption probe into . . . the natural gas firm Burisma Holdings, the same company that had Hunter Biden on its board of directors.

If that’s true, it changes a lot. Maybe the Obama administration had good and legitimate reasons to want to see Shokin replaced. But sending the vice president to strongarm the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who’s investigating his son’s company stinks to high heaven and reeks of corruption.

Clearly, Biden doesn’t think he did anything wrong; he was still telling the story about getting the prosecutor fired last year.

There’s a long history of high-ranking lawmakers and their offspring who have gone into lucrative and/or powerful consulting gigs, lobbying jobs, appointed government positions, elected offices of their own, or other rewards from being related to a lawmaker. If you’re going to be a senator negotiating big changes to laws that affect banks, your son probably shouldn’t be working for one of the country’s biggest banks. If you’re going to be vice president and helping shape U.S. policy on China and Ukraine, you can’t play hardball to get a guy investigating your son’s company dismissed.

It’s not the job of the president of the United States to tell the Ukrainians who to investigate. But that doesn’t mean there wasn’t anything worth investigating there.

ADDENDA: Coming soon, a new edition of the pop-culture podcast: looking at the miserable start to the NFL season for fans of the Pittsburgh Steelers and New York Jets; the arrival of Seinfeld to Netflix, and whether the show holds up; the American Horror Story television series and what we fear at this moment; whether our society is getting more vindictive; and the U.S. military acknowledges some flying objects are unidentified.

Culture

‘Toxic Fans’ Reflect a Society that Is Desperate to Believe in Something

Nicki Minaj arrives at Tidal’s office in Oslo, Norway March 4, 2019. (NTB Scanpix/Ole Berg-Rusten/via REUTERS )

The latest issue of The New Yorker knows how to grab your attention. The headline promises, “How Superfans Captured the Culture,” and warns, “One afternoon, Wanna Thompson, a Nicki Minaj fan, wrote a mildly critical tweet about her idol. Hours later, she had received hundreds of threatening messages — including one from Minaj’s own account — and been fired from her internship. Michael Shulman reports on the rise of extreme fandom.”

If you’re wondering how critical Thompson was, she merely wrote, “You know how dope it would be if Nicki put out mature content? No silly [stuff]. Just reflecting on past relationships, being a boss, hardships, etc. She’s touching 40 soon, a new direction is needed.” Not exactly a scathing reproach, but apparently one that hundreds of people believed must be rebuked with a response of pure rage.

Extreme fandom, toxic fandom — The New Yorker article argues, “fans are more powerful than ever.” Is this something new, though? How different is this from young women getting into screaming hysterics and fainting over Elvis or the Beatles — or the Jackson Five, or New Kids on the Block or the Backstreet Boys. Charles Dickens was mobbed by fans when he visited the United States in 1842, Arthur Conan Doyle tried to kill off Sherlock Holmes in 1893 in part so he wouldn’t have to keep feeding the ravenous public appetite for more stories of the famous detective. In 1927, silent film star Rudolph Valentino died and allegedly at least two obsessed women fans committed suicide. More than 50,000 people showed up for the funeral,  and 100 people were injured in a riot.

The phenomenon of fixated fans, so consumed with passion that they remind us that ‘fan’ stemmed from the word ‘fanatic, is not unique to American culture, as soccer hooligans, K-pop obsessives, and Bollywood prove. Part of this is the Internet suddenly making it so much easier to quickly send an anonymous death threat. You don’t even need to pay for a stamp anymore! There was a time when a death threat over popular culture meant the Ayatollah had issued a fatwah on Salman Rushdie. But more than a decade ago, we passed the point of pollsters getting death threats from folks who don’t like the results. Death threats are the new and idiotic way of saying, “I strongly disagree.”

The fact that so many people are willing to lash out so angrily over some random person’s criticism of their favorite pop star suggests to me that we live in a society full of people who are desperate to believe in something. They yearn for someone to put their faith in and to inspire them. They want to believe that someone out there is, if not perfect, about as close as any human being can get to that exalted status. They want to feel connected to a larger group, a community all experiencing the same feelings at the same time. They want to believe in something greater that gives them purpose and direction, provides a set of role models, and often gives them some sort of lesson about what living a good life is.

Traditional organized religion may not have the influence in American society that it used to, but eerily similar systems of belief keep stepping in to fill that vacuum.

NBC News is giving people a venue to make their “climate confessions.” Union Seminary gave people the opportunity to confess their sins to plants. There are all kinds of websites, chat boards, and apps that give people the ability to anonymously admit their darkest secrets.

Many of us would argue that the other side’s political rallies resemble cult-like religious services . . . not that our side would ever see a political leader in such blatantly messianic terms.

One of my all-time favorite jokes stems from the time Pope John Paul II held Mass at the Meadowlands in New Jersey in 1995. He chose the home stadium of the Jets for the site of the Mass because he had heard that Jets quarterback Boomer Esiason had already had amazing success in getting tens of thousands of people to simultaneously cry out, “Jesus Christ almighty!”

But what are sports events? Large crowds sit in rows and look upon their leaders in hopes of feeling exultation as they witness something extraordinary. They chant, sometimes sing songs, they stand and raise their arms as they do “the wave.” They feel connected to strangers — or maybe, over years of season tickets, those strangers up and down the row start to feel like community or family. They put their faith in a player or team. They’re often reenacting a ritual that their father participated in, and his father before that, and that they’ll pass along to their kids. When there’s disappointment and heartbreak, they share the feeling with a stadium or an arena full of strangers. When there’s victory and euphoria, they share that feeling with all of those strangers, too — and will probably never forget the feeling. When someone they never met in person tears an ACL, they feel heartbreak. When a rookie hits his first home run in the big leagues, they feel proud for him. “Soccer is like a religion here,” has become a cliché of sportswriters visiting foreign countries.

I love the observation that set social psychologist Jonathan Haidt down his path of diagnosing how our political divisions often stem from how we define morality. He described attending a breakfast with liberal friends where the host made an offhand comment about how uptight, repressed, and strict Christians were about sex . . . and then assured the guests that all of the food was organic, pesticide-free, free-range, fair-trade, etcetera. Just like the Christians, the liberal host had his own strict code of what was moral and immoral to do with his body, but he couldn’t grasp that just as he found traditional Christians’ restrictions on sexual activity silly, many other people would find his beliefs about what was morally acceptable to buy and eat silly. He had found his religion; he just didn’t see it as a religion.

A couple of years back, I noticed a lot of Bob Dylan fans don’t like his song “Gotta Serve Somebody.” Maybe they find the implications of the song unnerving:

You may be an ambassador to England or France
You may like to gamble, you might like to dance
You may be the heavyweight champion of the world
You may be a socialite with a long string of pearls

But you’re gonna have to serve somebody, yes
Indeed you’re gonna have to serve somebody
Well, it may be the devil or it may be the Lord
But you’re gonna have to serve somebody

You may not think of yourself as a believer or a member of any organized religion, but that doesn’t mean your thoughts, actions, and habits aren’t serving someone. The fact that these behaviors are so ubiquitous, even in contexts we don’t think of as religious, suggests that they’re baked in the cake of the human condition.

A shrewd and canny observer of that human condition once argued, “Is not this simpler? Is this not your natural state? It’s the unspoken truth of humanity that you crave subjugation. The bright lure of freedom diminishes your life’s joy in a mad scramble for power. For identity. You were made to be ruled. In the end, you will always kneel.”

Okay, technically, that was Loki in The Avengers movie. But it’s a good villain’s rant, because as power-mad as it seems, it’s got a little bit of truth to it. Freedom is rarely easy and isn’t always fun. It comes with responsibility and accepting the consequences of our choices and mistakes and flaws. At some point, our freedom to make our own choices is going to leave us in some situation that disappoints us and fills us with regret. Even smart people can make big and consequential bad decisions. A theoretical particle physicist at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill really believed he was having an online romance with Denise Milani, a Czech bikini model. Sometimes those who are lucky in love find they can’t handle money, those who are a whiz at finances can never find the right words, great leaders in the workplace find raising their own children to be an endless challenge. The only people who never feel stupid in life are those who are consumed by the Dunning–Kruger effect.

We often want someone to love, to serve, some greater cause we can devote ourselves to, because devotion can be invigorating and reassuring. We want someone whose judgment we can always trust, who will always have the right answers, who will look out for us for all those times when we’re blinded by pride or ego and aren’t looking out for ourselves.

We talk a good game about the joy of independence and being free spirits and bound to no one, and but . . . life can be pretty lonely sometimes. Even Ayn Rand found it hard to live up to her own standards of not needing anyone else. We also crave connection, and we don’t always demand perfect equality and a level playing field in our relationships, because we may conclude we need other factors more. Sometimes it’s a relief to just be a hanger-on to the popular kid, to be joyfully wrapped around the finger of the most beautiful woman or the biggest hunk, to be the loyal right-hand man of the bold and decisive leader. Parents dote on their kids, children put their parents on a pedestal. In Joe Klein’s Primary Colors, the long-suffering devoted campaign aide looks at a full moon and declares, “That’s me. Beautiful, huh? Very impressive to the earthlings. But Henry, honey, it’s only reflected light. It needs the sun. And I lived my life drawing light and warmth from the Stantons — and, God, they were so good and glowing. I could go for years without remembering I wasn’t producing any warmth myself, any light of my own.”

Maybe those kinds of relationships can drift into unhealthy territory pretty easily. Still, in all of those cases, we’ve at least found a flesh-and-blood real person for our devotion. And it doesn’t leave us sending death threats to a stranger on Twitter because she thought Nicki Minaj needs to grow as an artist.

ADDENDA: It’s one of those rare one-topic Jolts today. Check out the Corner for more variety in your news diet.

Politics & Policy

Paying Attention to the Most Provocative Young People Never Turns Out Well

Lauren Duca (Women in the World/via YouTube)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Sure, we can kick around some of the most infamous controversy-courting Millennial wunderkinder, but they don’t represent their generation; perhaps it’s time to hold those big institutions accountable for their choices about hiring, promoting, and spotlighting the edgiest and most provocative young people; Israel’s latest election results don’t clear up much; Nancy Pelosi and Jerrold Nadler are getting angrier with each other; and the hard truths that presidential candidates are reluctant to face.

God Save Us from the Controversy-Courting Famous Wunderkinder

BuzzFeed offers an eye-opening profile of Lauren Duca, the young feminist columnist for Teen Vogue who rocketed to a certain level of fame after a confrontational interview with Tucker Carlson and who New York University selected to teach a six-week journalism course for both high school and college students about “The Feminist Journalist.” The portrait is a deeply unflattering one; as a teacher, she seems unprepared, self-absorbed, unprofessional, and basically offered students “a master class in [her] personal life.” Perhaps most disturbingly, Duca allegedly regularly berated and mistreated one foreign exchange student for whom English was her second language. Students sent a collective formal complaint to the heads of the NYU journalism school about Duca’s conduct, saying “We are disappointed at the department and NYU for hiring a professor with more interest in promoting her book than teaching a group of students eager to learn.”

You can be mad at Duca, but there’s another glaring question in this piece: How did NYU come to the conclusion this person would make a good teacher? Who did the university not select to teach a course on journalism in favor of Duca?

Elsewhere, in The Hollywood Reporter, the cast of HBO’s Girls get together to mark the end of the show and reveal that Lena Dunham was 23 years old when she sold Girls to HBO with “a page-and-a-half-long pitch that included nary a character nor a plot.” For those of you familiar with the television industry, this never happens. You may recall that Dunham went on to fame, fortune, and more than a little bit of controversy, particularly for her autobiography. She described childhood sexual acts in troubling ways, and a sexual assault in her college years that tiptoed up to the line of libel by using an allegedly random pseudonym and description that just happened to match a student at Oberlin a little too precisely.

Last week, The Cut, a website published by New York magazine, wrote a lengthy profile piece about Carolina Calloway, a 27-year-old “Instagram influencer” who once received a $375,000 book deal from Flatiron Publishing but who found she couldn’t finish the book, and who hosted a “creativity workshop” that reportedly didn’t deliver on its promises. She then went on to host another workshop she called, “The Scam.”

You’re familiar with Tomi Lahren, right? Conservative political commentator, started hosting her own television show on One America News Network at age 22. She’s the one with the new “athleisure” line of red, white, and blue, stars-and-stripes apparel entitled “Freedom” that is manufactured overseas. A few years ago, when asked what books most influenced her, Lahren responded, “I’m not a reader. I don’t read long books.” She has a new book out, Never Play Dead: How the Truth Makes You Unstoppable. It is 256 pages.

And when last we heard from Milo Yiannopoulos, he was banned from a Midwestern convention of “furries,” a gathering of people who enjoy dressing up in full-body animal costumes.

Millennials — and Generation Z, the generational border is a little fuzzy — get a lot of undeserved grief, in part because generations are largely defined by stereotypes. Only some of the members of the Greatest Generation went overseas to fight the Axis; only a fraction of the members of the Baby Boomers protested the Vietnam War and went to Woodstock; and only a small segment of the members of Generation X listened to Nirvana, were depressed when Kurt Cobain died, and went on to work at dot-coms.

Millennials have a wide variety of life experiences; they weren’t all suckered by the Fyre Festival, and they aren’t all obsessed by the actions of  “celebrity influencers,” or incapable of having a face to face conversation because they need to check their phones every five seconds. Perhaps the rise of social media accelerated the need to stand out in a crowd by saying and doing outrageous things. Or perhaps social media created sufficient financial incentive to make saying and doing outrageous things a lucrative career path, particularly with those who didn’t believe they had the brains, talent, or work ethic to achieve success on other paths.

We like to laugh and scoff at Olivia Jade Giannulli, the daughter of Lori Loughlin caught up the college admissions scandal. But she already had endorsement deals with Hewlett-Packard, Sephora, the online fashion retailer Lulus, Amazon, Dolce & Gabbana, Marc Jacobs Beauty, Smashbox Beauty Cosmetics, Smile Direct Club, Too Faced Cosmetics, Boohoo, and Unilever’s TRESemmé. There are Super Bowl MVPs who don’t have that many endorsement deals!

When Giannulli sounded insufferably entitled and declared, “I don’t know how much of school I’m gonna attend. I do want the experience of like game days, partying . . . I don’t really care about school, as you guys all know” . . . think about her life experiences up to that point. If your kids had lined up endorsement deals with eleven companies by the age of 19, how enthusiastic would they be about studying? If they were getting paid money to mention products in their social-media feed, do you think you could still get them to prioritize hitting the books for that chemistry test?

There are a lot of bright young people with big dreams out there, and the vast majority of them are willing to work hard. Many are smart, many are talented, many are willing to devote a relentless focus to the task at hand and demonstrate a tireless dedication to doing the job before them well. Many see life as more than just an endless series of opportunities for self-promotion. You just don’t hear much about them, because they’re too busy working and doing what they’re supposed to do to. They don’t become the subject of juicy profile pieces laying out their worst decisions and scandals.

But big institutions have a choice in who they select to hire, promote, and spotlight. Maybe, just maybe, rewarding the edgiest, most provocative, and controversial young people doesn’t generate the best results?

Come on, Israeli Voters, Make up Your Minds

So much for those latest Israeli elections clearing things up, huh?

Israeli politics now appears all-but-deadlocked and destined for complex negotiations between the two main parties and the smaller parties over possible coalition arrangements.

Addressing his Blue and White party supporters in Tel Aviv a few hours after the polls closed, Gantz struck a tone of measured optimism, saying that an era of “polarization and antagonism” now lay in the past with “unity and reconciliation” being the way forward.

Gantz said contacts with other parties to build what he described as a “broad unity government” had already started.

“I intend to talk to everybody, starting tonight,” he said.

Netanyahu meanwhile, was hoarse as he addressed his Likud Party supporters, neither claiming victory nor conceding defeat.

I know lots of people insist they like the multiparty parliamentary system, but you always seem to end up with coalition governments that are cobbled-together from factions that have almost nothing in common with each other. “The new majority European Union Parliament coalition includes the Christian Democrats, the Swedish Donald Duck Party, the Polish Good Humor Party, the Italian Partito dell’Amore, Hungarian Two-tailed Dog Party, and the Norwegian Beer Unity Party.” (Those were all real parties, by the way, although most were jokes or political stunts.)

Pelosi to Nadler: Your Ego Is Writing Checks That This Caucus Can’t Cash

In a battle of Nancy Pelosi vs. House Judiciary Committee chairman Jerrold Nadler, my money’s on Pelosi: “Pelosi criticized the panel’s handling of impeachment in harsh terms, complaining committee aides have advanced the push for ousting President Donald Trump far beyond where the House Democratic Caucus stands. Democrats simply don’t have the votes on the floor to impeach Trump, Pelosi said. “And you can feel free to leak this,” Pelosi added, according to multiple people in the room.”

If you want an impeachment process to be taken seriously, don’t begin it by inviting Corey Lewandowski to testify. At CNN, Elie Honig puts a tough question to lawmakers who support impeachment:

House Democrats essentially have conceded the Mueller report is not enough — perhaps politically more than legally — and there needs to be something more to proceed. But there very likely won’t be evidence relating to Russian interference or obstruction beyond what’s already in the Mueller report. House Democrats have set themselves up for failure.

Moving forward, House Democrats need to address this question squarely: Is the conduct in the Mueller report enough to impeach? If so, then why are we wasting time with the kind of absurd hearing we saw on Tuesday? 

ADDENDA: Somebody’s going to win this Democratic presidential nomination — probably Joe Biden or Elizabeth Warren — but boy, has it been fun to watch some once-promising Democrats crash and burn. Kirsten Gillibrand’s already out, Julian Castro now looks like a jerk, Beto O’Rourke looks like a joke, and Kamala Harris is at 6 percent in her home state, behind Andrew Yang! Maybe this will discourage some of the no-hopers the next time around. The shame isn’t in running and losing; the shame is in believing your own hype, not being able to see yourself clearly, and jumping into the race unprepared.

Running for president is hard. Being “pretty good” is never good enough to get the nomination. Candidates are never as well-known as they think they are, their accomplishments never wow audiences the way they think — “in the House, I introduced a bill to—” — and their grandiose promises slam into a wall of well-justified skepticism. In the eyes of the average potential Iowa caucus-goer, you’re just another guy, and they’ve met dozens of guys just like you running for president over the years. Those other also-rans are barely remembered . . . and the odds are good you’ll barely be remembered, too.

Law & the Courts

The New York Times’ Activism on Kavanaugh Ignores Fundamental Ethics of Journalism

(Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: the New York Times takes what’s left of its credibility and sets it on fire, burning it to ashes; how well-off politicians are adapting to our era of stylish populism; an old parody with new relevance; and the new public service announcement that the country needs, not the one that it wants.

The New York Times Throws a Bonfire of Its Credibility

Conservatives have complained about The New York Times for a long time, but now the newspaper’s increasingly slippery standards for reporting and verification are getting so glaring, even its own former staffers can’t ignore it. Joe Pompeo writes in Vanity Fair:

Sources say Robin Pogrebin and Kate Kelly initially pitched their reporting to the news side, but top editors ultimately felt that there wasn’t enough juice to warrant a story there—punting the scoop to the Sunday Review section. “In today’s journalistic world, the conversation is a bit irrelevant,” one source said. “Your average reader is not gonna really know or care where it is.”

Similarly, in the words of a former high-ranking Times figure, “In today’s journalistic world, the conversation is a bit irrelevant, because for most of the people who read the New York Times online or on their phones, it doesn’t matter. It’s all the same. Your average reader is not gonna really know or care where it is. They played it up pretty big, and I have to tell you: When I first read it, I had no idea it was in the Review. I tapped on a link, and at the top it said ‘News Analysis.’ And I also didn’t know it was a book adaptation, because I didn’t even get to the end. I get the point of view of the activists. They want the Times to further their agenda, but that’s not the Times’ job.”

Wait, it gets worse! Pogrebin and Kelly told MSNBC last night that the qualifier about the other alleged Kavanaugh accuser not remembering an incident at Yale was included in the initial draft but removed. And then this morning, Pogrebin started describing the woman who said it didn’t happen in not-so-flattering terms: “She was incredibly drunk at that party . . . Memory here is really a questionable issue.”

The article — er, pardon me, “book excerpt” that ignored the alleged victim saying the event didn’t happen — did its job, by one measure: House Democrats are now beginning a push to impeach Justice Kavanaugh. Senate Democrats, who realize they don’t have the votes to impeach Trump, never mind Kavanaugh, are calling the effort unrealistic.

Our Kyle Smith makes the compelling argument that this is battle-space preparation for upcoming Supreme Court decisions that progressives won’t like. The Left knows they’re going to lose a lot of 5–4 decisions, and if Trump gets the opportunity to replace Ruth Bader Ginsburg, maybe a bunch of 6–3 decisions, too. Because progressives believe they can never legitimately lose a battle over what America’s laws ought to be, they need to lay the groundwork for the argument that any decision that involves Justice Brett Kavanaugh (and maybe Clarence Thomas, too) shouldn’t “really” count because one or both should never have been appointed to the court in the first place.

There’s one other point, though. The election of Donald Trump really shocked America’s progressives (and a lot of other people, too) and stands as a global disaster on par with 9/11 or the rise of Hitler. (Jonathan Chait declared Trump’s election is the “worst thing that has happened to the world in my life.” He was alive during 9/11!)

If you could go back and time and falsely report things that would lead to the early and abrupt end of a brutal dictator’s rule, would you do it? Most people would make that trade; a bit of dishonesty to prevent widespread injustice and misery. The end justifies the means. Once you see Trump as history’s greatest nightmare, every action taken in opposition to him and those allied with him is justified. This kind of thinking is how you get people trying to shoot up a baseball field full of Republican congressmen.

Our Populist Era of Faux-Downscale Politicians

Quite a few people — including quite a few Joe Biden fans — liked yesterday’s column, “Inside the Mind of the Biden Voter.” Part of understanding politics is understanding the thinking, values, and priorities of people who aren’t like you, and I’m trying to be better at that.

Many contend we’re in a populist moment; some might argue this is a new populist era. Part of populism is an inescapable awareness of and focus upon who society’s big guys and little guys are, and a seething distrust and even contempt for those at the top. Back in 2008, Robert Reich talked about four classic narratives in American politics, and one of them was “the rot at the top.”

The last story concerns the malevolence of powerful elites. It’s a tale of corruption, decadence, and irresponsibility in high places–of conspiracy against the common citizen. It started with King George III, and, to this day, it shapes the way we view government–mostly with distrust. The great bullies of American fiction have often symbolized Rot at the Top: William Faulkner’s Flem Snopes, Willie Stark as the Huey Long-like character in All the King’s Men, Lionel Barrymore’s demonic Mr. Potter in It’s a Wonderful Life, and the antagonists that hound the Joad family in The Grapes of Wrath. Suspicions about Rot at the Top have inspired what historian Richard Hofstadter called the paranoid style in U.S. politics–from the pre-Civil War Know-Nothings and Anti-Masonic movements through the Ku Klux Klan and Senator Joseph McCarthy’s witch hunts. The myth has also given force to the great populist movements of U.S. history, from Andrew Jackson’s attack on the Bank of the United States in the 1830s through William Jennings Bryan’s prairie populism of the 1890s.

You don’t have to look far in post-2000 America to see why millions of Americans not only believe in “the rot at the top,” but are driven or even consumed by the thought of it. The housing bubble, the Wall Street collapse, the bailouts and the Great Recession, and the sense that no one was ever held accountable for reckless decisions. Enron. Federal bureaucrats at the General Services Administration enjoying a lavish taxpayer-funded party in Las Vegas. Executives at nonprofits making a half-million a year. At least two separate waves of abuse scandals in the Catholic Church. GM’s cars not being safe, Boeing’s planes not being safe, one database breach after another. Bernie Madoff. Harvey Weinstein. #MeToo. Jeffrey Epstein. A giant, far-reaching bribery scandal to get dumb kids of rich and famous parents into top schools.

There are enough egregious examples of bad behavior by powerful people to convince the masses of two powerful conclusions. The first is that the people currently in charge of American society should not be in charge, that they did not earn their positions of power and authority fairly, that they frequently and shamelessly abuse their power and betray people’s trust, and not only does the cream not rise to the top, but the scum does. The second is that the reason they don’t feel as powerful and successful in American life as they wish they were is that they weren’t willing to cheat, lie, steal, and be as immoral as the powerful people were.

That first conclusion is an exaggeration, and that second one is a soothing explanation that hand-waves away anyone’s individual mistakes, bad judgments, attitude, ability to work with others, etc. But it’s easy to see why people believe them.

One of the points of yesterday’s column is that Biden voters and Trump voters see their guy in a similar way: “Sure, maybe he’s technically one of the elites, but he’s always been on the side of the little guy.”

This is why Joe Biden insists everyone calls him “Middle-Class Joe” even though the only person who’s ever been quoted calling him “Middle-Class Joe” is Joe Biden. He was elected to the Senate at 29 because his birthday was before the day of his swearing-in ceremony. He may well have been “poor” by the standards of the U.S. Senate, but every senator is wealthy by the standard of the average American.

This is why Elizabeth Warren frequently tells the story that “at 19, I got married, dropped out of school, took a minimum wage job, thought my dream was over.” Okay, but she was an associate dean of a law school by the time she was 31. By 1998, Harvard was paying her $192,550 in salary and an additional $133,453 in “other compensation” — which included a faculty mortgage subsidy, housing allowance, moving expenses, and imputed interest.

This is why Bernie Sanders talks about “growing up in a rent-controlled apartment in Brooklyn, New York, the son of an immigrant who came to this country without a nickel in his pocket.” You could argue Sanders’ first regular job came with his election to mayor in 1981. But that job paid $33,824, the equivalent of more than $100,000 in today’s dollars, and money went pretty far in 1980s Burlington. As many know, Sanders is now a multimillionaire.

None of this means these figures were never poor or of modest means, or that they don’t remember what it was like to be that way. But every major presidential candidate in either party has been living, at minimum, an upper-middle-class lifestyle for many years. A populist mood in the nation forces politicians to pretend that they’re poorer than they are, that those hard times weren’t as long ago as they were, and that they still share or at least freshly remember the economic anxiety that stresses so many Americans.

Perhaps in the often sordid and shamefully dishonest realm of politics, a candidate downplaying his wealth and how long he’s lived comfortably is a small sin. But this sort of thing caught up to Hillary Clinton — “We came out of the White House not only dead broke, but in debt.”

I recall years ago watching prominent liberal journalist lamenting the greed of millionaires on television and the roughly $200K-per-year magazine columnist referring to “ordinary people like us.” To paraphrase that slang term of incredulous skepticism, “rich, please.”

An Oldie but a Goodie

This old Onion parody of Vox has never seemed more accurate.

ADDENDA: Finally, the public service announcement about mono that the country always needed.

World

While the Media Focus on Inconclusive Kavanaugh Allegations, There’s Evidence of Iran Striking Saudi Arabia

Supreme Court Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh speaks at a ceremonial swearing-in at the White House, October 8, 2018. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

This weekend brought another moment where what the majority of the American news media thinks is important and what is actually important diverged wildly. Someday, the news media will be chasing clicks and ratings discussing their cotton-candy news story while ignoring the important and consequential broccoli news story, which will later blow up in a way that millions of Americans feel it. News consumers will wonder how it happened, why it happened, and why they weren’t being told about the broccoli when it mattered. Kind of like the “summer of the sharks” before 9/11.

The Broccoli Story: Iran — Or Somebody — Wants to Blow Up Saudi Arabia’s Oil Production

That brewing fight between Iran and Saudi Arabia isn’t just brewing anymore. It’s looking more and more like an all-out war.

Global energy prices spiked on Monday after a weekend attack on key oil facilities in Saudi Arabia caused the worst disruption to world supplies on record, an assault for which President Donald Trump warned that the U.S. was “locked and loaded” to respond.

U.S. officials offered satellite images of the damage at the heart of the kingdom’s crucial Abqaiq oil processing plant and a key oil field, alleging the pattern of destruction suggested the attack on Saturday came from either Iraq or Iran — rather than Yemen, as claimed by Iranian-backed Houthi rebels there.

Iran for its part called the U.S. allegations “maximum lies.”

The Houthis on Monday warned of more attacks on Saudi oil facilities and urged foreign companies doing business in the kingdom to stay away from its energy sites. Yahia Sarie, a rebel spokesman, said facilities such as the Abqaiq oil processing plant and the oil field hit this weekend could again “be targeted at any time.”

Hope you filled up your tank. President Trump said the country will tap into the Strategic Petroleum Reserve if necessary, and this sort of emergency is why we have the reserve.

At Bloomberg, Eli Lake argues that the U.S. has tried the “open to negotiations” approach and gotten its hand bitten in response too many times.

Trump also now needs to reconsider military options to deter future escalations. As I have reported, U.S. intelligence agencies have mapped the precise locations of Iranian bases and commanders in Yemen and the Middle East. If Trump wants to respond militarily without attacking Iranian territory, he has many targets outside the country.

If Trump continues to pursue negotiations with Iran’s regime, he will be inviting more attacks on America’s allies. This is exactly the strategy — and the consequences — followed and paid by his predecessor, Barack Obama, in his second term. During and after the negotiations for the nuclear deal, Iran armed and trained its proxies in Syria and later in Yemen. The Middle East is now paying for these mistakes. Trump would be a fool to repeat them.

Nobody — or perhaps its more accurate to say few Americans — want a war with Iran, but the Iranians get a say in that, too. Assume the coming days bring proof that Iran launched an attack that shut down half of Saudi Arabia’s oil production. What would the appropriate response from the United States be?

The Cotton Candy Story: Sure, Let’s Rehash the Whole Kavanaugh Drama All Over Again

Our John McCormack notes that a New York Times book excerpt — not an article — that is supposedly a bombshell new accusation against Supreme Court justice Brett Kavanaugh is really a dud, in large part because the book includes rather glaring counter-evidence that the accuser does not recall the incident of Kavanaugh that the book describes. And the Times didn’t feel it was important to mention that!

The New York Times added a correction that essentially says “never mind” to the explosive allegation:

An earlier version of this article, which was adapted from a forthcoming book, did not include one element of the book’s account regarding an assertion by a Yale classmate that friends of Brett Kavanaugh pushed his penis into the hand of a female student at a drunken dorm party. The book reports that the female student declined to be interviewed and friends say that she does not recall the incident. That information has been added to the article.

We keep hearing liberal commentators insist that Kavanaugh has been “credibly accused.” They have an odd definition of this. The three witnesses that Ford mentioned said they don’t remember any party like the one she described. Another man told the Senate Judiciary Committee that he believes he was the man whom Ford remembers. The second accuser, Deborah Ramirez, “contacted former Yale classmates asking if they recalled the incident and told some of them that she could not be certain Mr. Kavanaugh was the one who exposed himself,” according to the New York Times. Julie Swetnick contradicted her own affidavit in her media interviews, backtracking about what she specifically saw. Senate Judiciary chairman Chuck Grassley found her tales of weekly rape parties in Georgetown going on interrupted for three years — with no contemporaneous reporting, complaints to parents, or police investigations of any kind — so implausible that she was referred the matter to the Justice Department for investigation of whether she could be prosecuted for lying to Congress.

Terry McDermott is a Los Angeles Times staff writer who wrote a book about the 9/11 hijackers. In 2005, he wrote about the number of people convinced they encountered Mohammad Atta in places and times he simply couldn’t be there:

Over the last four years, I have interviewed dozens of people who swore they saw Atta somewhere he wasn’t. This includes an assortment of waiters, students, flight instructors, taxi drivers and, more dramatically, two women who each claim to have been married to Atta, this despite the fact that they were never in the same city at the same time he was.

How could it be that so many people remember that they knew Atta, that they saw him or his name, when all the facts argue otherwise? I don’t think they are all lying. Maybe none of them is.

I think Atta entered an American psyche desperate for a name and face and an explanation. He came complete with what has become one of the iconic images of 9/11 — his Florida DMV mug shot, an image so memorable, so powerful and perfect for the moment that it allowed people to see in it whatever they needed to see. I think people subsequently, subconsciously placed that face where it made sense to them.

Research indicates that over time, our brain “edits” our memories. It’s not like bringing a photo out of a file cabinet. It’s like re-painting a portrait each time. This is one of the ways people who are not telling the truth can pass lie detectors. They’ve convinced themselves that they remember something happening, but their memory isn’t quite accurate.

For someone who went to Yale, who vaguely remembers a party with heavy drinking and some guy being a jerk who engaged in unforgivable or embarrassing behavior, who wants the perpetrator to be Kavanaugh because he now represents in their mind everything they hate about Trump, or Republicans, or conservatives, or pro-lifers, the perpetrator’s face becomes that of Kavanaugh. Motivated reasoning meets motivated remembering.

The Times correction doesn’t matter this morning. Way too many prominent Democrats have already pushed their chips to the center of the table and can’t change their bets now. Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, and Julian Castro all called for impeaching Kavanaugh and removing him from the court. Joe Biden didn’t quite join them, but said, “We need to get to the bottom of whether the Trump Administration and Senate Republicans pressured the FBI to ignore evidence or prevented them from following up on leads relating to Justice Kavanaugh’s background investigation, subsequent allegations that arose, and the truthfulness of his testimony to the Senate.” This morning Biden is getting grief for a “tepid” response.

Democrats and their allies in the media have to pretend that correction never happened, the same way they have to pretend Debra Katz, the attorney for Christine Blasey Ford, never said, “When he takes a scalpel to Roe v. Wade, we will know who he is, we know his character, and we know what motivates him, and that is important; it is important that we know, and that is part of what motivated Christine.” Oh. So she knew how he was going to rule on a particular issue, and that was part of what motivated her?

Wonder of Wonders, It Turns Out Joe Biden’s Memory Might Be Underrated

At first, I thought Michael Harriot’s dissection of Joe Biden’s not-quite-so-plausible tale of confronting the notorious gangster “Corn Pop” at a Wilmington swimming pool in 1962 was painfully hilarious. (Some bad language at the link.) Actually, it’s indisputably hilarious, the question is whether it’s fair. Because it turns out CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale found some evidence to corroborate parts of Biden’s story. William Morris, nicknamed “CornPop,” existed and passed away a few years ago. A former mayor of Wilmington knew him and knew he was a rough kid in his teen years. There was indeed a gang called “the Romans” in Wilmington in the 1960s, and other longtime residents recall the story of Biden confronting a gang member at a pool.

Go figure. Good for you, Joe Biden.

Of course, Michael Graham wonders how Biden could work as a lifeguard during the summers in college and simultaneously be medically excused from Vietnam for “asthma as a teenager.”

ADDENDA: Thanks to everyone who came out to Barnes and Noble for the book signing Sunday afternoon! For about half of you, I spared you the kickoff of a disappointing day of professional football. The reader reviews remain happy, and I will try to line up other book events as opportunities arise.

Elections

Why Last Night’s Debate Was Both Comically Bad and Painfully Annoying

From left: Democratic presidential candidates Sen. Amy Klobuchar, Sen. Cory Booker, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, Sen. Bernie Sanders, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Sen. Kamala Harris, entrepreneur Andrew Yang, Beto O’Rourke and former Housing Secretary Julian Castro pose before the start of the Democratic presidential debate in Houston, Texas, September 12, 2019. (Jonathan Bachman/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Why last night’s Democratic presidential primary debate was so bad; a suddenly hot issue that surprisingly never came up last night; an important and under-discussed detail about that Trump resort in Scotland; and a very important appointment for this weekend.

The Democratic Debates Have Curdled from Somewhat Illuminating to Bad

Last night is when the Democratic presidential primary debates shifted from mildly entertaining showcases of comically overambitious narcissists with little to no self-awareness — “I’m ready to be commander-in-chief on day one because in the House, I’ve introduced a bill that would —” to a genuinely annoying group exercise in ritualized belief that bumper-sticker slogans can fix the world, that most of the country’s problems go away once Donald Trump is no longer president, and that anecdotes prove it.

Readers, you know I have plenty of beefs with President Trump. Some of you write in to let me know you disagree, and some of you let me know that you’re tired of me pointing out where Trump gets it wrong. But I have no illusions — if somebody else steps into the Oval Office on January 21, 2021, the country’s still going to have big, complicated problems. We have 7.2 million job openings, but most of the people who are unemployed either aren’t qualified or aren’t near where the jobs are. We still are struggling with opioid addiction and suicides, with the longest sustained decline in expected lifespan in a century. Amidst prosperity and a decline in crime, we have these dark underground subcultures of “Columbiners,” and “Incels,” and hate groups: angry young men eager to lash out through violence and justify it all with an incoherent manifesto. We’re dependent upon technology in so many ways, but we don’t know if we can trust technology. The world still has terrorists, hostile states, aggressive and expansion-minded powers. Whether or not you buy into the particulars of climate change, we’re a country that loves to live on the coast and build it bigger and more expensive every time — even though powerful hurricanes are a fact of life.

Trump-bashing is a really useful crutch for every candidate on that stage. No matter how the moderators ask, “what would you do on this issue?” the candidates can offer some version of, “I’ll tell you what I wouldn’t do, I wouldn’t do what Trump has done, because he’s done X, Y, and Z and that’s destroying the American dream/dividing us/corrupting the ideals of America/leaving a worse world for our children.” Cue audience applause.

These debates would be so much more edifying, useful, and revealing if there was no audience, and no candidate felt the need to try to awkwardly shoehorn in an applause line at the end of their answer. Judging from the transcript, the audience applauded 136 times last night. This isn’t Saturday Night Live or a sporting event; we don’t need to hear “WHOOOOO” when a candidate promises to create a special White House office for hate crimes and white supremacy, as Cory Booker did last night. If creating a special White House office focusing on a problem solved it, the country would have no problems.

Almost everything that was bad about last night’s debate stemmed from having ten candidates on stage. The answers were limited to a minute and 15 seconds because ABC News didn’t want to leave candidates quiet for a half-hour at a time. The debate was scheduled to be three hours long — mercifully, it actually ran about two hours and forty-five minutes, because there are ten candidates on stage and the moderators wanted to cover a lot of issues. As much as the candidates want to believe that that there are glaring and consequential differences among them in policy, those differences are hard to articulate without getting into the weeds, which is difficult to explain in 75 seconds. So the night turns into a competition of emoting and who can tell the best anecdote about an average American they met on the campaign trail who is dealing with a problem that only the candidate can solve.

The fact-checkers will have their hands full, to the extent their efforts make any difference.

Former vice president Joe Biden declared, “comparing this president to the president we have is outrageous, number one. We didn’t lock people up in cages. We didn’t separate families. We didn’t do all of those things, number one.” That’s just flat-out false; immigrants at border processing facilities were kept in chain-link enclosures during the Obama administration, too.

As many irritated conservatives have pointed out, the Associated Press file photo that accompanies many articles about the Trump administration’s policy was taken in 2014 at a Customs and Border Protection facility in Nogales, Ariz. And the Obama administration did separate families, but on a case by case basis, not as an explicitly recommended policy.

Biden also declared “nobody should be in jail for a nonviolent crime,” which no doubt thrilled viewers like Paul Manafort and Michael Cohen. The vice president will be walking that one back soon.

Our John McCormack caught Elizabeth Warren insisting that the assault weapons ban failed to pass in 2013 because of “corruption, pure and simple.” McCormack noted that it received only 40 votes — 16 Democrats joined 44 Republicans in opposition. That’s a lot of broad and bipartisan “pure and simple corruption.”

Andrew Yang offered Democrats a reassuring fairy tale: “Why are we losing to the fossil fuel companies? Why are we losing to the gun lobby and the NRA? And the answer is this, we all know, everyone on this stage knows that our government has been overrun by money and corporate interests.” Right, right. It has nothing to do with how people vote, and that those 16 Democrats and 44 Republicans knew that if they voted for the assault weapons ban, they would likely get tossed out of office by their constituents.

Bernie Sanders declared, “we have the highest child poverty rate of almost any country on earth.” He’s exaggerated a report by the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development that put the U.S. in the middle of 38 countries studied; there are 195 countries on earth. The frustrating thing is that Sanders could have said, “too many American children live in poverty, and we should do everything we can to bring that number to zero” and everyone across the political spectrum would agree.

Beto O’Rourke called the El Paso shooting an “act of terror, that was directed at our community, in large part by the president of the United States.” Trump says a lot of controversial, incendiary, and ill-considered things, but it is a damnable lie to contend that Trump directed the shooter to kill Latinos in a Walmart.

Presidential elections are decisions. If you think the electorate hasn’t gotten it right in some of the past elections, it’s likely that part of the problem stems from what sort of information the public is using to make the decision, and I don’t just mean disinformation on social media from the Russians. Do the voters recognize that the president is not a king? Do they realize that most of these proposals must be enacted by legislation, not executive orders, and that to become law they must get majorities in the House and Senate — and 60 votes, if the filibuster is intact? Do they understand that everything they want to enact into law has to be considered constitutional by the Supreme Court? The only person who uttered the word “Constitution” last night was Joe Biden. No wonder the online progressives can’t stand him; he keeps reminding them about reality.

Do the voters understand that some problems in American life are probably not solvable? While the government can take steps to reduce poverty and maximize the opportunities for a better life, there is no country on earth that has completely eliminated poverty. (I suppose if you want to count Vatican City. Separately, it’s worth noting that global poverty has been cut in half since 2000. All that international trade is good for something!) “The poor you will always have with you, but you will not always have me.”

The Missing Issue of the Night Was . . .

By the way, something that didn’t come up at all, which surprised me: Trump calling for a ban on flavored vaping products. Put vaping, flavored or unflavored, on that long list of “Things I Don’t Like and Don’t Do Myself, but Don’t Want the Federal Government Banning.”

About Those Stays at Trump Hotels . . .

The headline: “The U.S. Air Force has lodged crews at President Donald Trump’s Scotland resort up to 40 times since 2015, a figure that is far higher than previously known.” Wow, that sounds bad!

Deeper in the story: “The Air Force has significantly ramped up its overnight stops in Scotland under Trump after signing a contract with the Prestwick Airport — situated 20-plus miles from Turnberry — in the waning months of the Obama administration. Since 2015, the service has lodged crews in the area 659 times, meaning up to 6 percent of those stays were at Turnberry.”

Wait, 6 percent? That’s it? If this is a scheme to funnel government money to the Trumps, someone’s doing a terrible job. And the fact that this deal was signed before Trump was president suggests that at some point, someone in the Pentagon thought it made sense to have crews stay at the resort. Maybe it does, maybe it doesn’t, but it doesn’t appear that the decision was driven by a desire to enrich Trump.

ADDENDA: Okay, last sales pitch to readers in northern Virginia and the DC area. I’m doing a book signing Sunday at 1 p.m. for Between Two Scorpions at the Barnes and Noble in Mosaic District. A lot of Sundays, my family and I go to the farmer’s market. If it isn’t the biggest farmer’s market in the area, it’s pretty close, and it runs year-round. Sunday at 1 p.m., There’s parking in a couple of garages in the Mosaic complex. It’s a 15-minute walk or a short Uber or Lyft ride from the Dunn-Loring Metro stop.

Elections

What to Expect during Tonight’s Democratic Presidential Debate

Former Vice President Joe Biden gestures during the second night of the first Democratic presidential candidates debate in Miami, Fla., June 27, 2019. (Mike Segar/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Joe Biden takes on Elizabeth Warren tonight, and she’ll almost certainly take shots at him — will he use his killer countermove? Also, fan culture takes over American political discourse, and the French offer a terrible idea for dealing with Iran.

It’s Biden vs. Warren Tonight. The Successor vs. the Professor! The Pesterer vs. the Lecturer!

It’s Democratic debate night! Can you feel the excitement, down to the marrow in your bones?

This is the first debate since the Great Culling of 2019, where the merciless Democratic National Committee required candidates to meet a threshold at least 130,000 individual donors and earned 2 percent support in at least four qualifying polls. They’re so mean! Tom Steyer and Tulsi Gabbard might make the next one, but for tonight, it’s ten candidates.

Victims of the Great Culling include Kirsten Gillibrand, John Hickenlooper, and Jay Inslee, who’ve left the race. Still running but stuck outside the arena doors are Colorado senator Mike Bennet, Montana governor Steve Bullock, New York City mayor Bill de Blasio, Delaware congressman John Delaney, Gabbard, Ohio congressman Tim Ryan, former Pennsylvania representative Joe Sestak, Steyer, and the not-so-secret favorite of a lot of conservatives — Marianne Williamson.

Other than Williamson, you’re not going to notice they’re missing tonight, are you? She really was a breath of fresh air. Every other Democratic candidate else on stage was insisting that their health care plan would also address the effect of carbon emissions by providing illegal immigrants free tuition to grad school so they could help enforce nationwide gun confiscation and then Williamson would say none of that mattered until we confronted the soul impulses driven by malevolent entities from the Black Lodge who are feeding upon the garmonbozia generated by the nation’s chakras.

Come on, everybody, let’s get her into the October debate. She’s an indisputable visionary, and by that, I mean it is often hard to tell whether she’s hallucinating, or we are.

(Another interesting comment from Williamson recently: “What does it say that Fox News is nicer to me than the lefties are? What does it say that the conservatives are nicer to me? . . .  It’s such a bizarre world. I didn’t think the left was as mean as the right, they are.”)

For a while, it’s been a three-person race, and the new poll from CNN this morning shows roughly the usual: former vice president Joe Biden at 24 percent, Elizabeth Warren at 18 percent, and Sanders at 17 percent. After that, it’s a steep drop: Kamala Harris at 8 percent, Pete Buttigieg at 6 percent and Beto O’Rourke at 5 percent.

Tonight will be the first time Biden is on the stage with Warren, so everyone expects her to go after the vice president hard. Ed Rendell, the former governor of Pennsylvania and a Biden surrogate, gets in a preemptive shot in today’s Washington Post in an op-ed that begins, “I like Elizabeth Warren. I like her a lot. Too bad she’s a hypocrite.” He takes some fair shots at her for taking big-money donations from her Senate bid and transferring money to her presidential campaign and for hitting Biden for holding “a swanky private fund-raiser for wealthy donors” when she hosted the same kinds of events during her Senate run in 2018.

“It’s one thing to fashion a campaign that relies on grass-roots fundraising, but it’s another to go out of your way to characterize as power-brokers and influence-peddlers the very people whose support you have previously courted,” Rendell writes.

A fair shot, but it’s not clear it will do that much damage to Warren. Hypocrisy on campaign finance is deeply woven into the Democratic party. Rendell notes that Obama bragged about not accepting donations from Wall Street firms, while collecting millions of dollars from people who worked in Wall Street firms. When Democratic candidates fume about “wealthy donors” and “fat cats,” they mean the perception of mean, miserly Republican rich people, not the good Democratic rich people like Tom Steyer, George Soros, Mike Bloomberg, Haim Saban, the Hollywood crowd, trial lawyers . . .

Warren is enjoying a good burst of momentum lately, but we all know this is a campaign that has had a metaphorical ticking time-bomb in it from the beginning. You don’t go after Warren on hypocrisy. Any rival who wants to nuke Warren’s campaign, particularly in a Democratic primary, should go right at her glaring weakness: “You’re not a woman of color, you were wrong to describe yourself as a woman of color, and when you claim you had no idea that Harvard Law School was touting you to the public as a woman of color, I don’t believe you.” The notion that Harvard was running around describing Warren this way and she simply never noticed it in any of their statements, press materials, or other documents is the most implausible aspect of Warren’s explanation. Even if you buy her story, it means she wasn’t following the debate about minority representation at the law school back in the 1990s, a pretty heated controversy at the time. No demographic likes a white person trying to benefit from fraudulent minority status. Warren will insist she never benefited from any affirmative action program, but many voters are unlikely to believe that claiming a minority status at an Ivy League law school faculty didn’t bring her any professional benefit at all.

My guess is that Bernie Sanders will never play that card, as he likes Warren too much that would be too personal an attack on a longtime ally. (Oh, and Sanders has his own racial controversy; in a 1997 book he used the n-word repeatedly in a critique of American racism. No one’s saying he’s used the term out of racial animosity, but there are people who will bristle at him using the term in any context.)

Biden won’t play that card against Warren until he needs it. But if you’re a Warren fan, you’ve got a difficult choice. Would you rather she face that storm in the Democratic primary, or in the general election against Trump?

Our Painfully Stupid Era of ‘Fan Culture’ Politics

If you can get past the garish graphics, Amanda Hess has a good essay in the New York Times, observing that the most important political figures in American life no longer have constituents, they have fans who adore them. They’re consumer brands, complete with merchandise — the Ruth Bader Ginsburg action figure (inaction figure?), the MAGA hats, the GIFs, and the dissection of their playlists: “civic participation is converted seamlessly into consumer habit. Political battles are waged through pop songs and novelty prayer candles and evocative emoji . . . This is democracy reimagined as celebrity fandom, and it is now a dominant mode of experiencing politics.”

For those of us who actually pay attention to policy, know a thing or two about history, and believe all changes to U.S. law and policy should be kept within the boundaries set out by the Constitution, all of this is also painfully stupid. We’re not marketing a new Hollywood blockbuster, Netflix series, or new album. We’re trying to change laws and policies to make the country a better place, and it’s not always going to be exciting. Not everything that is important in life is going to be exciting, and getting things done in life requires an ability to sustain attentiveness to things that are not sexy, colorful, fun, or dramatic. You probably wouldn’t use those words to describe your mortgage, your retirement savings, your health insurance, your car maintenance, your cholesterol, or even your kid’s school curriculum, but all of those things are important.

In 2015, Kathryn Lopez did an “exit interview” for the Campaign Spot, and I noted:

You might say the presidency of Barack Obama is a natural end result of a cultural shift that really picked up steam when you and I were teenagers. The 1992 election was the first presidential election to feature MTV’s “Rock the Vote,” which featured Madonna and other celebrities urging young people to vote. It was a turning point in trying to make politicians and presidential candidates “cool.” It was cool celebrities telling young people that voting was cool. And we knew which candidate that year was going to be the cool one: Bill Clinton on The Arsenio Hall Show, wearing shades and playing the saxophone, and so on. But politics, governing, lawmaking — these things were never supposed to be cool. By 2008, you saw discussion of Obama as a “brand.”

If readers of Campaign Spot ever suspected I was an astronomic-scale dweeb in high school, they’re correct. But I’d be happier with a world where the “cool” people went off and did their “cool” stuff, and left politics and governing to the rest of us who actually know about it and care about it.

That was before we made a reality show host president, of course.

Wait, Why Are We Even Considering Agreeing to a French Bailout of Iran?

Come on. The president can’t seriously be considering this option, can he?

Trump has in recent weeks shown openness to entertaining President Emmanuel Macron’s plan, according to four sources with knowledge of Trump’s conversations with the French leader. Two of those sources said that State Department officials, including Secretary Mike Pompeo, are also open to weighing the French proposal, in which the Paris government would effectively ease the economic sanctions regime that the Trump administration has applied on Tehran for more than a year. The deal put forward by France would compensate Iran for oil sales disrupted by American sanctions.

If the president wants to repeal the sanctions, then he should urge Congress to repeal the sanctions, and accept the consequences of reversing one of the most important foreign policy moves of this presidency. Don’t go along with a wink-and-nod deal and hope no one notices.

ADDENDA: Our John McCormick:

The results in North Carolina’s ninth congressional district did show that Republicans continue to struggle in the suburbs. But it’s also worth keeping in mind the results in the other special congressional election held in North Carolina on Tuesday. In the third congressional district, which includes the Outer Banks, a special election was held because incumbent Republican Walter Jones died earlier this year. Trump carried North Carolina’s third congressional district with 60.6 percent of the vote in 2016; on Tuesday, the Republican candidate carried the third district with 61.7 percent of the vote.

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