Religion

The Anti-Religion Left

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Pro-life activists hold a cross in front of the Supreme Court building during the March for Life in Washington, D.C., January 21, 2022. (Jim Bourg/Reuters)

On the menu today: A look at the virulently anti-religion Left and the genesis of a new slur.

Religion as Disease

There is, on the progressive Left, an anti-religion instinct that often manifests itself in logical and legal illiteracy. Every four years, the media cover for it by ceaselessly running segments about the Democratic nominee for president’s “devout” faith. But if that nominee wins, once in office, his public-policy priorities vis-a-vis religion become clear.

The Obama administration spent years, heaps of energy, and countless tax dollars trying to bully the Little Sisters of the Poor into offering employees contraception coverage in violation of the group’s deeply held religious beliefs. Over the last two years, the Biden administration has gleefully picked up the baton. Just last week, it showed up in court to defend a Department of Health and Human Services rule that would have forced medical providers to give “gender-affirming care” to patients suffering from gender dysphoria.

Forget that there is no shortage of secular arguments to be made against immediately and unquestioningly beginning the transition process when a patient expresses interest in it. Forget that as a physician, you might believe that sterilization is not the proper response to mental-health malady. And most importantly, forget that you are an individual with your own conscience to answer to. Forget all that — because you must comply with progressive dogma, lest theocracy ensue.

To remind us of this enmity for religion, law professor Kimberly Wehle and longtime New York Times columnist Linda Greenhouse have contributed a pair of new articles fretting about the new, pro-religious-liberty Supreme Court majority.

For Politico, Wehle writes that the opinion of the Court in Dobbs v. Jackson Women’s Health Organization “marks a serious step in an emerging legal campaign by religious conservatives on the Supreme Court to undermine the bedrock concept of separation of church and state and to promote Christianity as an intrinsic component of democratic government.” This is a puzzling assertion for anyone who has read the opinion to make, as the legal issues in Dobbs were unrelated to religious liberty, but it’s one that Greenhouse nevertheless echoes in arguing that Dobbs is “grounded in religious doctrine rather than constitutional law.” Neither Wehle nor Greenhouse cites anything from the opinion itself to support her claims. (Indeed, the latter links to a whole separate column on the subject, which also does not cite a single line from the opinion about religious practice or belief.)

While Dobbs is targeted by Wehle and Greenhouse because of the emotional response it incites in members of their political tribe — and because they are personally as prone to seeing religious boogeymen as John Nash is to seeing Soviet agents in his rearview mirror — they do both spin the wheel enough times to eventually land on an actual religious-liberty case, Kennedy v. Bremerton School District.

In Kennedy, the Court held that, “The Free Exercise and Free Speech Clauses of the First Amendment protect an individual engaging in a personal religious observance from government reprisal; the Constitution neither mandates nor permits the government to suppress such religious expression.”

Greenhouse doesn’t refer to the case by name, but she complains about “June’s astonishing decision that permitted a high school football coach to commandeer the 50-yard line after games for his personal prayers over the public school district’s objection.” The argument is entirely rhetorical. Any religious person who engages in a religious activity in view of others is apparently “commandeer[ing] a space. There’s no explanation from Greenhouse as to why praying at the 50-yard line is any more threatening than chewing gum there — much less why the Constitution would permit or even mandate the prohibition of the former.

Similarly, Wehle calls it “especially alarming” that in his concurrence in Kennedy, Justice Clarence Thomas deemed it an “open question” whether public are as entitled to practice their religion on the job as they are to speak on matters of public concern on the job. The horror!

For this segment of the progressive Left, buzz phrases, innuendo, and mere religious affiliation — Wehle lists examples of justices’ speaking before religious audiences as proof of the theocratic threat Americans face — is enough. For Wehle, Greenhouse, and their sympathetic readership, equality won’t be achieved until their religious countrymen are neither seen nor heard.

Is ‘New Yorkers’ a Slur?

New York City mayor Eric Adams has suggested that he may travel back to Texas with some of the migrants bussed up to the Big Apple by the Lone Star State’s governor, Greg Abbott, to campaign against Abbott.

“I already called all of my friends in Texas and told them how to cast their vote, and I am deeply contemplating taking a busload of New Yorkers to go to Texas and do some good old-fashioned door knocking because, for the good of America, we have to get him out of office,” said Adams in a press conference earlier this week.

Abbott responded to the “threat” on Fox News, promising to “explain to our fellow Texans that the Beto [O’Rourke] campaign is being aided by a bunch of New Yorkers in addition to George Soros, and that will do nothing but harm his campaign.”

Naturally, our betters in the media and academia have taken “New Yorkers” to mean “Jews”:

Somehow, I suspect that these attacks may fall flat, in no small part because Abbott’s opponent, Beto O’Rourke, opposes spending on Iron Dome, the entirely defensive system that protects Israeli civilians from rocket attacks.

ADDENDUM: Check out Representative Peter Meijer’s post-primary-loss thoughts on Trump, the GOP, and what ails Congress.

Elections

GOP Primaries Return Another Mixed Bag for Trump Endorsements

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Republican gubernatorial candidate Tim Michels greets guests at an election-night rally in Waukesha, Wisc., August 9, 2022. (Scott Olson/Getty Images)

On the menu today: Yesterday’s GOP primaries are yet another mixed bag for Donald Trump’s endorsements; and a moderate Democratic challenger nearly unseats Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar, in something of a warning sign for progressives.

The Results Are In

Primary elections in a handful of states yesterday confirmed what we’ve seen several times already this year: An endorsement from Donald Trump can be helpful to Republican challengers and make a race competitive, but they don’t tend to turn a competitive race into a sure thing.

Last night’s biggest news was that Tim Michels, a Wisconsin businessman, defeated GOP-establishment favorite Rebecca Kleefisch for the nod in the Wisconsin governor’s race. Kleefisch is a former lieutenant governor and a long-time fixture in the state Republican Party. She had locked down endorsements from former vice president Mike Pence and former Wisconsin governor Scott Walker and was assumed to be a shoe-in — that is, until Trump chose to endorse Michels.

That endorsement turned the race into a nail-biter, and Michels pulled off a fairly sizable victory, defeating Kleefisch by more than five points and about 35,000 votes. Kleefisch performed best in counties surrounding the state’s largest cities, while Michels had a significant advantage in the rest of the state. The race was another example of Trump’s choosing to back the candidate most open to his continued insistence that the 2020 election was stolen. Here’s what the Wall Street Journal reports:

Ms. Kleefisch and Mr. Michels both made personal visits earlier this year to Mr. Trump’s Mar-a-Lago resort in Florida to try to win his favor, but Ms. Kleefisch had been slightly less receptive to the former president’s calls to upend Wisconsin’s certified 2020 election results.

Mr. Trump’s push for Wisconsin Republicans to decertify Mr. Biden’s Wisconsin win became a prominent topic in the campaign, even though there is no legal basis or mechanism to do so and multiple election reviews have found no evidence of widespread fraud in the state.

If elected governor, Mr. Michels has left open the possibility that he would try to decertify Mr. Biden’s win in the state.

But New York Times reporting points out that, while Michels was willing to entertain talk of stolen elections during the campaign, he was notably silent on the point during his acceptance speech after the results came in last night:

“I’d like to thank President Trump for his support, for his endorsement,” Mr. Michels said in victory remarks at his campaign headquarters in Waukesha, Wis. “It was a tremendous validation of our meteoric rise in this campaign. He knows that we need new leadership and he sees a lot of similarities.”

During the primary, Mr. Michels, 60, subscribed to some of Mr. Trump’s most outlandish conspiracy theories about the 2020 election. He pledged to consider signing legislation that would overturn Mr. Trump’s defeat to Joseph R. Biden Jr. in Wisconsin and withdraw the state’s 10 electoral votes — a move that has no basis in state or federal law.

But on Tuesday night, Mr. Michels did not mention the 2020 election or the state’s voting laws — an issue that just last week he said he was “very, very fired up about.”

But even though Trump seems to have endorsed Michels as a result of this stance, it wouldn’t be fair to read the results in this race as evidence that Wisconsin Republicans are still motivated by anger over Trump’s loss in 2020 or still inclined to support only those candidates who claim that the 2020 election was stolen or can be reversed.

In another hotly contested race, long-time Wisconsin GOP leader and assembly speaker Robin Vos held onto his seat in the face of a challenge from a Trump-backed candidate. Despite intense efforts from the former president to pressure Vos into attempting to investigate and somehow undo the results of the 2020 presidential race, Vos declined to do so — a choice that seems to have led to Trump’s last-minute endorsement of his challenger, Adam Steen. More from the Times:

While Mr. Michels prevailed, Mr. Trump ultimately failed to displace Mr. Vos, who has been in the Legislature since 2005 and served as speaker since 2013, wielding more influence than any other Republican in the state in recent years.

After pressuring Mr. Vos over the 2020 election in public and private for months, last week Mr. Trump endorsed his long-shot challenger, Adam Steen. A small-time real estate investor, Mr. Steen had no paid staff and barely raised enough money to print and mail campaign literature.

The race was far closer than Wisconsin analysts had expected, with Mr. Steen appearing to come within several hundred votes of toppling Mr. Vos, a testament to the power of the Trump endorsement and the enduring false belief that the 2020 election can still be rolled back.

My own theory: A Trump endorsement can buoy a candidate some of the time, particularly in a race with a number of viable candidates or in a close race against a candidate who isn’t especially well known or well liked. Over the past two years, the president has had enough success in his endorsements to suggest that some voters still consider his opinion as one of many factors when they head to the polls.

But there’s little evidence that Trump’s particular brand of grievance politic — in which he backs a challenger to unseat an incumbent who he thinks wasn’t sufficiently loyal to him — is appealing, and there’s likewise little reason to believe that his fixation on the 2020 election is anything close to a decisive factor in GOP elections.

Ilhan Omar’s Close Call

Facing a primary challenge from a pro–law enforcement Democrat, Minnesota representative Ilhan Omar just barely squeaked by. Omar defeated her challenger Don Samuels by a margin of just over 2,000 votes, 50.3 percent to Samuels’s 48.2 percent.

We did have the right read on the voters,” Samuels contended when the results were in, “but we just couldn’t pull it off in the length of time we had.

Omar’s district includes Minneapolis, which has been the site of significant political unrest and even violence over the past two years. For her part, the radically progressive Omar has placed the blame for that disorder squarely on the shoulders of law enforcement. Among other things, she has called the local police department “rotten to the root.”

Samuels, who has lived in the area for decades, didn’t buy that line, and he challenged Omar primarily in response to her divisive brand of politics, with a particular emphasis on support for law enforcement. Here’s how our own Ryan Mills described Samuels in a piece last week:

Samuels is a soft-spoken 73-year-old Jamaican immigrant, as well as a former professional toy designer, a former Minneapolis city councilman, and a one-time school-board member. He currently leads a micro-grant company that helps poor people start small businesses and solve local problems. He is an underdog in his race against Omar, a political celebrity and “Squad” member, who has consistently been a lightning rod for controversy, including for regularly making what many view as antisemitic and anti-American comments, as well as for her far-left politics, her misuse of campaign funds, and her headline-making antics and scandals.

In an interview with National Review, Samuels said he initially supported Omar, a former Somali refugee, hoping that her “multiple minority statuses would make her a real uniter.”

“Instead, she has proven to be a divisive force in Congress,” Samuels said. “Over time, we expected her to kind of learn and get better at the job. In fact, it seems as if her predisposition for conflict and standing out and not collaborating is getting worse.”

Omar’s campaign has attempted to paint Samuels as a corporate-backed conservative, but on most issues, Samuels is no right-winger. He describes himself as an Obama Democrat. His top priorities, if elected, include passing gun-control measures, working with President Joe Biden to create green jobs, and protecting abortion access with a federal law. He wants to strengthen the Affordable Care Act with a public option, and pass the John Lewis Voting Rights Act.

That this race turned out to be such a close call is a warning sign to the national Democratic Party, which is sounding more like Omar than Samuels each day.

ADDENDUM: If you’re curious about the state of play in swing-state Senate races, I recommend this opinion piece by the Wall Street Journal’s editor-at-large, Gerard Baker, which identifies some of the problems with GOP candidates in Georgia, Pennsylvania, and Arizona.

Law & the Courts

The FBI Should Release the Trump-Raid Warrant

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A person walks past Former President Trump’s Mar-a-Lago home after FBI agents raided it, in Palm Beach, Fla., August 8, 2022. (Marco Bello/Reuters)

On the menu today: FBI agents raid Mar-a-Lago on a hunt for documents, tonight’s primaries in Wisconsin offer further clarification as to how much pull Trump still has in the GOP, and new polling suggests that Democrats might be in for an even worse November than they fear.

The FBI Raids Mar-a-Lago

Last night, Donald Trump himself broke the news that FBI agents had entered his Florida home, Mar-a-Lago, apparently in a search for documents. Subsequent reporting suggests that the hunt was related to an ongoing Department of Justice probe, investigating Trump’s handling of classified information.

The actual warrant for the investigation has yet to surface — and spokespeople from both the DOJ and the FBI have been quite tight-lipped thus far — but most reporting suggests that the reason for the FBI’s trip to Trump’s home had to do with the claim that he may have taken classified information with him when he left the presidency. Here’s more from the Wall Street Journal:

Officials can face up to five years in prison for removing classified materials to an unauthorized location. The penalties for breaking other laws related to the removal of official records also include disqualification from holding federal office—including the presidency. . . .

Trump lawyer Christina Bobb, who was present during the FBI search, confirmed federal agents “seized paper.”

In February, the National Archives and Records Administration told a congressional panel the former president had classified government records at his Florida residence, saying it was in communication with the Justice Department, which is investigating the matter. Messages left for a National Archives and Records Administration spokesman weren’t immediately returned. . . .

To conduct such a search, the FBI would need to convince a judge that there was reason to believe there may be evidence of a crime to be found at that location. Such a move would also likely require signoff from the highest echelons of the Justice Department, though a spokeswoman wouldn’t say what role Mr. Garland played.

Republicans have responded to the news with some intensity. House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R., Calif.) said that if the GOP takes control of the House in November, Attorney General Merrick Garland should expect an investigation into last night’s raid.

While much of the response from GOP leaders expressed support for Trump, the most common refrain in the commentary thus far has been concern over the lack of clarity about the reasons for the raid — and the fear that this is just another example of a Democratic administration using executive agencies to harass or punish its political opponents.

As Charlie Cooke pointed out in a Corner post this morning, much of the commentary and reporting seems to have presumed that, because the FBI executed this raid, it must’ve had a good enough reason to do so. That may well be true, but there’s little evidence yet that this was the case. And, as Charlie notes, none of the commentators insisting that this raid must have been justified have yet spoken to what precisely would have justified it — or what, in their view, would constitute an unjustified raid.

I’ll echo Charlie’s call for the warrant to be made public immediately. Until then, all we’ll get from both sides of the aisle is useless posturing designed to get voters angry ahead of the November midterms.

Eyes Turn to Wisconsin for Tonight’s Primaries

In Wisconsin, voters are heading to the polls today to vote in a number of major primaries, including in races for governor and the state legislature — and several of the primaries feature candidates endorsed by Trump.

The biggest of the three primary contests is the race to become the GOP candidate for governor. The winner of tonight’s primary will challenge incumbent Democrat Tony Evers, who unseated Republican former governor Scott Walker, in November. In this race, former Wisconsin lieutenant governor Rebecca Kleefisch is facing off against Tim Michels, who owns a large contracting company based in Brownsville, Wis.

Michels has managed to obtain Trump’s endorsement, while Kleefisch is backed by both Walker and former vice president Mike Pence. A detailed article in Politico has more on this race:

Kleefisch had been seen as the nominee-in-waiting. But Michels’ relatively late entry to the race, powered by his self-funding and then by Trump’s endorsement, quickly turned the race hypercompetitive.

Kleefisch has backing from traditional Republican power centers in the state, including Walker and Vos. But Trump made a late bid to back Michels, a businessman who lost to Democrat Russ Feingold in a 2004 Senate race, and the former president attacked Kleefisch from the stage at a rally in southeastern Wisconsin late last week.

(Trump had been bothered by a picture he saw of the teenaged children of Kleefisch and state Supreme Court Justice Brian Hagedorn attending prom together, the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported. Hagedorn is a conservative who sided with the court’s liberals on various 2020 election-related cases.)

And this isn’t the only Wisconsin race in which Trump has become entangled. He’s also backing Republican Adam Steen, who is attempting to unseat state-assembly speaker Robin Vos, over the latter’s refusal to “decertify” the results in the 2020 election — even though Vos launched a review to investigate the outcome, and even though he has been an influential and effective conservative in Wisconsin state government.

The results in Wisconsin will be yet another test of how influential the former president remains within the party, and especially whether his particular brand of grievance politics is strong enough to overcome the advantage of being a well-known fixture of a state Republican party.

New Polls Suggest Democrats Are in for a Rough November

Politico has a story this morning on a fresh slate of internal polls, all of which suggest that Republicans might expect to pick up House seats even in areas once considered Democratic strongholds:

Four surveys conducted in late July reveal close races in open seats in Oregon, Colorado and California that President Joe Biden carried by between 11 and 15 points in 2020. Taken all together, GOP operatives view the data as a sign that Biden’s sinking approval numbers could drag Democratic candidates down enough to bring deep blue turf into reach.

The voter registration and partisan lean of the districts all strongly favor Democrats, and it will be a heavy lift for Republicans to flip any of these seats. Moreover, the only polling available in the districts are internal Republican figures, which can sometimes be rosier than reality for the party.

But the numbers comport with general assessments about the state of the House map from strategists of both parties, as well as the close results of the 2021 statewide elections in New Jersey and Virginia. Altogether, the tightening polls suggest that some super-blue seats could be in play in November, which would mean Democrats may have to expend precious resources there on defense — especially because they lack well-funded incumbents.

If Republicans are poised to make races interesting even in these sorts of districts, imagine how punishing elections in swing districts are going to be for Democrats. It’s a given that the GOP will take back the House in a few months’ time. The only question is: How big will their majority be next year?

ADDENDUM: Jim might be off enjoying vacation, but I’m confident that he would approve of my using this space to remind his regular readers of my new book, Tearing Us Apart: How Abortion Harms Everything and Solves Nothing, co-written with Ryan Anderson. If you have been frustrated by the general tenor of the abortion debate since Dobbs, the book will be a helpful resource as you reflect on how we should reshape culture and restructure our abortion policy in post-Roe America.

Elections

Should Ron DeSantis Wait His Turn?

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Gov. Ron DeSantis (R., Fla.) gives a speech in Tampa, Fla., July 22, 2022. (Octavio Jones/Reuters)

Isaac Schorr here, filling in for Jim Geraghty while he’s away on vacation. On the menu today: Some rank punditry about the 2024 presidential race, a rant about Congress’s decision to spend your money hiring 87,000 new tax collectors, and some unsolicited fantasy-football advice.

Get in Line?

Florida governor Ron DeSantis has established himself as the most, and perhaps the only, viable alternative to Donald Trump in the 2024 GOP presidential primaries.

For the last three and a half years, DeSantis has used his time in Tallahassee to build out a resume that evidences a firmer commitment to conservative causes and much more impressive focus on achieving conservative ends than Donald Trump ever did. He’s bolstered that record — on Covid, education, “younger transgender” Floridians, and other issues — with crowd-pleasing rebukes of woke capital and the media, which treat DeSantis with a contempt comparable only to that which they show the former president.

And yet, there exists some non-negligible number of politicos who believe that DeSantis would and/or should wait his turn, let Trump have one last go at it, and start gaming out a 2028 run for the White House.

Last month, former Trump campaign manager and Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway issued a not-so-subtle warning to DeSantis after a straw poll found that 78 percent of attendees at a TPUSA youth conference wanted Trump to top the ticket again in 2024.

“He’s [DeSantis] a great governor, he’s fascinating. He could be a two-term [governor], and he’s got a great sense for the culture warrior part [of the job] too. Ron DeSantis can be the best two-term governor in Florida in modern history and run for president before he’s 50,” said Conway on Fox Business. “Governor DeSantis did speak on Friday night. He was well-received. He’s an unbelievably successful and consequential governor of Florida. But it’s President Trump who led in the polls,” she continued.

Peter Navarro, another longtime Trump groupie, has suggested that DeSantis resign himself to being the former president’s sidekick in 2024, writing a “memo to Ron” for the Daily Caller cautioning that “patience is as patience does.”

A CPAC straw poll conducted at a conference in Texas this weekend showed similar enthusiasm for a Trump-redux, with 69 percent calling him their man.

None of this should — or is likely to — dissuade DeSantis from throwing his hat into the 2024 race, and here’s why.

First, it is a sign of weakness, not strength, that Team Trump has been reduced to touting straw-poll results from events that most Americans, and indeed the vast majority of Republicans, know nothing about. CPAC, affectionately called “TPAC” by Conway, is a conference that’s been repurposed into an appeal to the former president’s vanity — its organizer, American Conservative Union chairman Matt Schlapp, used the occasion to proclaim that Trump would lead the conservative movement until he “takes his last breath.” TPUSA, meanwhile, is led by Charlie Kirk, who proclaimed that he would pay for 80 buses full of students to attend the protests of Trump’s loss in Washington, D.C., on January 6, 2021. (He sent seven.)

Do you think that weirdos who not only show up to political conferences, but show up to political conferences run by such slavish Trump devotees, make up anything close to a representative sample of Republican voters?

Polls of the general public show a much closer race, two years out, even with Trump’s built-in advantages. One recent YouGov poll of registered Republicans found that Trump could only boast a nine-point national lead over DeSantis. State-level surveys conducted by John Bolton’s super PAC suggest that DeSantis could compete against Trump in Ohio, Georgia, and North Carolina. Especially encouraging is DeSantis’s well-established lead in Florida, where Senator Marco Rubio could not best Trump in 2016. It’s not just evidence that the governor can do the bare minimum and win his home state, but that the more voters know and learn about him, the more they like him.

Second, no politician with presidential aspirations ever benefited from waiting until the iron cooled to strike. Just ask Chris Christie, who passed on running for president in 2012, when he would have been a favorite for the Republican nomination, and ended up dropping out before the South Carolina primary in 2016.

Christie, by all measures a successful executive during his first term in New Jersey, was plagued by scandals in his second term that had rendered him a spent force when 2016 rolled around. In this world, bad things happen. Sometimes they’re out of, and sometimes they’re within, the control of elected officials, but they happen. If you’re lucky enough to have avoided them while positioning yourself as a genuine contender for the White House, you don’t wait around until they do, inevitably, occur under your watch.

Moreover, the allure of the new and exciting cannot be underestimated. In 2012, Christie was the popular, bombastic, conservative governor of a blue state. By 2016, he was old news. Right now, DeSantis’s flouting of Covid orthodoxy is at the top of many peoples’ minds. By 2028, it will be a distant memory of a long-since-passed political age.

Lastly, DeSantis can and should run in 2024 because to decline to do so would undermine his central appeal: his conviction that he is the best man for the job.

To run in 2028 as a Trump acolyte would be to run as Trump-lite. Voters don’t want a watered-down Americano; they want authentic, distinct brands. DeSantis has one of those right now, and it shines through — like it or not — at every signing ceremony, press conference, and other public appearances he makes. DeSantis says he takes the positions he does because he believes they’re right — torpedoes be damned.

If he wants everyone to believe him, he’ll need to take them not just from the media and the left, but from the man at Mar-a-Lago.

Spending Money to Make Money

“You have to spend money to make money,” is a truism often applied to business, but in Washington, D.C., Democrats are embracing it at the federal level.

The Inflation Reduction Act — which can be expected to have no measurable success in reducing inflation — includes nearly 80 billion dollars in funding for the Internal Revenue Service, which has been earmarked for the hiring of 87,000 new agents. That would mean doubling the size of the federal government’s tax-collection agency.

If it makes you feel any better, Senator Ben Cardin is here to assuage your worst fears; you only have to worry about Congress’s allocation of your money toward collecting even more of it if you misunderstand any of the applicable parts of the 30,000-page tax code that it created:

Oh, and that bit Cardin added about how, “The auditing is going to be focused on those of high income, the large corporations, etc.”? That’s a lie. He — and every single other Senate Democrat — voted to ensure that the IRS’s new legions would be auditing Americans at all income levels:

ADDENDUM: It’s fantasy-football season, and I have a suggestion: Select New York Jets tight-end Tyler Conklin with your final pick in every draft you participate in. Conklin will go undrafted in most leagues, but he finished last year with 61 receptions and has been Zach Wilson’s favorite target over the course of the offseason. Plus, waiting until the last round to take him will allow you to stock up on more premium positions such as running back and wide receiver.

Culture

Are People Just Getting Crazier?

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Alex Jones speaks with the media after day six of trial at the Travis County Courthouse, in Austin, Texas, August 2, 2022. (Briana Sanchez/Pool via Reuters)

This is the last Jim-written Morning Jolt until August 16; Alexandra DeSanctis and Isaac Schorr will be filling in while I’m away. On the menu today: A jury in Texas finds Alex Jones guilty of defamation, but some larger and more difficult questions remain; Did Jones’s audience enable and encourage his worst, craziest impulses? Do you feel like you spend more time now dealing with people who are crazy than you used to? Is it possible that we genuinely have more people who are cuckoo walking around than we did a decade or a generation ago?

Living in Crazy Times

I am not a licensed psychologist or psychiatrist, and chances are, you aren’t either. That means we’re not properly trained to assess someone’s behavior and conclude that they’re legally insane or mentally incompetent. But . . . we all know when we run into someone who’s crazy. Much as Supreme Court justice Potter Stewart characterized his ability to determine what is and what isn’t pornography, we know it when we see it.

Alex Jones is crazy. Everybody’s known this for a long time. Back in 2018, just about all of the social-media companies chose to remove him from their platforms, and not because he was offering garden-variety nutty statements and conspiracy theories. At the time, Jones was fighting a defamation lawsuit from the parents of a six-year-old killed in the Sandy Hook shooting. The parents’ suit alleges that Jones showed his audience their personal information and maps to addresses associated with the family, leading to years of threats and harassment from Jones followers who, like Jones himself, claimed the shooting was a hoax.

Yesterday, a jury in Austin, Texas, found Alex Jones guilty of defamation after he claimed the shooting was a hoax, making the podcaster pay over $4 million to the parents of one Sandy Hook victim. The jury awarded the plaintiffs, Scarlett Lewis and Neil Heslin, much less than the $150 million they originally sought. The jurors will now determine if Jones has to pay any additional punitive damages.

Earlier this year, Alex Jones’s companies, including his conspiracy-theory-focused website, Infowars, filed for Chapter 11 bankruptcy protection.

Contending that mass shootings are all elaborate, government-backed hoaxes and that no one was shot or died is crazy. Publicly accusing grieving parents of faking their feelings of sorrow and loss is a particularly malevolent and evil form of crazy. And encouraging people to find and confront those grieving parents is off-the-charts-danger-to-the-public crazy.

I only encountered Alex Jones in person once, at the 2016 Republican National Convention in Cleveland. I was talking with a friend in the press center when we heard some commotion approaching and getting louder. It was Jones, surrounded by a large gaggle — maybe 20 — of people holding various cameras, microphones, and cell phones, walking behind, alongside, and slightly ahead of him, hanging on every word he was bellowing. And he was off-the-charts loud, red-faced, and screaming at the top of his lungs in a barely coherent rage. His spittle-flying frenzy was so intense, I couldn’t even understand what he was yelling about. The cacophony came and went like a passing train at a railroad crossing.

Jones was acting like a raving maniac, and he was giving those members of the media exactly what they wanted. If he had used his indoor voice and not been an erupting volcano of rage, would they have been disappointed? Would they have been bored and stopped paying attention? Without the cameras, would Jones behave the same way? Did the audience’s tastes create an incentive for Jones to act like a maniac?

For years, there was this question surrounding Alex Jones: Was this all an elaborate performance, or was Jones genuinely unhinged? If it was the latter, it meant that the entire phenomenon of Jones was an unseemly form of an audience enjoying one man’s broken mental health as entertainment. Sure, there was something funny about watching him scream that polluters were using chemicals that turned frogs gay . . . but what if he actually believed it? What if some sort of brain-chemical imbalance made him believe it?

(Fascinatingly, back in January 2021, Alex Jones concluded that the QAnon conspiracy theory was a bunch of nonsense. “Q tells us stuff, and all of it’s lies,” Jones raged. “Because every [expletive] thing out of you people’s mouths doesn’t come true. And it’s always ‘oh, there’s energy’ or ‘oh, now we’re done with Trump.’ You said he was the messiah! You said he was invincible! You said that it was all over. That they were going to Gitmo. And now that he’s part of a larger thing of Q. I will not suffer your Q people after this! I knew what you were Day One, I know what you are now, and I’m sick of it!”)

Much of what Alex Jones offers is a darker, more sinister version of Art Bell’s old program in the 1990s, which was also about conspiracy theories, secrets, and the paranormal, and yet somehow fun and even goofy. But few if any ever felt any sense of menace from Art Bell; there was a sense that this was a late-night version of ghost stories around the campfire, stories that were probably all made up, but in which someone may have included one or two elements of truth. (The U.S. military is testing something, probably next-generation aircraft, out at Groom Lake, Nev.) If all the recurring conspiracies Bell’s listeners heard were true, it would mean Elvis, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and the Chupacabra are all hanging out at Area 51, using remote viewing to look at crop circles and ancient structures on Mars.

But in Jones’s vision of the world, there is one dark, coherent theme: They are out to get you.

And unlike the average guy on the street screaming that Triffids, pod people, or some other sinister force is coming to get us, Jones has been enabled, through the wonders of the Internet, to find an audience of people who believe the same things. He offered a form of contagious craziness to troubled souls who were looking for something to believe in.

The cinematic classic Speed includes a line from Dennis Hopper, playing a villain who has just collected a large ransom, responding to the accusation that he’s crazy: “Poor people are crazy, Jack. I’m eccentric.”

Society can and should welcome eccentricity. That trait is often in the eye of the beholder, and if someone tells you the man who lives down the street is “eccentric,” no one gets that worried. But if someone tells you the man who lives down the street is “crazy,” you get the distinction — there’s potential for trouble there.

Do you feel like you spend more time now dealing with people who are crazy than you used to? Is it possible that we genuinely have more people who are cuckoo for Cocoa Puffs walking around than we had a decade or a generation ago?

Peggy Noonan had a sharp observation about how deteriorating mental health is a key difference between today’s crime waves and those of a generation ago:

In New York, and the country more broadly, the scary thing isn’t that crime is high, though it is, though not as high as in previous crime waves. What’s scary is that people no longer think the personal protective measures they used in the past apply. Previous crime waves were a matter of street thugs and professional criminals, and you could take steps in anticipation of their actions. Don’t walk in the park at night — criminals like darkness. Take the subway in rush hour — criminals don’t like witnesses. Don’t be on Main Street at 1 a.m., but do go to the afternoon parade.

You could calculate, thereby increasing your margin of safety.

Now such measures are less relevant because what you see on the street and in the news tells you that more than in the past we’re at the mercy of the seriously mentally ill. You can’t calculate their actions because they can’t be predicted, because they’re crazy.

The pandemic and lockdowns certainly weren’t good for anyone’s mental health. They probably didn’t drive anyone crazy by themselves, but the long stretches of isolation, disruption of routine, and cutting off the vulnerable from their support networks likely exacerbated existing mental-health issues.

Or perhaps the era of social media has incentivized crazy behavior. At this point, we can say Lady Gaga is an enormously accomplished singer and actress. But back in 2010, when she was still climbing the ladder of fame, she infamously wore a dress made out of raw meat. Is Lady Gaga insane? She seems normal enough, at least by celebrity standards. But to get that public attention, she was willing to do something that seemed insane.

If we constantly reward insane behavior with attention and effectively “punish” sane behavior by ignoring it . . . should we be surprised at the state of our society?

ADDENDUM: Sales of Saving the Devil and preorders for Gathering Five Storms are strong, and I know that’s mostly because of you readers of the Morning Jolt. So, thank you very much.

Saving the Devil already has a couple of reviews! James writes, “As with most enjoyable stories, the biggest problem is that it feels like it’s over far too quickly. That’s a good problem to have! Nothing is wasted here, and enough is here to serve as a quick introduction to this lit-verse.” Nick calls it, “a nice little appetizer to get you ready for the release of Gathering Five Storms later this month. It’s got the humor and action you expect in a quick (10-15 minutes or so) read. Well worth the 99 cents.”

And in this time of runaway inflation, what else can you get for 99 cents? Not even the Dollar Store has stuff for a dollar anymore.

Elections

The Democrats’ Collective-Action Problem

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President Joe Biden walks away after addressing the nation on the killing of Al Qaeda leader Ayman al-Zawahiri, in Washington, D.C., August 1, 2022. (Jim Watson/Pool via Reuters)

On the menu today: One member of the Democratic National Committee wants to put the organization on the record as officially supporting Joe Biden’s running for another term in 2024; Warner Bros. makes an extraordinary decision about a nearly completed film; and a hearty thanks to all of you out there supporting my fiction writing.

Uncertainty Generates Anxiety, in Life and in 2024 Politics

On paper, everyone in politics should be focused on the upcoming midterms, not the presidential election two years after that. But the increasingly loud speculation and grumbles of discontent reflect a circumstance that Americans haven’t seen since the late 1960s: a first-term president who could conceivably not run for another term.

Biden could choose not to run because of his age — or, God forbid, his age might make him incapable of performing his duties before then. (The topic is no longer taboo.) Biden doesn’t work a full schedule, and the 2024 campaign won’t allow him to do all his appearances remotely through Zoom and Skype calls, as he did the first time around. A presidential campaign in two years would expose all the flaws and weaknesses that the highly unusual circumstances of the 2020 campaign helped obscure.

If the Democrats nominate Biden again, at this point, he appears likely to be an exceptionally weak candidate. His job-approval rating is at or near record lows. It’s been a long while since Biden consistently led Donald Trump in polling of hypothetical head-to-head matchups. A recent CNN poll found that three-quarters of Democrats want the party to nominate someone besides Biden.

Uncertainty usually generates anxiety; Van Jones put it succinctly back in mid June:

When [Biden] does badly, when he stumbles, you get nervous and you wonder, is it just a stutter, is he tired or something else there. So, I think people just looking, honestly, I think Democrats are like, if this guy is ready to go, we’re behind him. But if he’s not ready to go, [he] should let us know.

Biden has reportedly told associates, including Barack Obama, that he intends to run for reelection. The arguments against Biden’s running again — at nearly age 82! — are clear and compelling. But Biden’s ego may not allow him to admit that he’s aged out of the job and that he’s performed poorly in it. He quite literally has been working his whole life to get into the Oval Office. Becoming the first president since Lyndon Johnson to voluntarily not seek another term would represent a de facto admission that he was never well-suited to be president, and was indeed elected because of unusual twists of fate. He was nominated because he wasn’t Bernie Sanders, and he was elected because he wasn’t Donald Trump. The country never really enthusiastically embraced him as the best option; it only settled for him as the least-damaging option.

One member of the Democratic National Committee wants to put the organization on the record as officially supporting Joe Biden’s running for another term in 2024:

William Owen of Tennessee recently drafted a resolution to put his fellow committee members on record as being supportive of the sitting president. The DNC has approved similar measures for past presidents. But the motivation this time was different. Owen said he wanted to blunt the pessimism surrounding Biden that was emanating from within the party’s own ranks.

Owen wants the DNC to vote on his resolution next month. It’s almost cute the way he thinks a DNC resolution means anything in politics. A national party’s resolution doesn’t bind anyone to anything. (Also intriguingly, Owens has donated quite a bit to Republican candidates in recent years, although he contends that this was because of clients he represented as a lobbyist.) All Owen’s resolution is doing is putting his fellow DNC members in an awkward spot, forcing them to publicly claim that everything is fine with Biden and that he’s a strong candidate for 2024, in the face of considerable counterevidence.

Several high-profile Democrats have dodged the question on whether they think Biden will run in 2024, and two Minnesota Democrats in the House, Angie Craig and Dean Phillips, have declared that he shouldn’t. Representative Carolyn Maloney of New York declared she didn’t think Biden would run for another term. Her primary rival through redistricting, Jerrold Nadler, said it was too early to say whether Biden should run again. Lots of Democrats are willing to send little hints and nudges to Biden and his team that they’re not enthusiastic about the idea of “Biden 2024.” But it’s unlikely that Biden will take any subtle hints, and no one around Biden likes the idea of walking away from powerful White House jobs.

We’re seeing something of a collective-action problem — ironic, since the Democrats are the more collectivist of the two parties. Unless something changes soon, Biden’s running for reelection will be a bad idea for the Democrats. (And even if Biden were to somehow win his reelection bid, the country will be stuck in the same mess we’re in now, just with an even older president.)

But Biden is going to run unless someone of stature within the party comes out and declares that the emperor has no clothes.

Why the World Will (Likely) Never See Batgirl

The Warner Bros. film studio did something extraordinary this week: It pulled the plug on an almost-completed Batgirl film and announcing that the movie would not be released anywhere — not in theaters, streaming services, cable, Blue-Ray, DVD, or any other format:

“The decision to not release Batgirl reflects our leadership’s strategic shift as it relates to the DC universe and HBO Max,” said a Warner Bros. spokesperson in a statement. “Leslie Grace is an incredibly talented actor and this decision is not a reflection of her performance. We are incredibly grateful to the filmmakers of Batgirl and Scoob! Holiday Haunt and their respective casts and we hope to collaborate with everyone again in the near future.”

It is likely that Leslie Grace, and everyone else involved in the production, tried their best — this was filmed in 2021 and involved Covid-19 protocols that drove up the cost of the film. The rave reviews of Grace’s performance from In The Heights indicate that she still has a long and thriving career ahead of her.

But as I noted on Twitter yesterday, if the Batgirl movie were any good, Warner Bros. would be releasing it somewhere. Full stop.

A lot of other explanations are being thrown around. Warner Bros. will reportedly write off the film as a loss on its taxes. (This prevents the film from being released in any form for many years.) And yes, the film was approved during a previous regime, and new CEO David Zaslav is attempting to cut losses. And Warner Bros. has a mess on its hands with its DC Comics-based films; the actor who plays the Flash, Ezra Miller, appears to be having a very public, ongoing, slow-motion mental breakdown involving multiple run-ins with the law.

But none of those explanations really work if Batgirl is a terrific film, or even just an okay one.

The New York Post reported that the early test screenings of Batgirl were “so poorly received by moviegoers that the studio decided to cut its losses and run, for the sake of the brand’s future. It’s a DC disaster.”

That is the Occam’s razor explanation, and it suggests that the film isn’t just mediocre or disappointing, it is apparently embarrassingly bad. So bad that Warner Bros. thinks it is better for everyone involved to swallow the sunken costs of the $90 million or so already spent making it.

Think about how many lousy movies get released, with studios hoping they can make money on opening weekend before word of their badness spreads. If Warner Bros. is not even putting Batgirl on its streaming service HBO Max, that means the film is so bad that the studio doesn’t want to be associated with it. No studio completes the process of making a good movie and then decides at the last minute not to release it in any form just because they want the tax write-off.

Just about everybody involved in the process of making movies got into the business because they want to make movies. Nobody is shelving a good movie forever because they want a smaller tax bill next year. If the movie is any good, it’s more valuable as a potential hit.

I’m sorry if you had high hopes for this one, but in all likelihood, it turned out terribly. Just don’t buy this spin that not releasing the film in any way is just part of a “strategic shift,” as the studio claimed.

It’s Hollywood, so we don’t expect honesty. But the contention that, “It’s a great film, we just decided we would rather have the tax advantage” is a new triumph in the long history of spectacularly implausible explanations.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to everyone who got the short story Saving the Devil and the forthcoming novel Gathering Five Storms off to a great start in sales yesterday. Saving the Devil was the number one new release in the extraordinarily precise category of “45-Minute Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Short Reads” on Amazon. (Although to be honest, I don’t know if anyone else released anything in the “45-Minute Mystery, Thriller & Suspense Short Reads” category yesterday.)

If you don’t like authors turning into relentless self-promotion machines around publication time . . . well, sorry in advance. Only the biggest authors get much of an advertising budget, and they’re the ones who likely need it the least.

Elections

A Mixed Bag on Another Eventful Primary Night

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State Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks at an election-night gathering after winning the Republican primary for U.S. Senate at the Sheraton in Westport Plaza in St. Louis, Miss., August 02, 2022. (Kyle Rivas/Getty Images)

On the menu today: Wrapping up one of the last big primary nights of this cycle, and sharing some big, big news: The third book in the Dangerous Clique thriller series is coming out later this month.

A Primary-Night Rundown

Eric Greitens, please make like Marvin K. Mooney and just go away. As of this writing, former governor and Missouri Senate candidate Greitens has less than 19 percent of the vote and is in a distant third place. State attorney general Eric Schmitt won the multi-candidate GOP senate primary with a commanding 45 percent. Trump fans will try to spin this as some sort of symbolic victory for the former president, but Trump looks like a chump for not clearly backing the better candidate and the better man who was an obvious frontrunner and hedging his bets by endorsing “ERIC.”

In Michigan, the Trump-endorsed-but-relatively-sane Tudor Dixon won the GOP nomination for governor in the effort to unseat incumbent Democrat Gretchen Whitmer. (One of the more curious aspects of this primary was Dixon’s rivals arguing that Betsy DeVos — Donald Trump’s secretary of education, who endorsed Dixon — was one of the “RINO establishment’s leading never-Trumpers.” If you’re a never-Trumper, you don’t spend four years running the Department of Education for him. Do words have meaning anymore, or do people now just blurt out whatever sounds good in their crazy little heads?) A mid July survey found Whitmer just above 50 percent against Dixon, but the GOP field was a bunch of relative unknowns. Dixon’s grandmother’s died in a Norton Shores, Mich., nursing home during the pandemic, and she says Whitmer’s policies on nursing homes exacerbated her grandmother’s isolation and loneliness. Keep an eye on this race.

Two incumbent House Republicans from Washington who voted to impeach Trump, Jaime Herrera Beutler and Dan Newhouse, are currently leading their primaries as vote-counting continues. They are expected to survive their primary challenges.

Score one for the DCCC’s support for election-truthers: Representative Peter Meijer lost to Trump loyalist John Gibbs in Michigan’s third congressional district. Democrats spent nearly a half-million dollars to elevate a candidate they will now insist is a dangerous extremist who must be kept out of office. As of this writing, Gibbs is ahead, 51.6 percent to 48.3 percent; it’s easy to imagine that without that $500,000 in Democratic support, Gibbs loses and Meijer remains a sane Republican representing that district.

Once again, the DCCC is wildly reckless, and its decisions undermine all of its rhetoric that candidates such as Gibbs represent a threat to democracy and the rule of law. It’s easy to understand why some Republicans would like to see this move blow up in the DCCC’s face with a Gibbs general-election victory; failure on that scale is the only way it will realize the consequences of meddling in GOP primaries. But there’s also that not-so-minor problem that 48,199 or so Republicans in this district preferred Gibbs to Meijer.

In Arizona, they’re still counting the votes as of this writing; conspiracy-theorist Kari Lake leads sane conservative Karrin Taylor Robson by about 12,000 votes, or 1.8 percentage points in the race for the Republican gubernatorial nomination. Blake Masters won the GOP Senate nomination in that state and will take on Mark Kelly in November.

The night also brought some indisputable setbacks for conservatives. The pro-life movement suffered a significant defeat in Kansas, as voters rejected a referendum that would have allowed lawmakers to enact sweeping restrictions on abortion. The vote wasn’t even close, a 59 percent to 41 percent split. Ramesh, who grew up in Kansas, lays out what went wrong:

Kansas (where I grew up) is by no means a pro-life state, but it would probably never have adopted a sweeping abortion-protective constitutional amendment by popular vote. Once the state’s high court effectively amended the state constitution by itself, though, dislodging its mini-Roe by referendum became — as the result suggests — impossible.

If we held national referenda, one on abolishing Roe in favor of some policy regime TBD would almost certainly have lost in most states. Pro-lifers by and large understood that the polls in favor of Roe didn’t mean Americans were deeply committed to an abortion regime as expansive as the one Roe actually entailed.

Coming Soon to Your Bookshelf or Tablet: Gathering Five Storms and Saving the Devil

Readers, I have terrific news: The third book in my series of thriller novels, Gathering Five Storms, will be published by Amazon on August 23. In addition, to whet the appetite, the short-story e-book Saving the Devil is now available, and it’s just 99 cents.

What is this thriller series?

The Dangerous Clique series follows the adventures of a small, almost-off-the-books CIA team of misfits, established to eliminate minor-league terrorist threats before they grow into major-league threats. Our protagonists are the Uzbekistan-born Bukharin Jew Katrina Leonidivna, a skilled, tough, polyglot, and acerbic senior case officer, and her husband Alec Flanagan, a snarky terrorism-finance analyst. Along with a grumbling former U.S. Army ranger, an inordinately cheery NSA hacker, and a frequently exasperated FBI agent, the team hunts down threats overlooked by the rest of the byzantine bureaucracy of America’s national-security state.

Between Two Scorpions pitted the team against a mysterious terrorist group that seems like it could be a new branch of Islamist extremists, or it could be something new, different, and even more disturbing: a malevolent, anarchic force aiming to spread fear and paranoia for its own sake.

Hunting Four Horsemen, written during the Covid-19 pandemic and set in the aftermath, investigates a plot revolving around the creation of an “ethnic bioweapon” — a virus deliberately engineered in a lab to only afflict those with particular genes — and determining just who would be willing to pay to use such a devastating weapon.

What is Saving the Devil?

I suspect there are a lot of Morning Jolt readers out there who enjoy this newsletter but who aren’t sure if they want to shell out the money and time for a thriller novel. I can’t blame them; the world has some excellent thrillers out there, and it has a lot of lesser-quality knockoffs. There are a lot of suspense thrillers about allegedly relatable single moms who are dealing with serial killers, kidnappers, stalker ex-boyfriends, abusive ex-husbands, or the angry incel teenager down the street — often, it seems, all at the same time. There are a lot of military thrillers about characters with names like Rod “Firepower” Stronger, the roughest, toughest, meanest, grittiest ex-SEAL, ex-SWAT, ex-fighter-pilot, ex-FBI profiler, ex-secret-agent-turned-extreme-sports-pro/bounty hunter, who’s hunting down the notorious ISIS mastermind Ali Ali-Oxenfree.

The Dangerous Clique stories aren’t like that. They’re the threats of 24, the memorable personalities of Firefly, the quips and references of a Dennis Miller stand-up special, the far-flung fascinating locales of Atlas Obscura, and just a touch of the otherworldly eeriness of Twin Peaks all wrapped into one.

The magazine Abyss and Apex wrote of Between Two Scorpions,

This is not your typical terrorism spy thriller, not at all. The terrorists in the story understand how American society works and they are doing their best to destroy us from within by playing on our existing divisions and fears, to increasingly devastating effect. . . . The book has some really fascinating and different villains, with unusual motivations, and a lot of globetrotting and suspense as they chase down the clues to barely stay ahead of the total destruction of the USA. It’s a page turner.”

Saving the Devil is the 99-cent tapas serving of the Dangerous Clique series, a low-cost way to see if this is your kind of leisure reading — with the team confronting a mission that’s supposed to be simple: Find, and along the way rescue, an irredeemably notorious terror financier who’s marked for death by other sinister forces.

Set shortly after the events Hunting Four Horsemen, this short story has some spoilers for that preceding novel.

What is Gathering Five Storms about?

Did you ever feel like the world is spinning off its axis? As Katrina and Alec grapple with the life-changing revelation at the end of Hunting Four Horsemen and contemplate a hopeful new chapter of domestic tranquility, chaos almost literally pulls up to their front door: An attempted truck-bombing of the CIA’s main entrance gate arrives with a note bearing a simple menacing message: “THE DANGEROUS CLIQUE WILL PAY FOR ITS CRIMES FROM 2003.”

Someone’s out for revenge against the Clique for its tumultuous first mission, which occurred just as the invasion of Iraq began. But the team is more than a little befuddled because everyone it fought back then has been dead for years. In a series of flashbacks, we see how Katrina, Alec, and the rest formed the team, investigating the kidnapping of a child, and revealing an under-the-radar menace while the world focused on the prospect of another war in the Middle East. Then, in the present day, the team hunts for the scourge that’s hunting it . . . and finds former friends and foes battening down the hatches, warning about the gathering of five storms, a series of interlocking international crises that will shake the world.

Is there political stuff in it?

I don’t intend to put it in there or make it polemic, but one reviewer noticed how my worldview shapes the world the characters live in:

Anyone familiar with his journalism will recognize the nods towards the primacy of family life: respect for law enforcement and first responders; support for the Second Amendment; the importance of hard work; the essential goodness of American traditions; and, ultimately, the existence of God.

I liked The Weed Agency but I’m not into thrillers. Are these books anything like that?

These novels definitely feature a lot more office politics and portraits of government inefficiency than your typical thriller. And someone who reads all the books closely will recognize that they’re taking place in the same “universe.”

ADDENDUM: You know, it’s always nice to be called a winner. But it’s a little unusual to be called a winner for the once-in-a-blue-moon time I praise Nancy Pelosi.

World

The Famous Terrorists Are Dead Now

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Osama bin Laden (L) sits with his adviser Ayman al-Zawahiri during an interview with Pakistani journalist Hamid Mir at an undisclosed location in Afghanistan. (Visual News/Getty Images)

On the menu today: The leader of al-Qaeda, Ayman al-Zawahiri, meets a much-deserved bloody end in Kabul, Afghanistan — where he was the guest of honor of the Taliban once again; Joe Biden gets to take a victory lap; and voters in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington face big decisions in their primaries.

A Bad Day for Terrorists, but a Good Day for the World

Ayman al-Zawahiri, the longtime number two in al-Qaeda who took over the organization after the death of Osama bin Laden, departed this Earth on Saturday when he met the wrong end of two specially modified Hellfire missiles. This type of missile is designated as the R9X, known as the “flying Ginsu” because it uses sharp blades and high velocity to kill targets instead of an explosion.

Zawahiri will not rest in peace, but he is resting in pieces.

It’s understandable if you haven’t heard the name Ayman al-Zawahiri in a long while or thought about him much in recent years. Americans don’t really think about al-Qaeda much anymore, even though 20 years ago that would have seemed shocking. Back on September 11, 2018, I wrote:

Oh, some analysts say al-Qaeda won? I notice Osama bin Laden didn’t make it to the victory party. Every once in a while, his former lieutenant and al-Qaeda’s new leader, Ayman al-Zawahiri, issues some new video, but the American people barely hear about it. I don’t think that’s a reflection of bad news judgment on the part of the U.S. media producers. When bin Laden issued videos after 9/11, the whole world stopped and listened in fear. When Zawahiri talks, the world shrugs, or doesn’t notice at all. He’s turned into a remote-Pakistani podcaster.

When the U.S. Navy SEALs took out bin Laden, some terrorism analysts argued that the significance of that strike was likely to be overstated in the public’s mind, as al-Qaeda is an organization, not just one man. But effective leaders are not easily replaced, and it is now clear that al-Qaeda without bin Laden was a downgraded threat. Al-Qaeda turned into the terrorist equivalent of that band that was big when your dad was younger, lost its front man, kept making videos that no one watches, and you’re surprised to learn is still around today.

Al-Qaeda’s attacks after bin Laden’s death were smaller, and frankly largely forgotten. I’ll bet most Americans don’t remember al-Qaeda in the Arabian Peninsula claiming responsibility for the December 6, 2019, shooting at Naval Air Station Pensacola, when a member of the Saudi military being trained by American forces killed three people. The last al-Qaeda attack that dominated headlines around the globe was the January 2015 shooting at Charlie Hebdo’s offices in Paris.

With Zawahiri’s death, the last Islamist terrorist who was well-known to Americans is crossed off the list; he joins al-Qaeda founders Abu Musab al-Zarqawi and Osama bin Laden, and ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi. Some would also put Iranian Quds Force commander Qasem Soleimani on that list; he had a lot of American blood on his hands, and even though he was a state official, he supported, supplied, and enabled a lot of terrorist groups.

Khalid Sheik Mohammed is still sitting in Guantanamo Bay, where last we heard, his lawyers were seeking to negotiate a plea deal to spare him the death penalty. Then again, considering the complaint that Guantanamo Bay prisoners are getting fat and that one of them doubled his weight, maybe the plan is to kill him slowly through heart disease.

Sure, al-Qaeda and ISIS are still around and still have leaders, but Americans don’t think about them much and haven’t had much reason to think about them lately. I would argue that’s a victory of sorts. Of course, daily life for Americans has new threats and menaces — school shooters and other rage-filled nuts, high crime rates, vicious drug cartels and gangs, and God knows what kind of contagious virus could be coming our way on the next international flight.

Biden’s Run of Good News

Joe Biden ordered the strike against Zawahiri, and the al-Qaeda leader assumed room temperature on his watch, so Biden gets to take a victory lap. Shocking as this may seem to some people, Biden really is having a good stretch, particularly compared to the rest of this year’s cavalcade of disasters.

He got a superconductor chips bill through Congress, and Joe Manchin came around on a smaller version of Build Back Better, as long as it was called the “Inflation Reduction Act.” There are some signs that the Democratic enthusiasm for the midterms is picking up a bit and that Republican Senate candidates are underperforming in some key states. And now, he’s overseen the Zawahiri strike.

But even the success of the Zawahiri strike raises some questions about the long-term consequences of Biden’s past decisions. One of the reasons Zawahiri was in Kabul was because the U.S. vacated Afghanistan, leaving the Taliban to run the place unchallenged:

The Taliban confirmed an air strike on a residential house in the Sherpoor area of Kabul but said there were no casualties.

Zawahiri moved to a “very safe place” in Kabul a few months after the Taliban took control of Afghanistan in August last year, a senior leader of the radical group told Reuters on Tuesday on the condition of anonymity.

Now, there’s no doubt; Afghanistan is once again a base of operations for al-Qaeda. The fact that the U.S. can still strike targets in that country — at least in this case — is a welcome relief; killing Zawahiri is the first thing to go right for the U.S. in Afghanistan since Biden took office.

But it’s fair to worry about all of Zawahiri’s lieutenants and the rest of al-Qaeda in that country. A U.N. report last month concluded that:

Al-Zawahiri’s apparent increased comfort and ability to communicate has coincided with the Taliban’s takeover of Afghanistan and the consolidation of power of key Al-Qaida allies within their de facto administration. . . . The international context is favorable to Al-Qaida, which intends to be recognized again as the leader of global jihad. Al-Qaida propaganda is now better developed to compete with ISIL (ISIS) as the key actor in inspiring the international threat environment, and it may ultimately become a greater source of directed threat.

A Big and Consequential Primary Day for Republicans

Today is primary day in Arizona, Kansas, Michigan, Missouri, and Washington. The editors of National Review have two particular endorsements that primary voters ought to heed and consider. First, in the Missouri Senate primary:

If Missouri Republicans are tempted to “own the libs,” or outrage progressives, by nominating the disgraced former governor Eric Greitens as their Senate candidate on Tuesday, they should think again. By elevating Greitens, they would only own themselves.

There are too many arguments against a Greitens redux to count, but the crux of it is that he is a candidate of singularly bad character who would be the weakest candidate in a general election. . . .

Both Congresswoman Vicky Hartzler and Attorney General Eric Schmitt would be fine senators who would serve Missourians well. For our money, Schmitt is the best choice. His record is strong, and his performance in polling indicates he has a better chance than Hartzler of ensuring a Greitens defeat. He also looks better in polling against potential Democratic opponents than Hartzler, and much better than Greitens.

In a year that has featured some terrible decisions by Republican primary voters (*cough* Dr. Oz *cough*), nominating Greitens would be the most spectacular self-inflicted wound, taking what should be a near-certain slam-dunk win in Missouri and instantly turning it into a competitive race.

Then, in the Arizona gubernatorial primary:

[Kari Lake] and the chairwoman of the Arizona GOP, Kelli Ward, want to immolate the state GOP on a pyre of insanity and ridiculous lies, and may well succeed. . . .

[Lake] has called the 2020 election “the number-one issue” today, and maintains that it is “disqualifying” and “sickening” for her main opponent, Karrin Taylor Robson, to decline to say during a debate that the election was stolen.

She has the endorsement of the four horsemen of the election apocalypse — Donald Trump, Paul Gosar, Mike Flynn, and Mike Lindell — and there is no doubt that she has earned it. . . .

Robson, the alternative to Lake, is a real-estate developer who has the endorsement of Mike Pence and Governor Doug Ducey. She is a conservative and — we never thought that this would be a central distinguishing characteristic in such a high-profile race — rational.

Arizona Republicans should avoid the abyss.

The choice can’t get any clearer, Republicans.

Your mileage may vary; maybe you find former president Donald Trump’s endorsement of “Eric” in the Missouri Senate race funny. (Dan calls it “hilariously indecisive.”) To me, if you want to endorse a candidate, endorse a candidate. If you don’t want to endorse a candidate, don’t endorse a candidate. An endorsement is a declaration that “this candidate is the best choice,” or at least the better choice. It isn’t like filling out your NCAA Tournament bracket and trying to guess which team will win.

Greitens is a walking disaster area; Schmitt is a solid conservative and accomplished state attorney general who doesn’t record campaign ads fantasizing about hunting down and executing people who disagree with him. The only thing they have in common is their first name and that they’re both Republicans who want to serve in the Senate. If you can’t make a choice between those two, get out of the decision-making business.

ADDENDUM: The Taliban complains that the strike on Zawahiri is a violation of “international principles” and the 2020 agreement on a U.S. troop withdrawal.

Because if there’s any group that’s demonstrated that it cares about “international principles,” it’s the Taliban!

World

Pelosi Stands Up to the Bully in Beijing

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) arrives for her weekly press conference on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 29, 2022. (Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images)

On the menu today: As of this writing, it appears that House speaker Nancy Pelosi will travel to Taiwan. The issue of whether she should visit that country — and who are we kidding with our “One China” policy; Taiwan is its own country — raises big and consequential questions about when and where the U.S. is willing to stand up to a bully. A lot of people in this world like to think that they’re brave, tough, and willing to act against injustice but start looking for excuses once the consequences of taking a stand get high enough.

Which Bully Do You Stand Up To?

As of this writing, it appears House speaker Nancy Pelosi will travel to Taiwan, based on statements from unnamed U.S. and Taiwanese officials. But it is not confirmed.

Conservatives rarely applaud Pelosi, but her willingness to visit Taiwan — and to tell the Chinese government in Beijing to go pound sand if it doesn’t like her making the trip — is one of those rare times when they do. As the editors of NR put it:

Much as we disagree with the speaker on most issues, on this question she has been stalwart. Pelosi, by making this trip against the background of Chinese threats, would do a service to her country, Taiwan, and all nations with an interest in resisting a totalitarian party-state’s military aggression. She must go to Taiwan.

With some of the more hyperactive Chinese state-media propagandists talking up the possibility of the Chinese military shooting down her flight and the Chinese military promising live-fire exercises near the coast, Pelosi is demonstrating courage and accepting a certain amount of risk to life and limb by making the trip. The chances of the Chinese military deliberately or accidentally shooting down her flight are not high . . . but they are not zero, either.

Pelosi sees herself as “a progressive hawk” on China; in recent days, people dug into the archives and found footage of her trip to China in 1991, two years after the Tiananmen Square massacre, when students and protesters in Beijing were crushed by the Chinese government. Pelosi and other members of Congress visited Tiananmen Square and displayed a banner honoring the demonstrators — until Beijing police showed up, hassling them and the media traveling with them. Back in the day, Pelosi opposed giving China most-favored-nation trade status, calling it “a nation that proliferates weapons of mass destruction, maintains trade barriers that bar U.S. products from its market, and continues to arrest, detain, exile or harass those who peacefully express their political or religious beliefs in China and Tibet.”

We discussed Pelosi’s trip on The Editors podcast last week, and I can see the argument from Allahpundit that what the U.S. could gain from a Pelosi visit is minuscule compared to the costs of this escalating into some sort of military skirmish.

But once the speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives says she’s going to Taiwan, and the Chinese government demands that she cancel the visit, the speaker must go to Taiwan. Otherwise, backing down communicates to China that if it rattle the saber enough, it can veto what our political leaders do. What happens when China demands that no other American officials travel to Taiwan? What happens when Beijing demands that the U.S. shut down our de facto embassy, the American Institute in Taiwan, or demands an end to commercial air travel between the U.S. and Taiwan? At what point do we say, “Sorry, pal, but we’re a sovereign country and we make our own decisions”?

If Pelosi doesn’t go, then the United States will have backed down from a bully, and bullies are rarely satiated by one victory.

Many people in politics like to think of themselves as the noble, brave, and righteous types who are willing to stand up to a bully — and obviously, few people in politics think of themselves as bullies. But there’s the key question of which bully a person chooses to oppose. Some of the forces on the globe that seem most indisputable bullies are not always treated as such.

The Chinese government is obviously a bully, but not every American wants to stand up to Xi Jinping, because a lot of economically and socially powerful Americans have a lot of money at stake in a continued partnership with China. Corporate America’s quick, sweeping moves in response to the Russian invasion of Ukraine offered a strange contrast to the way corporate America rarely if ever uttered a critical word about the government of China, despite its ongoing genocide of the Uyghurs, its human-rights abuses, its oppression of Hong Kong, its threats toward Taiwan, etc.

Actor John Cena plays a lot of tough-guy characters who stand up to bullies. But when push came to shove, he was very eager to apologize and mollify the bully that is the Chinese government. NBA star LeBron James shares anti-bullying public-service announcements, but when push came to shove, he didn’t want anyone in the NBA upsetting anyone in the Chinese government by tweeting, “stand with Hong Kong.”

We’re all anti-bullying . . . unless we’ve got a few billion dollars at stake in the bully’s consumer market. Then, all of a sudden, standing up to a bully gets complicated.

I mentioned Russia a few paragraphs ago. The Biden administration would argue that right now, it’s standing up to Vladimir Putin. The problem is that one of the reasons Putin is the threat that he is today is because there was no sufficiently consequential U.S. response to the occupation of Crimea, the aggression in the Donbas, Malaysian Airlines Flight 17 being shot down by Russian-backed forces, and other acts of belligerence. Sure, Biden says he wants to stand up to the bully now. But if he and Barack Obama and their teams had done so around, say, spring 2014, the world might not be in the mess it is in today.

Everybody says they want to stand up to Vladimir Putin now. But even here, there’s odd foot-dragging and half-measures, and a sense that the U.S. government’s heart really isn’t in it. A week ago, senior U.S. officials said they were considering whether to provide Ukraine with new fighter jets and the training needed to operate them. But back in March, the administration vetoed the transfer of Polish MiGs to Ukraine. (Those are the planes that Ukrainian pilots actually know how to fly.) If we’re going to send jets, why did we wait five months? Why would we send them jets that they need to be trained on, instead of the ones they can deploy comparably quickly?

For that matter, what was the point of making those early concessions to Russia on Gazprom 2? Why did the administration try to eliminate weapons systems whose primary purpose is to deter Russia from using battlefield nukes? Why is the administration insisting we keep a tax treaty with Russia in place? Why are we going ahead with trading Viktor Bout for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan? If we’re standing up to the bully, why are we also trying to placate him?

Does anyone want to dispute that the Iranian regime is a bully, both to its own citizens and dissidents, and to its neighbors in the region? And yet, the Biden administration has spent a year and a half begging it to come back to the negotiating table. This administration has also sent out social-media messages in Farsi declaring, “Racism exists in America. Xenophobia exists in America. Anti-Semitism, Islamophobia, homophobia, transphobia.” (Because if there’s any group of people on Earth who vehemently oppose antisemitism, it’s the Iranian mullahs, right?) If we’re standing up to the bully, why are we also trying to make a deal with him?

Some Americans would argue — with some compelling evidence — that the Saudi Royal family is a bunch of bullies. And at one point, Biden made it clear that he was going to make that regime a pariah for its bullying. He tried some half-measures for a while, and then, once oil prices got high enough, the Saudis got a presidential fist bump. And corporate America’s willingness to embrace rainbows for Pride Month everywhere except the Middle East is a glaring demonstration of how its willingness to stand for values is highly dependent upon conditions.

Is that standing up to the bully?

Mind you, the list above consists of autocratic and despotic regimes that commit horrible human-rights abuses with impunity. China, Russia, and Iran would like to see America weakened and helpless; the Saudis would like to see us taken down a peg, but not so much that we can’t afford to keep paying top dollar for their oil. You would like to think that Americans, left, right, and center, could all agree that these regimes and their enforcers are the bad guys, indisputable bullies, and the sort of thugs we ought to stand up against — not through outright war, but through the application of the full spectrum of geopolitical leverage.

We have bullies at home in the U.S., too, but your least favorite political figure isn’t nearly as much of a potential problem as Xi Jinping or Vladimir Putin or Ayatollah Khameni. Your least favorite political figure can get voted out of office; they don’t command armies, navies, spies, hackers, and off-the-books assassination squads.

Your least favorite political figures, cable-news hosts, talking heads, celebrities, and social-media influencers are capable of being bullies. But they’re bullies on a smaller scale and represent a different kind of threat than these overseas bruisers. They’re not capable of, say, attempting genocide the way Putin is right now.

Ask a progressive who’s a bully, and they’re likely to say Donald Trump, Ron DeSantis, Tucker Carlson, the GOP-appointed Supreme Court justices, Mitch McConnell, evangelical Christians, gun owners, etc. Ask a conservative who’s a bully, and they’re likely to say the biggest voices in the mainstream media, the insufferable scolds in Hollywood, the woke mobs in academia, Anthony Fauci and an unaccountable public-health apparatus, mayors such as Chicago’s Lori Lightfoot, etc.

Ask a conservative who the bullying forces in American life are, and they’re likely to say big tech companies, because they censor voices on the right. Ask a progressive who the bullying forces in American life are, and they’re likely to say big tech companies, because they don’t censor voices on the right enough.

I suspect some American leaders choose to pick fights with convenient not-so-strong foes at home because they don’t know what to do with those inconvenient strong foes abroad. You can’t cancel Vladimir Putin, you can’t “deplatform” Xi Jinping — heck, in some cases, he may effectively own the platform — and you can’t shame the Iranian mullahs.

ADDENDA: Republican primary voters in Missouri, the NR editors would like your attention; last week’s editions of The Editors podcast featured a different guest host, and we partied like teenagers at a raging kegger at Brett Kavanaugh’s house; and economic genius Paul Krugman argues it doesn’t matter if the U.S. is in a recession or not.

Economy & Business

Biden Puts a Recession on Spin Cycle

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President Joe Biden reacts as he takes his seat before delivering remarks on the economy at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 28, 2022. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

On the menu today: Two consecutive quarters of declining GDP doesn’t sound like a recession to President Biden, and he emphasizes to Americans that Federal Reserve chairman Jay Powell said there are too many areas where the economy is preforming too well. You don’t realize how great you have it, foolish Americans! Meanwhile, more voices across the political spectrum wonder why Biden’s schedule is so light.

Biden: ‘Doesn’t Sound Like a Recession to Me’

President Biden appears convinced he can just spin his way through bad economic news. His statement Thursday morning:

Passing the CHIP bill is going to put another $72 billion dollars for incentives and tax credits to expand semiconductor production. And the Inflation Reduction Act will add another $370 billion in clean-energy tax credits in reconciliation, including incentives to accelerate domestic production of solar panels, wind turbines, batteries, and critical-materials processing. That doesn’t sound like a recession to me.

And then later Thursday afternoon:

There are going to be a lot of chatter today on Wall Street and among pundits about whether we are in a recession. But if you look at our job market — consumer spending, business investment — we see signs of economic progress in the second quarter as well. And yesterday’s — Fed Chairman — the Fed Chairman Powell said — made it clear that he doesn’t think the U.S. is currently in a recession. He said, quote, “There are too many areas” of economic — where “the economy [is] performing too well.” He said “too” well — T-O-O. Too well.

Yes, the message from the president is that, if anything, the economy is performing too well! If Biden thinks that this is a thriving economy, it’s easier to understand why he thinks that in November, Democrats will keep control of the House and “pick up as many as four seats in the Senate.”

Even if you want to reject that traditional definition of a recession, two consecutive quarters of declining GDP isn’t a good thing. Inflation continues to ensure that even though Americans are working hard, they can purchase less. Higher prices mean Americans buy fewer products and services, and consumer sentiment is taking a nose-dive. Rising interest rates are going to slow down the housing market and make it tougher for people to get loans. Businesses are restocking their inventories at a significantly slower pace. All of these are warning signs that the economy is hitting a rough patch. If we’re not in a recession, we’re on the precipice of one.

The likelihood that this quarter’s GDP report would bring bad news was clear for weeks, if not months. And yet with all that time to prepare, the Biden administration’s strategy is to try to redefine what constitutes a recession at the last minute, and then tell people that the economy is actually doing really well, they just haven’t noticed it.

A lot of bad economic news comes in the form of official government figures released by institutions such as the Department of Commerce’s Bureau of Economic Analysis and the Department of Labor’s Bureau of Labor Statistics. Their schedules are clear! I can tell you the next days that the administration will have another bad economic-news cycle. The JOLTS report next Tuesday will show how many unfilled jobs there are; next Friday’s unemployment numbers will likely bring good news in the form of low unemployment; the Consumer Price Index numbers on August 10 will likely show inflation continuing to rage out of control; and on October 27, right before Election Day, we will get GDP numbers for the third quarter. Maybe those numbers will be better, but it’s too early to say.

But it’s not just alleged right-wing maniacs like us who notice that the administration always seems to be behind the curve. In The New Republic a few weeks ago, Alex Shephard lamented that no matter how much advance warning the administration has about a problem, it always seem caught off-guard, flat-footed, and asleep at the wheel:

In a year of crises — Roe, Ukraine, inflation — Biden has been notably tucked away, his major communications coming in newspaper op-eds (another, Monday morning, detailed his goals for a diplomatic trip to the Middle East). With Roe, the situation is particularly galling, given the long lead time the administration was given. That Pete Buttigieg, the secretary of transportation, has recently emerged as the administration’s most effective spokesperson on a range of issues, is itself a damning indictment of the administration’s messaging. (Fox News keeps booking Buttigieg for appearances seemingly out of the desire to spar with someone with a pulse.)

Notice that late summer is turning into a recurring lousy time for this administration. One year ago, Americans witnessed the Afghan government collapse in the face of the Taliban, and those of us who were watching closely noticed that the president stopped making public appearances and taking questions around the same time:

After making no public appearances for four days — during a major foreign crisis — President Biden read a 20-minute speech off a teleprompter on Monday afternoon and took no questions. He immediately returned to Camp David. He had no events on his schedule Tuesday. On Wednesday, he gave another 20-minute speech about vaccine boosters off a teleprompter from Camp David, and again took no questions. Also on Wednesday, the president sat for an on-camera interview with George Stephanopoulos that did not go well. According to the White House public records, Biden has had two phone conversations with foreign leaders in the past ten days.

The president’s strange absence and long stretches of silence during that crisis were the clearest indicators that his age does not allow him to maintain the usual schedule of a president. The New York Times reported this month that the White House rejected a proposed ten-day overseas trip because “such extended travel might be unnecessarily taxing for a 79-year-old president, or ‘crazy,’ as one official put it.”

President Biden has no public events on his schedule for today.

How Presidents Handle Bad News

Every president has bad days and times where they promised that something will happen and it doesn’t happen, or they guarantee that something will not happen and then it happens.

The question is: What do you do in that situation? The morally right thing to do is for the president to admit that he was wrong; that his powers in his office are limited; and that he made a promise he was unable, unwilling, or incapable of keeping. Take your lumps and move on. Some people might even give you credit for leveling with them.

But increasingly, it feels like presidents just try to brazen it out and insist that up is down and vice versa. Bill Clinton might have been the master of this: “I did not have sexual relations with that woman.” It was a strategy so audacious, it was close to insane: Just go out there and insist that two + two = five and hope that you can get enough people to argue about whether it’s four or five or some other number.

As much as I prefer him to other recent presidents, there’s no denying that George W. Bush and his team kept insisting that the Iraq war was “turning a corner” and that the opposition was down to a few “dead enders.” Barack Obama was ushered into office by a crowd that saw him as a messiah figure, and thus he and his team could assert that the stimulus bill was already showing “green shoots” of economic growth that would lead to a “recovery summer”; that the jobs were “shovel ready”; that if you liked your doctor, you could keep your doctor; that ISIS was just the “jayvee team”; and so on. The Obama White House deliberately deployed a strategy it called “stray voltage” — deliberately creating controversies over inaccurate or exaggerated assertions that would draw attention to an issue.

And then there was Donald Trump, who was simply next-level in terms of brazening out controversies and scandals. He dismissed the accusations as “fake news” and often announced or tweeted something new and outrageous and controversial in a different way, and the news cycle moved on. There was always some new shiny object — Stormy Daniels! Omarosa! He’s trashing a cabinet official on Twitter! — that caused yesterday’s scandal or accusation to fade into the background.

With his brazen, “This is not a recession, in fact the economy is doing too well,” approach, Joe Biden is trying to run the same playbook . . . but he just isn’t as good at it as his predecessors. Also, the more a topic impacts people’s lives, the less you can BS them about it.

ADDENDUM: For fans of the Three Martini Lunch podcast, Greg and I have something special planned for the second week of August, when both of us will be traveling. We’ve taped two episodes of listener questions, covering everything from what a GOP supermajority should aim to accomplish in Congress, how big Ron DeSantis’s margin of victory in 2022 needs to be to really launch his expected presidential campaign, why some NeverTrump figures have left all of conservatism behind, what historical event we would attempt to alter through time travel, and the ranking of the Die Hard films. (There were only four, right? The fifth one is a terrible urban legend, much like the fourth Indiana Jones movie or the third Godfather movie.) It’s been a lot of fun to record, and I hope you’ll enjoy listening to it as well.

Economy & Business

Manchin Saves Biden’s Bacon

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Senator Manchin (D., W.Va.) speaks to reporters on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 19, 2022. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

On the menu today: West Virginia senator Joe Manchin, the Democrat most hated by the progressive grassroots of his party, chooses to save the Biden agenda and give his party a major legislative win before the midterm elections; all projections suggest that inflation will rage for the rest of the year; and the Biden administration considers releasing the world’s most notorious arms dealer.

Manchin Makes a Deal

Maybe Joe Manchin’s recent Covid infection made him want to reach a deal?

After a year of closed-door negotiations that seemed to go around in circles, Manchin surprised Washington by announcing yesterday that he had agreed in principle to a somewhat-smaller version of “Build Back Better,” now shamelessly called the “Inflation Reduction Act.” As our Caroline Downey summarizes:

While $369 billion of the plan would be allocated to energy and climate initiatives, $64 billion would go to extending expiring federal subsidies for people buying health insurance, the Associated Press reported. . . . Included in the package revealed Wednesday, however, is a 15 percent corporate minimum tax, AP noted, which Schumer and Manchin claimed will curb the skyrocketing size of the federal debt by collecting $739 billion in government revenue over ten years.

It was just twelve days ago that Manchin told a West Virginia radio host on air that he couldn’t even contemplate a deal until he saw the inflation numbers for July. The July inflation numbers don’t get released until August 10. One early forecast suggests that the July numbers will show a small increase, to 9.2 percent; David Payne of Kiplinger’s wrote earlier this month that, “The inflation rate is likely to stay close to 9 percent the rest of the year, then decline gradually after that, ending 2023 at about 3 percent. Rent increases alone will keep inflation rates elevated for some time to come.”

So, no, Joe Manchin did not stumble across some new bit of economic data about inflation that changed his mind on whether to move ahead with a deal.

Our Charlie Cooke saw this coming; in the middle of the month, Charlie laid out his fears that Manchin was about to go wobbly:

[Manchin] has worked on a package that would make that inflation worse. By most reports, the “deal” that Senators Manchin and Schumer were negotiating consisted of a large tax increase on corporations — which, because it will lead to increased prices, is inflationary — and a series of tax credits (read: subsidies) for energy companies, child-care providers, and Obamacare recipients — which, because they will leave their recipients with more disposable income and thereby increase demand, are inflationary. If Manchin is balking now on tax increases, that sense of hesitation should extend to the rest.

The current draft of the legislation provides another $45.6 billion to the Internal Revenue Service for additional enforcement. The current IRS budget is $13.7 billion per year.

This bill will be introduced using reconciliation, which means it cannot be filibustered. If all 50 Democrats stick together, it will pass the Senate.

In theory, the slightly smaller Build Back Better — I’m not calling a big spending bill that will worsen inflation the “Inflation Reduction Act” — could still fall apart. Manchin is on board, but it’s not clear that Arizona senator Kyrsten Sinema will concur; her spokeswoman said Sinema is still reviewing the text. Some House Democrats could balk; the version of the legislation that Manchin assented to does not include eliminating the cap on state and local tax (SALT) deductions, a high priority for Democrats from places such as New York and New Jersey. But House Democrats’ failing to get a majority to pass a version of one of their top priorities would be an enormous self-inflicted wound.

Barring some major Democratic defection, there’s likely to be one more big spending surge and a round of tax hikes thrown into this already-inflationary economy before the midterm elections. You just can’t save a majority party that isn’t willing to save itself. Alas, we’re all forced to live under the tax code they rewrite and in the economy they reshape.

Yet Another Terrible Deal from the Biden Team

I realize the U.S. must get Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan back, but Viktor Bout walking around as a free man in Russia will be a moral abomination:

After months of internal debate, the Biden administration has offered to exchange Viktor Bout, a convicted Russian arms trafficker serving a 25-year US prison sentence, as part of a potential deal to secure the release of two Americans held by Russia, Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, according to people briefed on the matter.

These sources told CNN that the plan to trade Bout for Whelan and Griner received the backing of President Joe Biden after being under discussion since earlier this year. Biden’s support for the swap overrides opposition from the Department of Justice, which is generally against prisoner trades.

Bout was, at one point, the most notorious arms dealer in the world — the “merchant of death” who profited from massacres and was the inspiration for tons of Hollywood’s evil arms-dealer characters.

Douglas Farah, a biographer of Bout, argues that the Biden administration should make the trade. I’ll credit Farah for not airbrushing or downplaying Bout’s lifetime of abominable crimes:

Bout provided tons of guns and ammunition to some of the most vicious warlords in the world and empowered them to carry out unspeakable atrocities. He is responsible for enabling murderous groups to kidnap and train thousands of child soldiers; use rape as a systematic method of terror and control; torture through the mass amputations of arms, legs, ears and lips; slaughter civilians, and help the Taliban take power in Afghanistan. Griner may have been carrying vape cartridges that were banned in Russia but not in much of the world. . . .

I covered the wars and victims of Bout’s weapons trade in Sierra Leone, Liberia and Democratic Republic of Congo as a correspondent for the Washington Post. The Nicolas Cage movie “Lord of War” was loosely based on Bout, and I co-wrote with Stephen Braun a non-fiction account of the savagery he enabled. There are no words to describe the human toll of Bout’s activities on thousands of people, from the armless child amputees in refugee camps to the scorched rural hamlets burned to the ground by marauding children traumatized into killing their own families.

Farah explains why he thinks making the trade is worthwhile:

Bout is a spent force who will be out of jail in a few years anyway. His business depended on personal relationships and trust among the parties. After being out of the business for more than a decade, Bout has neither of those left in the shadowy world in which he once operated. Second, Bout needed access to a global network stretching from Afghanistan to Europe, Africa and South America. That network has morphed through several generations of new actors, markets and gatekeepers. Bout has no currency in that world now.

That may be compelling reasoning, but this looks to me like a straight-up case of paying the Dane-Geld. Releasing Bout demonstrates that the U.S. can never keep a Russian national in jail, no matter how diabolical or notorious his actions, because the Russians can always snatch some U.S. citizen and use our folks as bargaining chip. If you give Vladimir Putin something he wants in exchange for a trumped-up charge against an American citizen, you’re going to get more trumped-up charges against American citizens. You are outright declaring to the Russians that this is an effective form of leverage against us. It generates a happy ending for Brittney Griner and Paul Whelan, but it makes more traumatizing detentions for other Americans more likely. And it’s not just Russia. Every rogue state and tin-pot dictator around the globe will be absorbing the lesson: Detaining Americans is how you make the Americans do things they don’t want to do.

ADDENDUM: I’m sending this off to the editors shortly before the new GDP numbers are released at 8:30 a.m., but the official numbers almost seem moot at this point. Biden, his team, Paul Krugman, and the Associated Press have all insisted that two consecutive quarters of GDP decline do NOT make a recession — even though lots of people, including Biden’s advisers, have used that general definition for decades. Republicans will call this the “Biden recession” even if the numbers surprise us and show something above zero — and let’s face it, getting above zero is not a sign that the economy is good. I told you on Monday that this was going to be “It’s not a recession, I swear!” week.

Elections

Republicans Have a Choice to Make

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Missouri Attorney General Eric Schmitt speaks during a news conference a in Washington, D.C., April 26, 2022. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

On the menu today: Republicans might finally be getting some good news in the Missouri Senate primary; Democrats fume that the DCCC is spending part of its finite budget on promoting pro-Trump, conspiracy-theorist Republicans in GOP primaries — a high-risk strategy that could backfire, and that undermines everything the Democrats say about how Donald Trump and his supporters threaten democracy; and the Editors podcast sounds a little different this week.

Whom Do You Want to Nominate, Republicans?

If you’re a right-of-center person who would like to see the GOP break its habit of nominating the worst, least-electable figure out of crowded fields of candidates, this week brought some welcome news. It looks like Eric Greitens — the disgraced and nearly impeached former governor who resigned over allegations of abusing his mistress and breaking campaign-finance laws — is finally losing ground in the Missouri GOP Senate primary that he briefly led. As our Dan McLaughlin lays out, three recent polls in the race all show Greitens sinking and state attorney general Eric Schmitt pulling ahead:

  • Trafalgar has Schmitt at 26.5 percent, congresswoman Vicky Hartzler at 24.4 percent, Greitens at 20.2 percent, congressman Billy Long at 6.7 percent, 6.6 percent with minor candidates (Mark McCloskey and Dave Schatz), and 15.6 percent undecided.

  • Emerson has Schmitt at 33 percent, Hartzler at 21 percent, Greitens at 16 percent, Long at 5 percent, 8 percent for minor candidates, and 17 percent undecided. Sixty-one percent have an unfavorable view of Greitens, double the unfavorables for Schmitt and nearly double those of Hartzler.

  • When undecideds are pushed to choose, Emerson shows the race at Schmitt 39 percent, Hartzler 25 percent, Greitens 18 percent, Long 7 percent, and 11 percent for the minor candidates. In other words, a third of independents would pick Schmitt if they had to decide today, but barely more than one in nine would choose Greitens.

  • Republican pollster Remington’s Missouri Scout poll has Schmitt at 32 percent, Hartzler at 25 percent, Greitens at 18 percent, Long at 8 percent, and 7 percent with the minor candidates, with 10 percent undecided.

The Missouri primary is on August 2. The lesson of Doug Jones beating Roy Moore should have been a vivid lesson to Republicans that there is no state so intensely GOP-leaning that they are guaranteed to win, even when they nominate a turkey of a candidate. Yes, the national political and economic environment is likely going to carry a bunch of subpar Republican candidates to victory this November. But a party would be foolish to count on uncontrollable outside factors carrying it to victory, and a candidate who wins because of a national wave usually loses the next cycle.

(Candidates should also remember that they can only really run as outsider opponents against the status quo once. Once you’re in office, you’re a relative insider and part of the status quo!)

If Missouri Republicans nominate Greitens, they’ll take a Senate race that should be a slam dunk and hand the Democrats, at minimum, a competitive race that will suck up GOP resources better used elsewhere. It would also suggest that a large plurality of Republican primary voters are so easily seduced by the candidate who takes the most over-the-top combative stance — “We’re going RINO hunting!” — that they can’t be bothered to take even a moment to think about a candidate’s’ competitiveness in the general election.

Democrats are getting deservedly raked over the coals for their extraordinarily high-risk strategy of running ads in GOP primaries that are designed to help nominate the most extreme candidate. Many of these most extreme candidates are little-known and underfunded compared to their more mainstream competitors; many have declared that the 2020 presidential election was stolen, attended the January 6 Capitol Hill riot, or demonstrated that they’re much more interested in conspiracy theories than actual public policy or passing laws.

A few Democrats who think they’re clever insist that the ads aren’t really designed to promote those most extreme candidates, and that defense would work if we didn’t have eyes and ears. We all know what a political attack ad looks like; this hilarious Reason parody lays out all of the instantly recognizable cliches: “Our candidate is in flattering lighting and full bright color. Their candidate is in grainy, high-contrast black and white, spotted through a telephoto. . . . The voiceover for our guy is calm, measured, bright. Their guy gets the lower register, and sometimes . . . we . . . slow . . . down.”

Check out the DCCC ad for John Gibbs, who is challenging GOP incumbent Peter Meijer in Michigan’s third congressional district, with that higher-pitched, almost cheerful and enthusiastic voice over:

John Gibbs is too conservative for West Michigan. Hand-picked by Trump to run for Congress, Gibbs called Trump ‘the greatest president’ and worked in Trump’s administration with Ben Carson. Gibbs has promised to push that same conservative agenda in Congress: a hard line against immigrants at the border, and so-called ‘patriotic education’ in our schools. The Gibbs-Trump agenda is too conservative for West Michigan.

Keep in mind, Gibbs has lived in the district less than a year, and he has run no TV or radio ads.

Now, we know that when the DCCC wants to slam a guy, it doesn’t call him “conservative.” It calls him “extreme” or “right-wing.” It doesn’t tout his support for securing the border or “patriotic education.” (That sounds pretty good, when you’re worried that the schools are teaching “unpatriotic education.”) If Gibbs wins the nomination, the tone and content of those DCCC ads are going to change really quickly.

Then again, this is a fairly Republican district (R+6 in the Cook Partisan Voting Index) and Meijer won by six points in 2020. In this kind of a year, with Biden’s job approval at 31 percent in Michigan, if Gibbs wins the nomination, maybe he ends up winning the general election anyway — and the DCCC will have helped replace a bright, reasonable Republican with a guy who thinks Hillary Clinton’s campaign manager took part in Satanic rituals.

At least a few congressional Democrats realize that the DCCC strategy is astonishingly risky, spectacularly stupid, and undermines all of the party’s arguments that Donald Trump and his like-minded allies represent a unique threat to American democracy.

Dean Phillips, a fairly centrist Democratic congressman from Minnesota, fumed, “I’m disgusted that hard-earned money intended to support Democrats is being used to boost Trump-endorsed candidates, particularly the far-right opponent of one of the most honorable Republicans in Congress.”

“Many of us are facing death threats over our efforts to tell the truth about Jan. 6. To have people boosting candidates telling the very kinds of lies that caused Jan. 6 and continues to put our democracy in danger, is just mind-blowing,” Representative Stephanie Murphy of Florida seethed to Politico.

The fact that the DCCC is helping promote a normally longshot stolen-election candidate against Meijer, one of ten Republicans who voted to impeach Trump, tells you everything you need to know about how most Democrats see anti-Trump Republican officials: Suckers and chumps. Democratic Party institutions will never, ever, ever help out a Republican official, even if that Republican does exactly what the Democratic Party wants them to do.

There’s a hard lesson in this. A Republican should defy the rest of his party when he thinks it’s the right thing to do — not because he thinks the Democrats will have his back when it counts.

It is indeed terrible that Democrats and their allied groups are running these ads, promoting the most extreme candidates. But Republicans also have a choice, and no primary has so many crossover voters that Democrats can single-handedly ensure the nomination of the worst choice.

As mentioned on an episode or two of The Editors, I wonder if the chaos and circus-like atmosphere in Washington in recent years is degrading the quality of candidates who want to run for Congress. If you’re a smart, accomplished, scandal-free figure who wants to help your country, do you really think running for the House or Senate is the best way to spend your time, energy, and money? If you’re in the minority in the House, you’re just voting against bad ideas the majority brings to the floor. If you get elected to the Senate, you vote on nominations and a giant omnibus spending bill once a year.

Is that how you want to spend the next decade or so of your life? Is it worth putting your family through all that scrutiny and aggravation?

Or would you be better off establishing some new nonprofit organization or something?

ADDENDUM: Speaking of the Editors podcast, this week’s episodes will be a little different than usual . . . check it out and let me know what you think.

Also, NRI Cruise registration closes on August 1! The ship is now sold out, but NRI has 30 cabins remaining in our allotment until August 1. Secure your spot today at nricruise.com.

This fall, come and take a trip around the Eastern Caribbean with several NR writers and esteemed conservative-movement leaders! Join us for seven days of leisurely activities, fascinating lectures, and quality conversation. The cruise will be similar to past NR cruises, but will also include exciting new programming, such as breakout sessions, book clubs, and exclusive 1955 Society events. The 2022 Eastern Caribbean cruise is taking place from November 12 to 19.

Confirmed speakers include: Professor William B. Allen, Charles C. W. Cooke, Veronique de Rugy, Kevin Hassett, John Hillen, Rich Lowry, Professor Daniel J. Mahoney, Andrew C. McCarthy, John O’Sullivan, Dominic Pino, Ramesh Ponnuru, and Jimmy Quinn.

One of the Institute’s primary missions is to preserve and promote Bill Buckley’s powerful legacy. NRI president Lindsay Craig and several trustees will be onboard to discuss ambitious plans to celebrate that legacy leading up to the 100th anniversary of Buckley’s birth in 2025.

Our seven-day adventure on the Sky Princess begins at the port of Fort Lauderdale and will include stops at Princess Cays, Bahamas; San Juan, Puerto Rico; Amber Cove, Dominican Republic; and Grand Turk, Turks & Caicos, before returning to Fort Lauderdale.

If you’re considering joining us on the high seas and have any questions, please contact Jason Wise (jason@nrinstitute.org or 203-273-3628).

Economy & Business

Biden’s Unrealistic Optimism

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President Joe Biden speaks after signing an executive order at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 8, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: “We’re not gonna be in a recession in my view,” President Biden told reporters yesterday. The only person who should be making guarantees of victory is Joe Namath. We will know if the U.S. has endured two consecutive quarters of a shrinking GDP on Thursday morning. But this is likely to be just the latest chapter in a long story of Joe Biden assuring Americans that everything is going to be okay, only to watch everything fall apart a short time later.

The Curse of Biden’s Optimism

President Joe Biden, still in isolation but reportedly recovering well from Covid-19, offered a bold prediction on Monday that could look quite foolish by the end of the week:

We’re not gonna be in a recession in my view. The employment rate is still one of the lowest we’ve had in history to the 3.6 [percent] area. We still find ourselves with people investing. My hope is we go from this rapid growth to steady growth and uh, so see, we’ll see some coming down. But I don’t think we’re going to, uh ,God willing, I don’t think we’re going to see a recession.

As discussed yesterday, on Thursday morning, the U.S. will learn if we’ve experienced two consecutive quarters of the GDP shrinking — the traditional definition of a recession. (The RNC recalled Biden’s economic adviser Jared Bernstein defining a recession as GDP “crossing zero” back in 2019; by that standard, we’re already in recession, with last quarter’s 1.6 percent decline.)

Note that Biden thinks, “We’ll see some coming down” from a quarter of 1.6 percent decline, but also insists that won’t be a recession.

This weekend, Treasury secretary Janet Yellen and other Biden administration officials offered the unconvincing spin that, even though two consecutive quarters of GDP decline is the traditional definition of a recession, it doesn’t count as an official recession unless the National Bureau of Economic Research confirms it — a process that could take up to a year.

The American people aren’t waiting for a panel of economists to draw conclusions about the state of the economy. Investor’s Business Daily regularly asks whether the U.S. is in a recession, and found this month that, “A clear majority of Americans — 58 percent — think the U.S. economy is in a recession, up from 53 percent a month ago and 48 percent in May, the July IBD/TIPP Poll finds. As inflation cancels out wage gains, the near-term outlook for personal finances just hit a record low for the survey back to February 2001.”

Over at Hot Air, Allahpundit argues that Biden doesn’t have much choice but to offer economic happy talk; the president publicly acknowledging the likelihood of a recession could worsen Americans’ economic pessimism. (Then again, judging by the stats from that Investor’s Business Daily poll, economic pessimism is pretty darn high and can’t get much worse. At some point, doesn’t unrealistic happy talk from officials exacerbate economic pessimism? A leader who won’t acknowledge the problem doesn’t have much chance of solving the problem.)

The real problem for Biden is that this is just the latest chapter in a long, long story of him insisting that everything is going to be fine and then being proven wrong — often quickly. When Biden and his team are confronted with a problem, their reflexive instinct is to insist it isn’t really a problem:

No one makes Joe Biden say these things. He deliberately chooses to make predictions that everything is going to turn out great in the face of giant mountains of counterevidence. On those rare occasions when someone presses Biden about his wildly erroneous predictions, like when Lester Holt of NBC News asked Biden about his prediction that inflation would be temporary, Biden got snippy and called him “a wise guy.” When Biden’s predictions turn out to be wrong, he explains he would have had to be a “mind reader” to get it right. (What he really means is clairvoyant, or having the ability to see the future, not to read minds.) In Biden’s mind, when things don’t go the way he planned, it’s just bad luck.

After a while, it’s not bad luck; it’s bad judgment.

Reportedly, Biden whines to aides that, “Everything landed on his desk but locusts.” What did he think the presidency would be? An endless parade of aides and officials marching into the Oval Office with good news?

A positive attitude can be a great strength, but what Biden keeps exhibiting is a certain naïve, unrealistic faith that everything will work itself out.

When asked about the possibility of a recession, Biden could have been more honest and said that he simply didn’t know what the new GDP numbers would be, but that he knew inflation was hurting Americans and he would continue to adjust his policies to reduce it. Instead, Biden and his team keep insisting that America can’t possibly be in a recession because unemployment is low. This is like a student getting a bad score on a test and insisting that the grade can’t be low because they answered some of the questions right.

ADDENDUM: Our Alexandra DeSanctis offers the public some much-needed explanatory journalism:

Every significant state abortion limitation as it pertains to exceptions for medical emergencies. Though not every law explicitly names ectopic pregnancy and miscarriage management, each is perfectly clear in its definition of abortion and clear about leaving room for doctors to act in cases of medical emergency. It’s important to note that, while many laws do explicitly name these procedures, it is not necessary to do so in order for those types of treatment to remain legal.

Economy & Business

Biden Team Goes into Recession Denial

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Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen speaks during a news conference in Nusa Dua, Bali, Indonesia, July 14, 2022. (Made Nagi/Pool via Reuters)

On the menu today: In a week full of big economic-news releases, on Thursday morning, the U.S. will learn if we’ve experienced two consecutive quarters of the GDP shrinking — the traditional definition of a recession. Treasury secretary Janet Yellin and other Biden officials are already arguing that we’re not in a recession — which seems like a clear hint that they expect Thursday’s numbers to be ugly. But to the average American, “recession” is a synonym for “economic hard times” — and with inflation at 9.1 percent, lots of Americans feel squeezed.

Welcome to ‘It’s Not a Recession, We Swear!’ Week

Politico’s Ben White characterizes this week as a “Category 5 economic storm,” but I think the dominant theme will be, “It’s not a recession, we swear!”

As much as economy-watchers will be studying the Consumer Confidence Index numbers on Tuesday and the Federal Reserve meeting and decision on interest rates Wednesday, the biggest deal will be the numbers for second-quarter economic growth, announced at 8:30 a.m. Eastern Thursday morning. We don’t know what the second-quarter economic numbers are going to be, but they’re probably not going to be good. The Atlanta Fed thinks it will show that the U.S. GDP shrank 1.6 percent in the last quarter. The previous quarter was a decline of 1.6 percent as well — so if the Atlanta Fed projection is correct, Thursday will bring news that the U.S. is now in a recession, at least by the traditional definition. (Even if it doesn’t, and it shows GDP growth at 0.0 or slightly higher, the U.S. is still in lousy near-recessionary conditions.)

Biden and his team will argue that, despite the numbers, the U.S. isn’t really in a recession. In fact, White writes that if Republicans declare we’re in recession, “It will not be true. At least not yet. But President Joe Biden and Democratic candidates across the country will face a daunting and possibly impossible challenge explaining to people why it’s not true.”

On Meet the Press yesterday, Yellen had the unenviable task of convincing Americans that even though it may look like a recession, sound like a recession, and feel like a recession, it’s not really a recession:

SEC. JANET YELLEN: I do want to emphasize: What a recession really means is a broad-based contraction in the economy. And even if that [second-quarter-GDP-growth] number is negative, we are not in a recession now. And I would, you know, warn that we should be not characterizing that as a recession —

CHUCK TODD: I understand that, but you’re splitting hairs. I mean, if the technical definition is two quarters of contraction, you’re saying that’s not a recession?

YELLEN: That’s not the tech —

TODD: No?

YELLEN: That’s not the technical definition. There’s an organization called the National Bureau of Economic Research that looks at a broad range of data in deciding whether or not there is a recession. And most of the data that they look at right now continues to be strong. I would be amazed if the NBER would declare this period to be a recession, even if it happens to have two quarters of negative growth. We’ve got a very strong labor market. When you’re creating almost 400,000 jobs a month, that is not a recession.

The National Bureau of Economic Research isn’t exactly speedy about these declarations. Back in December 2008, it announced that the U.S. was in a recession . . . that had begun almost one year earlier in January 2008.

It is indeed true that it’s odd to see an economic recession when unemployment is at just 3.6 percent. The other counterargument that the Biden administration keeps trotting out is that companies are hiring, which is usually the opposite of what happens in a recession. As of May, the U.S. had 11.3 million unfilled jobs.

But an unfilled job doesn’t actually produce anything — other than perhaps help-wanted ads — which means that those 11.3 million openings aren’t contributing to the GDP. The Biden administration is pointing to the near-record number of job openings as a sign of economic strength. But all those empty office cubicles, empty spots on the assembly line, unanswered calls, and unfilled wait-staff shifts feel a lot more like a sign of economic weakness. Peggy Noonan offered a vivid description in her column this weekend:

Retailers big and small struggle to find and retain employees. Beaches and pools can’t find lifeguards. Police forces can’t find young men and women to apply. The U.S. Army can’t find recruits. Doctors offices strain to fill a job when somebody leaves. Airlines are so short-staffed there’s no one to help you find luggage that’s been lost for two weeks. There’s no one to keep it from being lost. The other night a Midwestern city official told CNN, of the struggle to hire cops, “It’s like the American workforce vanished.”

There are still a lot of, “Please be patient, we are understaffed” signs in the front of restaurants around the country, a lot of retail stores with only one or two registers open, and a lot of pharmacies with only one pharmacist trying to manage the phone and the line of customers in front of her. Those aren’t signs of a thriving economy.

The U.S. Chamber of Commerce notes that:

The U.S. has 3.25 million fewer Americans working today compared to February of 2020. . . . Right now, the latest data shows that we have over 11 million job openings in the U.S. — but only 6 million unemployed workers. We have a lot of jobs, but not enough workers to fill them. If every unemployed person in the country found a job, we would still have 5.4 million open jobs.

If the economy were as strong and healthy as the Biden team and congressional Democrats want it to be, there would be Americans working in those jobs.

The reason it will be so difficult for Biden to explain that this isn’t really a recession is because in the American public’s mind, a recession is a de facto synonym for “economic bad times.” With inflation at 9.1 percent, Americans are feeling an intense financial squeeze because everything is more expensive now. The price hikes aren’t gradual; they’re sudden and noticeable. And these aren’t price hikes that a person notices for once-in-a-while purchases, like a new home purchase or a new car purchase. These are noticeable price hikes in everything they buy, particularly groceries and gasoline.

There’s a curious trend in economic journalism lately, contending that Americans are just too pessimistic, and that most Americans are doing much better than they are willing to admit.

This New York Times write-up of a survey in mid July is a good example: “Just 10 percent of registered voters say the U.S. economy is ‘good’ or ‘excellent,’ according to a New York Times/Siena College poll — a remarkable degree of pessimism at a time when wages are rising and the unemployment rate is near a 50-year low.”

But here’s a feature story in the Times on the impact of inflation from just a few weeks earlier:

In May 2021, the average price of a dozen large eggs was $1.60. A year later, it was $2.80 — an increase of 75 percent. Ground beef is up 13 percent per pound. A gallon of whole milk costs one-fifth more. Overall, grocery prices were 12 percent higher last month than they were a year earlier, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. That was the largest year-over-year increase since 1979.

At the same time, the average driver was paying nearly $275 a month at the pump, up from $167 in June 2021, when a gallon of gas was $3.07, according to Kelley Blue Book’s calculations. Rents, too, are escalating. The median monthly rent was nearly $1,850 in May, according to Realtor.com, up 26 percent from 2019, before the pandemic.

This morning, the Wall Street Journal serves up an article on upper-middle-class Americans who are watching their economic gains of 2020 and 2021 erode in 2022. The article notes that, “Upper-middle-class households are defined here as those earning between $75,301 and $127,300 a year.” (In parts of the country with high costs of living, that doesn’t seem all that upper!) Lots of people, particularly on the left, are likely to scoff that these Americans are sufficiently well-off that they need no sympathy — which illuminates just how conditional their much-touted empathy is. Upper-middle-class families must pay their mortgages, grocery bills, and gas bills, and for college educations and retirement, too.

Many economic writers — who I suspect are sympathetic to the administration — keep asking, “Why do the American people keep demonstrating this remarkable degree of pessimism?” And the American people keep answering, “Because everything is so flippin’ expensive these days!”

Between now and the midterms, Yellin, Biden, and the rest of the Democrats will be trying to convince Americans that they’re more prosperous than they feel. I suspect you would have an easier time convincing Americans that they’re taller than they feel.

ADDENDUM: President Biden, while speaking to reporters last week, shortly before he tested positive for Covid-19:

Q: Mr. President, do you think it’s a good idea for Speaker Pelosi to travel to Taiwan this summer?

THE PRESIDENT: Well, I — I think that — the military thinks it’s not a good idea right now, but I don’t know what the status of it is.

And then Biden moved on to another question about declaring a public-health emergency for abortion.

As the Wall Street Journal notes, Pelosi’s trip would have symbolic significance, as she would be the first House speaker to visit Taiwan in 25 years, and this is one of the rare issues where the typical Republican is likely to say, “Go, Pelosi, go!” The Chinese government is rattling its sabers and attempting to intimidate the U.S. government. The Chinese government has no authority to deny American officials the right to visit Taiwan.

The question is, will the Biden administration allow itself to be intimidated?

The Journal’s editors conclude, “If China can stop a senior U.S. official from visiting Taiwan, how resolute is America going to be in a shooting war?”

Notice that Biden doesn’t say whether he thinks it’s a good idea. He just says “the military” — Who? When did they say this? Why did they say this? — thinks it’s not a good idea right now. He doesn’t argue that Pelosi shouldn’t go, exactly, but he doesn’t say she should go, either. He just ominously implies that the Pentagon sees some sort of threat afoot and moves on to another subject.

In the most recent issue of NR, our Andy McCarthy describes Biden as the “confounder in chief” – a man who uses confusing jumbles of words that are often de facto retracted. “Biden’s words are meaningless. Of that, there is no better testament than the soles of his advisers’ shoes, worn away by the speed and regularity with which those words are walked back.”

Does Biden not want Pelosi to go to Taiwan? Who knows? We shouldn’t expect too much from him; he’s only the president.

Elections

Trump’s Disconnection from Reality

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A video of former President Donald Trump is played on a screen during a public hearing of the U.S. House Select Committee to investigate the January 6 Attack on the U.S. Capitol on Capitol Hill in Washington, D.C., July 21, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: The January 6 Committee plays the video of the outtakes of President Trump recording a message on January 7 — in which he balked at declaring that the election was over. The video, and the fact that Trump was still calling Wisconsin state lawmakers and telling them to decertify the 2020 election results and declare him the winner, illuminate the stark choice before Republicans as they contemplate their options for the 2024 presidential election.

The Spotlight on Trump, Yet Again

It’s fascinating to watch then-president Trump, on the evening of January 7, 2021, start to give a pretty darn good speech about the attack on the Capitol. The White House speechwriters knew what the president had to say that morning. It sounds like Ivanka Trump, unseen but heard offscreen, knew what he had to say. But during the delivery, Trump seemed to decide that he just couldn’t do it, refusing to say the sorts of things a president should say in that moment:

TRUMP: I would like to begin by addressing the heinous attack yesterday. And to those who broke the law, you will pay. You do not represent our movement. You do not represent our country. And if you broke the law–

Trump stops:

TRUMP: I can’t say that. I’m not going — I already said you will pay.

The January 6 Committee’s tape skips ahead some undetermined amount of time to this:

TRUMP: The demonstrators who infiltrated the capt— . . . have defied the seat of des— it’s defiled, right? I can’t see it very well. Okay, I’ll do this. I’m gonna do this. Let’s go.

The Committee’s tape skips ahead again:

TRUMP: But this election is now over. Congress has certified the results.

Trump stops again:

TRUMP: I don’t want to say the election’s over. I just want to say Congress has certified the results without saying the election’s over, okay?

Trump’s refusing to say, “The election is over” on the evening of January 7 — months after all the ballots had been cast, counted, recounted in some cases, the vote results were certified by the state governments and certified by Congress — represents his disconnection from reality. Ivanka Trump tries to guide her father back to reality:

IVANKA TRUMP, offscreen: But Congress has certified the results. Now Congress is–

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Yeah. Right. I didn’t say over. So let me see. Don’t – go to the paragraph before. . . . Okay?

Trump begins again:

TRUMP: I would like to begin by addressing the heinous attack yesterday.

Trump stops:

TRUMP: ‘Yesterday’ is a hard word for me.

IVANKA TRUMP, offscreen: Just take it out.

PRESIDENT TRUMP: Ah, good. Take the word ‘yesterday’ out because it doesn’t work with . . . heinous attack . . . on our country. Say, ‘on our country.’ Want to say that?

IVANKA: No, keep it–

The Committee’s tape skips ahead again:

PRESIDENT TRUMP: My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote.

Trump grows frustrated, grimaces, and makes some gesture pointing down. The Committee’s tape skips ahead again:

PRESIDENT TRUMP: My only goal was to ensure the integrity of the vote.

Trump is suddenly really frustrated and slams his hand on the lectern.

Eventually, Trump did deliver a version of that statement, and declared that, “I am outraged by the violence, lawlessness and mayhem.” He also said, “To those who engaged in the acts of violence and destruction, you do not represent our country. And to those who broke the law, you will pay.”

Interestingly, the final version did not include the sentences, “You do not represent our movement” or “This election is over.” The closest he came was, “A new administration will be inaugurated on January 20” and a pledge to ensure a smooth transition. At no point would Trump acknowledge that he had lost the election, that Biden had been legitimately elected, or that his supporters should accept the outcome.

Nor is there any sign that a year and a half passing altered the way Trump sees anything. Earlier this month, Trump called Wisconsin assembly speaker Robin Vos in another attempt to convince Wisconsin Republicans to decertify the state’s 2020 presidential results. Trump believed that a Wisconsin state supreme-court decision gave the state assembly the authority to decertify the election results and declare Trump the real winner of the state. Vos argued that the decision didn’t give the state legislature that authority at all.

The certified results indicate that Biden won the state by about 20,000 votes, or six-tenths of 1 percent.

The Choice before Republicans

Different surveys will give you different results, but right now, when a pollster asks Republicans whom they want to see their party nominate for president in 2024, at least half answer, “Donald Trump.” Florida governor Ron DeSantis is gaining some impressive momentum, no doubt. A recent poll showed that DeSantis is the preferred choice of Florida Republicans by a considerable margin, and another one showed the two men nearly tied in Michigan. But in the national surveys, the percentage who name DeSantis as their top choice ranges from the low 20s to low 30s. DeSantis just isn’t as well-known, and Trump is the default setting for a lot of Republicans right now. If the Florida governor wants to be the architect of the Republican Party’s post-Trump vision and agenda, he’s got a lot of work ahead of him.

Right now, there’s about a 90-some percent chance that on the afternoon of January 20, 2025, the president of the United States will be one of four people: Joe Biden, Kamala Harris, Donald Trump, or Ron DeSantis. Stranger things have happened — maybe Biden chooses not to run for another term, or Harris loses a primary fight to a Gavin Newsom-type figure. Maybe some other Republican figure catches fire. But right now, it looks like the choice before Republicans is Trump or DeSantis.

In the next 18 months or so, Republicans will have to ask themselves hard questions concerning what they want the 2024 presidential election to be about.

If Republicans nominate Ron DeSantis, no doubt the Democratic nominee will try to make the election about DeSantis’s allegedly reckless policies during the pandemic — you know, those policies that Floridians largely supported. They’ll try to make the 2024 election about “Don’t say gay” legislation, or how the big mean governor is picking on that poor, defenseless Disney corporation. I’m sure that some tired Democratic spin doctors will try to argue that DeSantis is a “Florida Man” — reckless, crazy, and endangering everyone around him. Every Republican gets labeled one of three things: old, dumb, or evil, or some combination of those traits.

DeSantis will presumably want the election to be about contrasting his conservative vision for government against the wreck— er, record of the Biden administration.

DeSantis will want 2024 to be about how runaway federal spending exacerbated severe inflation that ate away at Americans’ standard of living. He will want Americans to be talking about self-defeating energy policies; self-destructive crime policies; a de facto open border and waves of illegal immigrants; an educational establishment that dragged its feet on reopening schools, and that was more interested in ideological indoctrination when it did finally reopen the school doors. He’ll want Americans to focus on a sclerotic, sluggish public-health bureaucracy in places such as the FDA. He’ll remind Americans about our catastrophic, chaotic withdrawal from Afghanistan, the continued rise of China, and how foreign brutes such as Vladimir Putin and MBS are treating the current president like a pushover.

If Republicans nominate Donald Trump, the election will revolve around what people think of Donald Trump. The 2024 general election will be dominated by arguments about January 6, and Trump’s insistence that he was the true legitimate winner of 2020, and the cockamamie theories of Sidney Powell and Lin Wood and Venezuelan hackers and Chinese bamboo in the paper ballots of Arizona. It will likely feature Trump tirades about what is being said about him on cable news. Trump will likely talk at length about which Republicans have been disloyal, and which other Republican officials are “LOSERS!” and which ones are “SAD!” Every Trump decision from January 20, 2017, to January 20, 2021, will be relitigated and re-argued.

In short, Trump will be extraordinarily eager to make the preeminent issue in the 2024 election about who really won the 2020 election. That topic interests him far, far more than, say, the national rate of inflation.

A GOP choice to nominate Trump again would also represent a dramatic change from recent history, in which parties left their losing candidates to enjoy retirement and moved on to a fresh face.

If the GOP nominates Trump in 2024, he would be the first presidential candidate to be nominated three times by a party since Richard Nixon (1960, 1968, 1972) and the first major party nominee who had previously lost a general presidential election since Nixon’s last nomination. (In 1996, Republicans nominated Bob Dole, who had lost as Gerald Ford’s running mate in 1976 and 1984, Democrats nominated Walter Mondale, who had lost as Jimmy Carter’s running mate in 1980.)

Back in 2015, historian Josh Zeitz observed that the presidential-primary process in place for all or most of our lifetimes “is not a format that is hospitable to ‘losers.’ The modern nominating process has an unwritten rule: You lose, you leave.”

There are bright conservatives I know who think Trump is toast. I have a hard time seeing it. But to me, the argument for moving on to a fresh face and refocusing on real issues that affect people’s daily lives couldn’t be any clearer or stronger.

ADDENDUM: You might think that if you tried to stab a member of Congress and candidate for governor, you would be spending, at minimum, a night in jail.

In New York state, you would be wrong:

A man who allegedly attacked Rep. Lee Zeldin, R-N.Y., with a sharp object at a campaign stop in Perinton, New York, Thursday evening was charged with a felony and released from custody within hours of his arrest, the Monroe County Sheriff’s Department said.

The suspect, identified as David G. Jakubonis, 43 of Fairport, N.Y., was charged with attempted assault in the second degree.

He was arraigned in Perinton Town Court and released on his own recognizance, the sheriff’s department said.

New York’s mind-bogglingly lenient bail laws are a menace to public safety.

White House

Will the Feds Charge Hunter Biden?

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Hunter Biden attends a ceremony in the East Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 7, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: CNN reports that federal prosecutors are debating charging the president’s son, Hunter Biden, with alleged tax-law violations and making a false statement in connection with his purchase of a firearm. Bringing any charges would be a welcome step toward dispelling the sense that there is one set of lenient laws for children of the elite, such as Hunter, and another set of stricter laws for the rest of us. But the whole sordid tale is a vivid illustration of one of life’s more difficult lessons, particularly surrounding addiction: If you really love someone, you need to let them experience the painful consequences of their bad decisions. Protecting them from those consequences only enables them to make even worse decisions down the road.

Federal Prosecutors Still Weighing How to Handle Hunter Biden

A few days ago, our Charlie Cooke contrasted the case of a former 911 dispatcher named Yunis Isaac Mejia with that of President Biden’s son, Hunter Biden. Mejia was sentenced to 21 months in jail for having attached a buttstock to a pistol:

Under the terms of the 1934 National Firearms Act, any firearm that has both a stock and a barrel shorter than 16 inches in total length must be classed as a “short-barreled rifle,” obligating the owner to federally register it and pay a $200 tax. In the course of his conversations with an FBI informant, Mejia made it clear that he understood the contours of this law — and that he had even followed it before — but that he did not wish to bother doing so with this particular firearm because he was not a “criminal” and did not want to “pay the government two hundred extra dollars just to put pieces of metal together.” For this, he was arrested and charged with a felony.

Charlie noted that there is no doubt about Mejia’s guilt, but there are fair questions to ask about just what kind of threat to the public he could represent:

At the time the FBI’s sting was ordered, Mejia had no criminal record, no documentation of mental illness, and no history of substance abuse. He was prohibited neither from purchasing nor possessing firearms, and he had passed background checks at both the state level (for his concealed-carry permit) and at the federal level (for his suppressors).

By contrast, Hunter Biden self-evidently committed a felony when he filled out the paperwork to purchase a firearm:

POLITICO obtained copies of the Firearms Transaction Record and a receipt for the gun dated Oct. 12, 2018.

Hunter responded “no” to a question on the transaction record that asks, “Are you an unlawful user of, or addicted to, marijuana or any depressant, stimulant, narcotic drug, or any other controlled substance?” Five years earlier, he had been discharged from the Navy Reserve after testing positive for cocaine, and he and family members have spoken about his history of drug use.

Lying on the form is a felony, though prosecutions for it are exceedingly rare.

In April 2021, Hunter Biden promoted his memoir, Beautiful Things, on Colorado’s National Public Radio, and said “I got clean, close to two years ago. . . . I would be, you know, holding a board meeting for the World Food Program and I’d have to excuse myself to go to the bathroom to smoke crack. And it became something that was literally every 15 minutes.” That would mean Biden was still abusing drugs and alcohol when he purchased the firearm.

Nor is it easy to argue that Hunter Biden can be considered a responsible gun owner and no threat to anyone; texts between Hunter and sister-in-law Hallie Biden revealed that she took away his gun and threw it into a trash can because she believed Hunter wasn’t safe with it in his possession. Hallie sent texts stating, “I just want you safe. That was not safe. . . . I’m scared you would use it.” (This is not how a red-flag law is supposed to work.) The saga of Biden’s gun has all kinds of troubling questions, including whether the U.S. Secret Service tried to seize the paperwork regarding his purchase.

Now, CNN reports that nearly four years later, federal prosecutors might finally be getting around to pressing charges:

Discussions recently have centered around possibly bringing charges that could include alleged tax violations and making a false statement in connection with Biden’s purchase of a firearm at a time he would have been prohibited from doing so because of his acknowledged struggles with drug addiction. . . .

The Justice Department investigation initially focused on Hunter Biden’s financial and business activities in foreign countries dating to when Joe Biden was vice president. But investigators have examined a swath of broader conduct, including whether Hunter Biden and associates violated money laundering, campaign finance, tax and foreign lobbying laws, as well as whether Hunter Biden broke federal firearm and other regulations, multiple sources said.

As the investigation has entered its final stages, prosecutors have narrowed their focus to tax and gun-related charges, the people say.

A few days ago, the editors of NR pointed out that, as bad as they are, “Hunter Biden’s taxes are the least important ‘affair’ the Justice Department should be scrutinizing. For that matter, Hunter Biden is the least important person who should be under the microscope. The major question is whether Hunter is a vehicle by which his father, the now-president of the United States, indirectly cashed in on his political influence.” Indeed, there are too many messages on Hunter’s laptop — it is now proven to have been Hunter’s laptop — that suggest Joe Biden was much more clued in to his son’s business dealings than his public statements originally indicated.

Earlier this year, I tried to summarize the sheer breadth and depth of the scandals surrounding Hunter Biden:

It’s not just that the son of a prominent political figure spent years working as a lobbyist and influence-peddler in Washington, while insisting he never influenced his father’s votes or decisions. It’s not just that the son of a prominent political figure has a serious drug problem; that’s a tragedy, and lots of American families can relate to seeing a loved one struggle with the all-consuming demon of addiction. It’s not just that the son of a prominent political figure has had messy relationships, or hooked up with his late brother’s widow. It’s not just that the son of a prominent political figure had a child out of wedlock with a stripper. It’s not just that the son of a prominent political figure is cashing in on his family name, or that he has shady business partners. It’s not just that the son of a prominent political figure was hired do to minimal work on the corporate board of a foreign gas company.

It’s that Hunter Biden is all of that, combined, and then he decides one day he’s going to be an artist, and starts selling his paintings for five-figure sums to buyers who will not be disclosed to the public, in an arrangement that enraged even Walter Shaub, head of the Office of Government Ethics in the Obama administration. “That’s $6.5 million going to the president’s son for being the president’s son, not for being an artist and I just think that’s absolutely appalling,” Shaub said.

These sorts of issues have been around the Biden family for decades. Back in September 2019, I wrote out what was, at the time, the most comprehensive timeline of Hunter Biden’s scandals, ethical breaches, and controversies. And yet Biden, and a largely friendly media, have treated any coverage or scrutiny of Hunter Biden as somehow a social faux pas, like you’re doing something rude or mean by noticing the glaring problems hanging over the younger Biden.

There was one anecdote that seemed to illustrate the core problem around Hunter Biden and his father:

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.

Almost everyone around Hunter Biden could see that he had astonishingly self-destructive judgment and represented a walking, talking ethical breach. And yet, no one could do anything about it, because Joe Biden played the, “How dare you accuse my son!” card at the first sign of trouble. We saw it throughout the 2020 campaign, such as when Savannah Guthrie would ask the most routine and fair questions — “Do you think it was wrong for him to take that position [at Burisma], knowing it was really because that company wanted access to you?” In that interview, Biden snapped back angrily. “Well, that’s not true! You are saying things — you do not know what you are talking about! No one said that! Who said that? Who said that? Who said that?” Somewhere along the line, Joe Biden learned he could avoid hard questions or a difficult conversation by showing flashes of temper, and he’s succeeded far too often with that strategy.

No doubt, Joe Biden loves Hunter Biden, despite his flaws. But the tragic irony is that this 24-7, all-encompassing defense was just about the most destructive thing Joe Biden could have done; Hunter Biden kept slipping deeper and deeper into trouble because his father’s name and influence spared him the worst consequences of his actions with metronomic regularity.

The Department of Justice has kicked the can down the road on Hunter Biden for far too long. It’s time to rip the band-aid off, press charges, and in all likelihood make the first son accept a plea deal.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, there’s a major political risk in the Biden administration’s choice to use the Russian invasion of Ukraine as the universal scapegoat for U.S. economic problems; for the second time in two years, the Biden team learns you can’t just “shut down a virus”; and someone on the White House advance team thought it was a good idea to have President Biden speak in front of what looked like a landfill.

White House

The Bottom Is Falling Out for the Biden Administration

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President Joe Biden attends a news conference at Waldorf Astoria in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 15, 2022. (Evelyn Hockstein/Reuters)

On the menu today: In another sign that the bottom is falling out for the Biden administration, ABC News declares that Biden’s executive orders on climate change will fall short in a news headline . . . before he actually unveils them. Meanwhile, the White House press corps starts asking harder questions about what the president is doing on all those days when he has no events on his public schedule; there’s a curious detail in the biography of one of the contenders to lead the U.K.’s Conservative Party; and this morning brings a vivid lesson in looking up a few facts about a topic before offering a sweeping conclusion about it.

The Biden Administration Withers in the Summer Heat

Last week I wrote, “Democrats are just tired of Joe Biden and of having to explain away his poor performance. . . . Nobody’s willing to cover for this guy anymore; no one is inclined to avert their eyes when Biden or his wife blurts out something tone-deaf now.”

Yesterday, Ed Morrissey noticed that Stephen Colbert and Jimmy Fallon are now making jokes about Biden’s age and unpopularity. (“I hope they have air conditioning over there, because his bones are made of peanut brittle. . . . There is something older than Joe Biden. It’s the universe.”) Biden’s been unpopular since last summer and old for a few decades; but something changed recently, and I think in some Democrats’ minds, the image of Biden fist-bumping a Saudi prince whom he once pledged to turn into a pariah was the straw that broke the camel’s back. (No, that’s not a Saudi Arabia joke.) Biden just looks too hapless, too weak, and too easily pushed around by events for Democrats to feel all that motivated to defend him.

And I think this newfound, long-repressed exasperation with Biden is bursting out from underneath the surface in all kinds of unexpected ways. Here’s the ABC News headline about Biden announcing “executive actions to address climate change”: “Biden to announce executive actions on climate change that still fall short.”

Yikes! Biden hasn’t even announced it yet, and it’s getting slammed as insufficient in a news headline, not an op-ed or column. Of course, the story is framed from the perspective of green activists who want Biden to do more, so this is a criticism from the left, not the right. But fascinatingly, the article, at least as it’s written this morning, doesn’t include any quotes from disappointed climate-change activists. Reporters Ben Gittleson and Morgan Winsor just assert that these are feel-good half-measures:

President Joe Biden is expected to announce on Wednesday a few executive actions to address climate change, with a focus on helping Americans facing extreme heat — but the steps fall far short of the more sweeping measures climate activists are calling for.

In fact, the directives largely appear to provide more funding to or otherwise strengthen existing programs. . . .

The White House said Biden will also announce “additional actions to boost the domestic offshore wind industry.” Further information on those actions was not immediately available, and it was unclear whether they would be new or impactful.

Yesterday brought another example of newfound press skepticism of the usual Biden team spin. Long overseas trips can be exhausting for lots of people, particularly those who are about to turn 80 years old. Biden returned to the White House from his Middle East trip at 1 a.m. Sunday and had nothing on his public schedule Monday or Tuesday.

Yesterday’s White House press conference featured several questions from reporters asking just what Biden had been doing the past two days.

Here’s how White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre handled the question:

So, he’s been in meetings! I was scheduled to meet with him today in the Oval Office, so he’s been meeting with his senior staff. He’s been meeting with staff. I think some of you might have seen him when, when the first lady of Ukraine was meeting with our first lady. I believe you saw him very briefly. So he’s just been very busy dealing with the issues of the American people and meeting with his staff, and senior staff, the last two days.

Biden is scheduled to depart the White House today at 11:45 a.m., and he’s scheduled to give remarks shortly before 3 p.m. in the afternoon. The last public event on his schedule was the GCC + 3 Meeting in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, and a working lunch at the Ritz-Carlton in Jeddah at 8 a.m. Washington time Sunday, 3 p.m. local time in the kingdom.

In light of all this, it is not exactly shocking to hear that the White House is “considering a major overhaul of its press and communications shop in the coming weeks,” as NBC News reports.

But as I noted last month, for all of her flaws, Karine Jean-Pierre isn’t exactly the real problem. If the White House doesn’t want tough questions about the president not doing any public events for three days, then Biden shouldn’t go three days without doing any public events. There is no good answer for Jean-Pierre to give in that circumstance, other than to say, “He’s almost 80, he’s jet-lagged, and he needs to rest up. If there’s something that needs immediate attention, his staff will wake him.”

And if a normal presidential overseas trip exhausts Biden for about 72 hours, then maybe he shouldn’t be president.

The Tory Who Worked on Bush’s Presidential Campaign

I don’t have much of a dog in the fight in the U.K. Conservative Party’s decision of who will follow Boris Johnson. But one of the options, Penny Mordaunt, stands out for a curious detail in her biography.

(Our John O’Sullivan, who follows British politics much closer than I do, writes of Mordaunt, “She has everything going for her, including a military record in the Royal Navy, but one strike against her: At an earlier stage of the gender-ideology debate, she committed herself clearly to the proposition that ‘transwomen are women,’ and that position surfaced like an enemy submarine to threaten her.” Elsewhere, our Andrew Stuttaford is skeptical about her promises to dramatically reduce carbon emissions.)

In some of Mordaunt’s biographical materials, it says, “In 2000 she served as Head of Foreign Press for George W. Bush’s presidential election campaign.”

Except . . . foreign citizens generally can’t work on presidential campaigns. The Federal Election Campaign Act and Federal Election Commission regulations “include a broad prohibition on foreign national activity in connection with elections in the United States”:

Commission regulations prohibit foreign nationals from directing, dictating, controlling, or directly or indirectly participating in the decision-making process of any person (such as a corporation, labor organization, political committee, or political organization) with regard to any election-related activities. Such activities include, the making of contributions, donations, expenditures, or disbursements in connection with any federal or nonfederal elections in the United States, or decisions concerning the administration of any political committee. Foreign nationals are also prohibited from involvement in the management of a political committee, including any separate segregated fund (SSF), nonconnected committee, or the nonfederal accounts of any of these committees.

However, foreign nationals can perform uncompensated work for campaigns:

Generally, an individual (including a foreign national) may volunteer personal services to a federal candidate or federal political committee without making a contribution. The Act provides this volunteer “exemption” as long as the individual performing the service is not compensated by anyone.

Then there’s this brief description of Mordaunt’s work in a Daily Telegraph article from 2001:

[Cherylyn] Harley was flown to London in an exchange of spin doctors that saw Penny Mordaunt, the Tory party’s 28-year-old head of broadcasting, work for the Bush campaign in Washington last year. She will spend a fortnight at Central Office providing briefing for the foreign media and advising officials on how to counter Labour attacks.

So, Mordaunt’s work as “head of foreign press” for the Bush campaign was an unpaid gig, or a gig where the British Conservative Party was paying her salary? And for how long? Was it a similar “fortnight” — two weeks?

Doesn’t this make the description of serving “as head of foreign press for George W. Bush’s presidential election campaign” sound like a bigger deal than it actually was?

ADDENDUM: This morning, our Nate Hochman offered Matt Walsh a useful lesson in Googling a topic before you make sweeping declarations about it.

Elections

Why Democrats Won’t Wake Up

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House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D., Calif.) and Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer (D., N.Y.) at the U.S. Capitol in Washington, D.C., July 28, 2021. (Elizabeth Frantz/Reuters)

On the menu today: The editors of The Economist beg the Democratic Party’s leaders to “wake up” to the fact that they’re about to get demolished in the upcoming midterms. Politico reports that, “The gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania has begun to look more competitive than either party expected.” The Economist blames the loud voices of the hard-left fringe, and warns that Democrats must “moderate, or die.” But this is just about the least likely moment for centrist Democrats to launch a new fight against the Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez types, and Democrats won’t have that fight until a midterm thrashing forces them to — and even then, Democrats may well choose to learn the wrong, but more comforting lessons, from a sweeping defeat.

Democrats Lack a Sense of Urgency

Wake Up, Democrats!” cries the cover of the most recent issue of The Economist.

They won’t, at least not before the midterm elections.

The editors of The Economist, sensing an impending midterm blowout and the ensuing empowerment of a Trump-friendly GOP, beg the Democratic Party’s leaders to distance themselves from their fringe elements:

Fringe and sometimes dotty ideas have crept into Democratic rhetoric, peaking in the feverish summer of 2020 with a movement to “defund the police”, abolish immigration enforcement, shun capitalism, relabel women as birthing people and inject “anti-racism” into the classroom. If the Democrats are defined by their most extreme and least popular ideas, they will be handing a winning agenda of culture-war grievance to an opposition party that has yet to purge itself of the poison that makes Mr Trump unfit for office.

The Democrats have begun to put this right, but they lack urgency. That may be because some of them blame their problems on others — as when the White House points to “Putin’s price hike” or the negativity of Republican politicians and the conservative media. Although there is something to this, the party also needs to ditch cherished myths that empower its idealists.

Hey, I’d love to see an American political culture characterized by sane centrist Democrats arguing with a sane conservative Republican Party, moving the country in a gradual, steady, center-right direction. But that’s not going to happen anytime soon.

First, out of all the possible times for the leaders of the party and its centrist members to embrace a fight with their hard-left grassroots, four months before Election Day is perhaps the worst time. Right now, Democrats desperately need progressives — the Bernie Bros, the Squad fans, and your crazy Aunt Edna with the Ruth Bader Ginsburg prayer candles — to turn out in November; they’re disappointed enough with Joe Biden already. The future of Senators Raphael Warnock of Georgia, Catherine Cortez Masto of Nevada, Maggie Hassan of New Hampshire, and Mark Kelly of Arizona depends upon frustrated and impatient progressives in those states.

Second, rebuking the fringe Left is going to be difficult, and few people embrace difficult change until they hit bottom. Nobody likes admitting that they got something wrong, and nobody in politics wants to admit that their approach didn’t work — until after they’ve paid a high price at the ballot box.

The disappointing results of 2020 were clearly not enough. Shortly after the election, Representative Abigail Spanberger of Virginia seethed about her party’s left wing: “Tuesday was a failure, it was not a success. . . . If we don’t mean defund the police, we shouldn’t say that. . . . And we need to not ever use the word ‘socialist’ or ‘socialism’ ever again. Because while people think it doesn’t matter, it does matter, and we lost good members because of that. If we are classifying Tuesday as a success from a congressional standpoint, we will get f***ing torn apart in 2022.”

Do the Democrats seem more centrist and results-focused now than they did in 2020?

We can debate whether Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Bernie Sanders actually have a lot of influence over what passes in Congress, but they still get covered as if they do. There are still members of Congress who embrace “defund the police”; unsurprisingly, they spend a lot on personal private security. The Biden White House keeps using the term “Latinx.” The assistant secretary of HHS just went on MSNBC to argue that there should be no limits on teenagers’ ability to obtain “gender-affirmation treatment.” And Democrats and their allies continue to attack minority Republican candidates in repugnantly hateful and alienating ways: NBC News reports that, “A Texas blogger paid by Democratic Rep. Vicente Gonzalez’s campaign is attacking Republican opponent Rep. Mayra Flores as ‘Miss Frijoles.’”

Does that seem like a more moderate and sensible centrist path?

After a midterm-election blowout in November, maybe Democratic Party leaders and their centrist will have the stomach to confront their left wing. But the old saying, “Victory has a hundred fathers and defeat is an orphan” is about people’s willingness to take credit or avoid blame, not about who actually is responsible for victory or defeat; Defeat usually has about a hundred fathers, too. Progressives will point the finger at other factions of their party, and just as a broken clock can be right twice a day, they will have a valid point or two.

Progressives will try to blame Joe Biden, and he’ll deserve some of the blame. Biden is old, tired, and likely not up to the job anymore. He tends to wildly overpromise — remember his promise that, if he was elected, his administration could cure cancer? — and dramatically underdeliver. On issue after issue, he denies problems until they’re too glaring to ignore, then offers excuses and whines that everyone is so unfair to him. He’s an absolute deadweight for his party heading into this midterm, and the surviving Democratic officeholders will eagerly blame him after the fact if the expected red tsunami materializes.

(Kevin Williamson thinks progressives are fooling themselves if they think their real problem is Biden, not their agenda, and he’s right. But we’re talking about people who always find new ways to believe that “true socialism has never been tried.”)

Beyond Biden, there’s no denying that today’s Democratic Party has doddering, uninspiring, geriatric leadership. House speaker Nancy Pelosi is 82, Majority Leader Steny Hoyer is 83, and Majority Whip James Clyburn is 81. Senate majority leader Chuck Schumer is the baby of the group at 71; Senate majority whip Dick Durbin is 81. If they were airline pilots, Pelosi, Hoyer, Clyburn, and Durbin would have been forced to retire around the start of George W. Bush’s second term. Democrats have every reason to clean house and start fresh with a new slate of congressional leaders.

But I suspect that if the 2022 midterms are an epic wipeout, many Democrats will choose the most self-serving explanation: They lost because they were “too nice,” or because the electorate couldn’t grasp the nuances of their message. There is always an audience eager for the message that the reason you haven’t achieved what you want in life is because you’re so virtuous and noble, and the reason other people succeed is because they’re unethical.

People, and parties, don’t always learn the right lessons from defeats. Heck, sometimes even after a defeat a party clings — bitterly, Barack Obama might say — to its old bad habits.

In 2016, Gabriel Debenedetti of Politico laid out how the Hillary Clinton campaign “always wanted Trump” as its general-election opponent. “Clinton’s team in Brooklyn was delightedly puzzled by Trump’s shift into the pole position that July. . . . [Campaign manager Robby] Mook took him so seriously that his team’s internal, if informal, guidance was to hold fire on Trump during the primary and resist the urge to distribute any of the opposition research the Democrats were scrambling to amass against him. That hoarding plan remained in place deep into 2016 as some senior aides stayed convinced that a race against Trump would be a dream for Clinton.” When Trump was nominated, the Democratic Party’s top operatives, strategists, and activists boasted, “In the swing states that matter most in the presidential race, Donald Trump doesn’t have a prayer against Hillary Clinton in the general election.”

The 2016 election was about as shocking and painful a defeat for Democrats as any U.S. political party has suffered in the past generation.

You would think that Democrats would have learned from the 2016 results to never assume that someone is unelectable and to never play with fire by boosting a radical fringe candidate in a GOP primary. But that idea assumes that Democrats are capable of learning from their mistakes.

Fast forward to this year, when Pennsylvania Democrats spent time, energy, and resources making sure that Doug Mastriano won the Republican gubernatorial primary. Our Charlie Cooke pointed out that this completely undermines the Democratic argument that Mastriano is a dangerous extremist who will destabilize American democracy:

This being so, I do not want to hear a single thing from the Democratic Party about the “threat” that Doug Mastriano presents to the Commonwealth of Pennsylvania, or to the republic in general. I am, from this moment on, not remotely interested in that case. Why not? Because the Democratic Party clearly doesn’t believe a word of it. When one truly believes that a given candidate is a threat, one doesn’t “send out mailers boosting him,” or spend $840,000 on television advertisements designed to improve his standing.

And now, a few months later . . . surprise! Suddenly Doug Mastriano isn’t as unelectable as Democrats thought he was.

Politico, this morning:

As the political environment has worsened for Democrats across the country, the gubernatorial race in Pennsylvania has begun to look more competitive than either party expected. Polls show Mastriano behind Shapiro by only three to four percentage points, which is within the margin of error. Though many still have doubts about Mastriano’s ability to run a successful campaign, that has made Pennsylvania Republicans more optimistic — and served as a wake-up call for Democrats, particularly in the wake of Roe v. Wade being overturned.

Democrats are attempting the same maneuver in Arizona and Maryland. Because there’s no way a Republican could ever win a gubernatorial election in Arizona or Maryland in a political environment like this, right? Biden’s job approval in Arizona is at 26 percent, and in Maryland it’s at 38 percent.

To sum up, some Democrats are really stupid.

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, the Biden administration is dropping the ball on immigration enforcement again; Beto O’Rourke’s big outburst didn’t have much of an impact on the Texas governor’s race; remembering Biden’s pledge to continue to support the Afghan people; and the Iowa poll points to a Democratic bloodbath in November.

White House

The Wheels Come Off the Presidency

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President Joe Biden and Saudi Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman arrive for a photo during the “GCC+3” (Gulf Cooperation Council) meeting at a hotel in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia, July 16, 2022. (Mandel Ngan/Pool via Reuters)

On the menu today: Even with low expectations ahead of time, President Biden’s visit to Saudi Arabia resulted in a humiliating defeat, leading the president to crankily snap that the news media covering him should “talk about something that matters.” Meanwhile, Jill Biden contends that her husband has been beset by challenges no one saw coming, such as the overturning of Roe v. Wade, mass shootings, and the Russian invasion of Ukraine. The wheels are coming off this presidency. The Resolute desk in the Oval Office appears ill-named during these years.

A President Defeated on Many Fronts

We all knew that President Biden’s trip to Saudi Arabia was going to be, at best, a deeply frustrating and humiliating exercise in kissing the ring — or in Biden’s case, bumping the fist. Biden left Riyadh with no deal on oil production beyond some vague pledges, sending the world’s oil prices rising again. Members of the Washington Post editorial board were always going to hate this trip, but when it was over, their anger over their slain colleague, Jamal Khashoggi, enabled them to declare that the emperor had no clothes, and that Biden had been taken to the cleaners:

For the most part, though, Mr. Biden gave more than he got. He made no wider critique of Saudi Arabia’s repressive policies in public; there were no releases of political prisoners or clemency for other regime opponents — including dual U.S. citizens — who have been denied freedom to travel. Instead, Mr. Biden touted an already existing truce in Yemen and modest steps toward better relations with Israel. He seemed to invite deeper U.S.-Saudi ties by announcing a new project to test U.S. 5G technology in the kingdom.

And when it was all over, MBS had made no public commitment to pump more oil. The Saudis are being counted on to influence an OPEC cartel meeting next month to get a few hundred thousand more barrels onto the market, likely with only modest impact on U.S. gas prices. . . .

This was a low moment for Mr. Biden, and one that he won’t soon live down.

Adding to the humiliation, the Saudis publicly contended that behind closed doors, Biden had not confronted Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman over the murder of Khashoggi. We’ll just have to take Biden’s word that he was an in-your-face tough guy when no one was watching.

Unsurprisingly, Biden was in an irritable mood when he returned to the White House:

Q: Is the Saudi foreign minister lying, President Biden? The Saudi foreign minister says he didn’t hear you accuse the Crown Prince of Khashoggi’s murder. Is he telling the truth?

THE PRESIDENT: No.

Q: Do you regret the fist bump, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: Why don’t you guys talk about something that matters?  I’m happy to answer a question that matters.

Q: Will inflation go down from here, Mr. President?

THE PRESIDENT: I’m hoping. We’ll know in the next few weeks.

While Biden was returning from his overseas trip, First Lady Jill Biden was speaking to Democratic donors, shifting to full excuse-making mode:

“[The President] had so many hopes and plans for things he wanted to do, but every time you turned around, he had to address the problems of the moment,” Biden told a crowd at a private Democratic National Committee fundraiser, according to CNN.

“He’s just had so many things thrown his way,” she said. “Who would have ever thought about what happened [with the Supreme Court overturning] Roe v. Wade? Well, maybe we saw it coming, but still we didn’t believe it. The gun violence in this country is absolutely appalling. We didn’t see the war in Ukraine coming.”

Pause briefly and contemplate what Jill Biden — excuse me, Dr. Jill Biden — contends was unforeseeable:

  • A concerted, longtime effort by conservative legal scholars and Republican lawmakers to overturn Roe v. Wade.
  • A continued pattern of angry, disturbed young men obtaining firearms and committing mass shootings.
  • Vladimir Putin’s aggression in Eastern Europe.

Not only were all of those factors in American or global life foreseeable, all of them were problems that candidate Biden pledged he could resolve.

  • On October 5, 2019, Biden pledged that, “Roe v. Wade is the law of the land, and we must fight any and all attempts to overturn it. As president, I will codify Roe into law and ensure this choice remains between a woman and her doctor.”
  • As a candidate, Biden pledged to enact a national gun-buyback program, an assault-weapons ban, universal background checks, a push for the development of “smart guns,” and red-flag laws. His campaign platform declared that, “It’s within our grasp to end our gun violence epidemic and respect the Second Amendment, which is limited.” Much of that agenda remains unfulfilled.
  • Also in October 2019, Biden pledged, “Putin knows, if I am President of the United States, his days of tyranny and trying to intimidate the United States and those in Eastern Europe are over.”

Jill Biden’s insistence that all of these problems were unforeseeable is reminiscent of Biden’s snapping that he and his team would have had to be “mind-readers” to notice the baby-formula shortage before May, even though the story was on the front page of the Wall Street Journal in January.

You can be a steadfast, right-of-center critic of Joe Biden and simultaneously cringe at the sight of the president of the United States getting sand kicked in his face by a murderous Saudi prince, and the president’s wife insisting that long-simmering national and international problems sprung up out of nowhere. It’s embarrassing for us as Americans to watch our president going hat in hand to a regime he previously pledged to make a “pariah,” see him give MBS a giant geopolitical public-relations win in exchange for vague promises, and then watch the Saudis call our president a liar after the visit ends. We’re not respected. No one fears crossing Joe Biden. It’s a dangerous world, and a lot of other countries think that we’re led by a geriatric pushover.

The Resolute desk appears ill-named during these years.

Besides the problems of the president’s age and longstanding flaws, the solutions to most of these problems don’t align well with the progressive agenda.

If you want gas prices to come down and to be less dependent upon Saudi goodwill, you need to increase supply through more domestic production and domestic refinery capacity. Someday, electric vehicles will reduce the demand for refined gasoline, but electric vehicles are just four percent of new cars sold in the U.S. right now. Biden loves to talk about infrastructure projects, but he rarely mentions that in the construction sector, 98 percent of all energy use comes from diesel. America can’t have the things Biden wants without cheap, or at least reasonably priced, diesel and unleaded gasoline. Everything else is just pushing a rope.

With nearly 400 million guns in Americans’ hands, it will rarely be difficult for disturbed, angry young men to obtain a firearm; stopping the bloody trend requires effective mental-health treatment for all those disturbed, angry young men. (It would also help if parents could be clear-eyed about their sons’ glaringly obvious mental-health problems and not sponsor their sons’ applications for gun-owner licenses, as in the case of the Highland Park shooter.) Red-flag laws can help, but as my friend Cam observes, in almost all cases, there’s no follow-up mental-health assessment or treatment after the seizure of the firearms. The state removes the firearms from the person who may have intent to harm themselves or others, and then wipes its hands and concludes its work is done. But the suicidal or murderous intent is still there, unaddressed and untreated.

If you want to beat Vladimir Putin, arms transfers to Ukraine help, but they’re unlikely to be enough by themselves, particularly when it’s clear that Russia wants to use energy exports as leverage against our NATO allies in Europe. As our Andrew Stuttaford warns, “If the war in Ukraine is still dragging on into the winter months — as seems reasonably likely — it would make sense for Putin to use a brutal energy squeeze to spur the EU to force Ukraine to cut some grubby deal with Moscow.”

To avoid that, the U.S. (and Canada) would have to move to replace Russia’s role as energy supplier of Europe. That would require exporting more natural gas and fossil fuels, which would antagonize Biden’s environmentalist allies.

Over in the magazine, Dan McLaughlin has an excellent piece about how the seemingly quiet mid-Obama years, and the 2012 presidential election in particular, represented a turning point in our political life. You should read the whole thing, but one of the key points is that, “In short, where prior campaigns won the center, Obama appeared to move the center in his direction by using superior base turnout as a substitute for swing voters. Before 2012, this was the progressive dream; after 2012, it became Democratic dogma.”

A lot of campaigns since then have concluded that, “We may be losing those mushy independents and milquetoast center voters, but we’ll make up for it by driving up turnout in our base.” Right now, the Democrats think they can mitigate the expected Republican wave in the midterms by pleasing their progressive base as much as possible: relentless messaging on abortion, gun control, the January 6 committee’s findings, perhaps forgiving large portions of student-loan debt, and likely a futile push for some version of Build Back Better.

Biden is trying to run the Obama playbook in dramatically different circumstances. It’s not likely to work.

The thing is, those allegedly mushy independents and milquetoast center voters usually have some common sense, and they know what they want: They want the government to just do its job and make life manageable. That means getting inflation under control, particularly gas prices and food prices. They’d like to see their 401(k) and retirement savings growing instead of shrinking. They want to see more cops on the streets and less crime, a secure border, and good public schools that prepare their kids for college and the working world.

Oh, and as of this writing, President Biden has no public events on his schedule.

ADDENDA: In case you missed it Friday, China is going through some unexpectedly intense turbulence. Wouldn’t you love to be a fly on Xi Jinping’s wall these days?

I had a terrific weekend visiting Assateague and Chincoteague . . . but has anyone else noticed that somewhere along the line, Old Bay Seasoning achieved the kind of merchandising and brand identity we associate with Star Wars and professional sports teams?

U.S.

The Secret Service Has Some Explaining to Do

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A member of the Secret Service guards a gate near the Eisenhower Executive Office Building in Washington, D.C., January 15, 2021. (Jim Urquhart/Reuters)

On the menu today: The Department of Homeland Security’s Office of Inspector General accuses the U.S. Secret Service of erasing text messages from January 5 and January 6, 2021 — after the inspector general requested those records. The Secret Service counters that the messages were deleted as part of a routine, long-planned changeover to a new phone system. Someone’s not telling the truth — and it appears to be another example of the increasingly pervasive, corrosive trend of people prioritizing their personal, short-term desires and needs over the duties of the institutions they supposedly serve.

The People Who Run Our Institutions Should Actually Care about Those Institutions

Back when the draft of Justice Samuel Alito’s Dobbs opinion, overturning Roe v. Wade, leaked, I wrote, “Do you know why the Supreme Court had so few leaks, decade after decade? Because the people who worked there have understood that they had a duty to something more important than their own sense of satisfaction.”

(Still no luck finding the leaker, two and a half months later, huh? As I wrote last month, “the longer the investigation goes on without any conclusion, the more people will suspect that identifying the leaker would compound the damage already done to the Court’s reputation.”)

Another Washington institution that once enjoyed near-universal public respect — in the Court’s case, an almost awe-inspiring mystique around its sterling professionalism — is suffering another scandal after an embarrassing cavalcade of them in recent years. And this one might be even worse than a group of macho men with tough jobs drinking too much or sleeping with prostitutes in Colombia. This one suggests that when push comes to shove, high-ranking officials in a law-enforcement agency will break the law to protect their reputations:

The Secret Service erased text messages from January 5 and January 6, 2021, according to a letter given to the January 6 committee and reviewed by The Intercept. The letter was originally sent by the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General to the House and Senate homeland security committees. Though the Secret Service maintains that the text messages were lost as a result of a “device-replacement program,” the letter says the erasure took place shortly after oversight officials requested the agency’s electronic communications. . . .

The Office of Inspector General letter suggests key evidence in the form of the Secret Service’s electronic communications may never see the light of day. The Department of Homeland Security — the Secret Service’s parent agency — is subject to oversight from the DHS Office of Inspector General, which had requested records of electronic communications from the Secret Service between January 5 and January 6, 2021, before being informed that they had been erased. It is unclear from the letter whether all of the messages were deleted or just some. Department officials have also pushed back on the oversight office’s records request by arguing that the records must first undergo review by DHS attorneys, which has delayed the process and left unclear if the Secret Service records would ever be produced, according to the letter.

For what it is worth, Anthony Guglielmi, chief of communications for the U.S. Secret Service, insists this is no scandal, just a case of really unfortunate coincidental timing:

The insinuation that the Secret Service maliciously deleted text messages following a request is false. In fact, the Secret Service has been fully cooperating with the Department of Homeland Security Office of Inspector General (DHS OIG) in every respect — whether it be interviews, documents, emails, or texts. 

First, in January 2021, before any inspection was opened by OIG on this subject, the Secret Service began to reset its mobile phones to factory settings as part of a pre-planned, three-month system migration. In that process, data resident on some phones was lost. 

DHS OIG requested electronic communications for the first time on Feb. 26, 2021, after the migration was well under way. The Secret Service notified DHS OIG of the loss of certain phones’ data, but confirmed to OIG that none of the texts it was seeking had been lost in the migration.   

Second, DHS OIG’s allegation regarding DHS’s cooperation with its investigation is neither correct nor new. To the contrary, DHS OIG has previously alleged that its employees were not granted appropriate and timely access to materials due to attorney review. DHS has repeatedly and publicly debunked this allegation, including in response to OIG’s last two semi-annual reports to Congress. It is unclear why OIG is raising this issue again.

It is difficult to believe that no one in the U.S. Secret Service could foresee any need to preserve records surrounding January 6. If the Secret Service had deleted messages from a day when nothing particularly unusual or remarkable happened, it would be easier to accept the explanation that this was a routine update of communications equipment. But the whole country watched the events of January 6, and President Trump had a central role in those events.

If the person who made this decision did so as part of a cover-up of something embarrassing or criminal — Trump’s actions, the Secret Service’s actions or comments — it’s yet another example of the sort of short-term thinking that’s triumphing in Washington. Yes, whatever was in those particular messages will not come to light. But the reputation of the Secret Service suffers even more.

Yuval Levin is arguably the public intellectual who most clearly and succinctly diagnosed one of the paramount maladies of our era: the sense that the people responsible for running large institutions that are supposed to serve the public can no longer distinguish between their personal interests and the institution’s mission. Back in early 2020, speaking to NPR, he laid out what makes an institution a reassuring presence in our lives:

We trust an institution when we think that it forms the people within it to be trustworthy — so that not only does it perform an important social function, educating children or making laws or any of the many, many goods and services that institutions provide for us, but it also at the same time provides an ethic that shapes the people within it to perform that service in a reliable, responsible way.

The justices of the U.S. Supreme Court and all the Court’s employees are supposed to be dedicated to the Court’s mission and constitutionally mandated duties of judicial review of U.S. and state laws. They can have strong disagreements about how best to perform those duties and about what the Constitution actually requires. But if you work at the Supreme Court, you’re not supposed to leak drafts and deliberations to launch a public-pressure campaign against the justices. That’s putting what you want ahead of the institution’s mission.

The members of the U.S. Secret Service and all its employees are supposed to be dedicated to the service’s mission of protecting the president and other officials from harm and enforcing U.S. laws. Occasionally, those two missions may appear to be in conflict. Back in 1998, the Supreme Court ruled that U.S. Secret Service employees could be compelled to testify to a grand jury investigating the president they were protecting. Loyalty to the president could not outweigh loyalty to the law; they are not an American Praetorian Guard, loyal to the whims of the man in the Oval Office above all else.

Deleting phone records — allegedly shortly after oversight officials requested them — is putting someone’s personal interest ahead of compliance with the law.

Levin also said this in that 2020 interview:

We have to be able to say people with power have certain obligations — and not just as outsiders watching people in power. All of us have some roles to play within some institutions, even if that’s our family or community or workplace, let alone national institutions and politics and the economy. We each have to say, given my role here, what’s my responsibility? I would bet you that the people who most drive you crazy in American life are people who are failing to ask that question when they obviously should. . . .

As a parent, as a neighbor, as a member of the PTA, as a member of Congress, as a CEO, what should I do in this situation? Not just what do I want, not just what would look good, but given my role here, what should I do? It is a question you ask when you take the institutions that you’re part of seriously.

Earlier this month, Gallup found that “Americans are less confident in major U.S. institutions than they were a year ago, with significant declines for 11 of the 16 institutions tested and no improvements for any.” The two of those eleven institutions that saw the biggest declines in public confidence were the Supreme Court and the presidency. Americans had the most confidence in small businesses and the military. Just 14 percent of respondents said they had confidence in the criminal-justice system, just 11 percent in television news, and just 7 percent in Congress.

Sometimes large institutions spring up and grow to massive influence rapidly; tech companies like Amazon, Google, and Facebook come to mind. But by and large, the institutions that impact our daily lives predate our birth: Our churches and faith communities; the federal, state, and local governments; news organizations; banks; police forces; the health-care system overall, if not particular doctors. We didn’t create these institutions; we inherited them. We’re not their owners, we’re their stewards. Someday we’ll retire and then be gone, and we’ll be handing the reins to our literal or metaphorical children. Responsible people want to pass along an institution that is stronger and in better shape than when their older mentors handed them the reins.

Then again, maybe some people are comfortable letting an institution deteriorate on their watch.

ADDENDUM: I’m not saying that the latest musings on when Donald Trump will announce his 2024 bid or the latest efforts by congressional Democrats to persuade Joe Manchin on Build Back Better legislation aren’t newsworthy. But it does feel like those news stories are just another round of speculation in circular dances that have been going on all year.

By contrast, in a Corner post about the economy yesterday, I rattled off a couple of news items that I’d argue are underreported and more consequential:

  • The Atlanta Fed’s projection for GDP growth in the most recently completed quarter is negative 1.2 percent— which would make two consecutive quarters of negative GDP growth, the traditional definition of a recession.

Ever feel like some days, the selection of top headlines is designed to not tell you what’s going on?

Health Care

Hey, Remember Covid-19?

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People wait to take coronavirus disease tests at a pop-up testing site in New York, July 11, 2022. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

On the menu today: It’s been a long time since this newsletter focused on the Covid-19 pandemic, but the story of the pandemic isn’t quite over yet. Cases are rising significantly from the numbers last spring, and while the average daily death rate thankfully hasn’t risen at the same rate, it’s higher than the relative quiet about the issue would suggest. You can still find some fearmongering coverage that treats the BA.5 variant as menacing, even though it isn’t more virulent than previous strains. Also, it turns out Americans aren’t all that eager to vaccinate their kids. And new variant-focused vaccines are likely to come by fall . . . but will those new variants still be our primary problem in a few months?

Where Are We Now with the Virus?

Yesterday the U.S. reported 190,000 new cases of Covid-19 — about as many as on December 21, 2021, when the Omicron wave was picking up steam. For the overwhelming majority of the newly infected, this bout with Covid will come and go like a summer cold — an annoyance, but far from a life-threatening health crisis. But our current daily average of deaths is probably a bit higher than you expected, at 430 per day.

Covid-19 is still killing people: More of them are unvaccinated than vaccinated, but there are some vaccinated and boosted in the Covid-19 deaths. Those over 65 and unvaccinated are the most at risk, followed by those over 65 and vaccinated but not boosted (at much lower risk), and the senior citizens at least risk are those who are vaccinated and boosted.

At this moment, few Americans seem all that worried about Covid-19, and the media that rarely missed an opportunity to offer dire predictions about the virus are now largely quiet on this issue, compared with their coverage of current national arguments about abortion, gun control, the January 6 Committee, inflation, and so on.

But you can still find fearmongering if you look for it, as in CNN’s recent headline warning “The ‘worst variant’ is here,” which spurred Nate Silver to fume that the headline is “badly misleading.”

The variant CNN is referring to is BA.5, which represented 65 percent of the cases in the U.S. from July 3 through July 9. It is rapidly displacing the variant BA.2.12.1.

(You may recall a lot of concern last summer about variants being referred to by their country of origin, which was allegedly going to lead to xenophobia. This prompted a much-hyped shift to Greek letters, which made it sound like we’re being attacked by a bunch of fraternities and sororities. Now the world’s medical community wants the public to know the differences among Omicron sub-variants BA.5, BA.4, BA.2, and BA.2.12.1, which makes it sound like we’re being attacked by the Dewey decimal system.)

That CNN article states that “some experts think there could be as many as 1 million new infections every day in the broader US population — 10 times higher than the official count.”

This would mean that every day, roughly 900,000 Americans catch the BA.5 variant and either don’t notice it or shrug it off as a routine summer cold. If lots of people catch BA.5 and they don’t feel sufficiently sick to go to the doctor, that’s good news, not bad news. If people catch BA.5 and they don’t go to the hospital, that’s a win for us. And if people catch BA.5 and they don’t die, that’s the most important win!

Another key point is that apparently it is easier to get reinfected with BA.5 if you have had Covid-19 before:

A recent ABC News analysis of state data found that, as of June 8, there have been more than 1.6 million reinfections across 24 states, but experts say the number is likely much higher.

“These are not the real numbers because many people are not reporting cases,” Dr. Ali Mokdad, an epidemiologist with the University of Washington’s Institute for Health Metrics and Evaluation in Seattle, told ABC News.

Remember how many times in 2021 you heard that the reason that the pandemic hadn’t ended was because of the unvaccinated? Remember how many times you heard the phrase “this is a pandemic of the unvaccinated”? As many Americans learned over the course of 2021 and into the Omicron wave, vaccinated and boosted people can get infected too, and with 260 million vaccinated Americans, there’s a good chance that some vaccinated people spread the virus to others.

Vaccination is not a magic wand that dispels the virus; its value is in mitigating the effects of infection. And the vaccine’s effects don’t last forever — or, more specifically, your body gradually gets less effective at fighting off the particular pathogen, while the Covid-19 virus is gradually mutating into new and less familiar forms.

Because BA.5 is sufficiently different from previous forms of Covid-19, there’s a higher chance you’ll get reinfected. It’s fair for the young and healthy to wonder if getting a fourth shot right now is worth it; those boosters are training your body to fight off the earlier version of the virus. (The CDC currently recommends Americans age 50 and older get their fourth shot if they haven’t gotten one yet.) The U.S. Food and Drug Administration is urging vaccine makers to reformulate their Covid-19 shots to target the BA.4 and BA.5 Omicron subvariants, with the expectation that this fall and winter will bring a new booster campaign. It’s also fair to ask whether by fall and winter the most common version of Covid-19 floating around will be yet another sufficiently distinct variant.

But amid all this concern, the sentence in that CNN News report linked above that deserves to be in big, bold letters is this one: “The variant does not appear to lead to more severe illness.” BA.5 is different enough that your body won’t know how to fight off the infection quickly, but thankfully, it’s not more virulent, more powerful, or more deadly than previous variants. That’s going to make BA.5 frustrating, but we’re not back to March 2020 again.

There is something a little odd about how the pandemic was the overwhelming, all-encompassing, dominant factor in American life for nearly two years, and now it’s a nonfactor unless you or someone you know is currently infected. (The “health emergency” on the White House’s mind these days is access to abortion.) From the media coverage of vaccines for young children, you would have thought the U.S. had massive nationwide demand, frustrated by the slow-moving FDA approval process. But Americans are not rushing out to vaccinate their children:

Since they became eligible last fall, 36.6 percent of 5- to 11-year-olds have received one Covid-19 shot and only 30 percent are fully vaccinated, compared to 69 percent of adults aged 18 to 49. Public health experts and doctors attribute the slow uptake in part to the fact that many parents don’t believe that the vaccine is necessary, effective, or that its benefits outweigh any risks. . . .

So far, about 2,671,800 children under 5 — of the nearly 19 million newly eligible — have received at least one dose of the vaccine since the FDA gave emergency authorization to the two manufacturers’ drugs on June 18, according to the CDC.

The Omicron wave of the Covid-19 pandemic peaked around January 13 of this year, when more than 869,000 new cases were reported. The wave featured a steep incline and a steep decline; by late March, America was averaging fewer than 30,000 new cases per day.

And for many Americans, the pandemic ended around then. By that point, more than 80 million Americans had reported cases, and likely millions more tested positive at home and never reported their cases to health authorities. The mask mandates ended in every state, and eventually at airports and other public places. Public schools reopened, and now even the teachers’ unions want to pretend they led the charge to reopen schools instead of dragging their feet, every step of the way. Americans went back into movie theaters, basketball arenas, and convention halls.

And yet, those old disputes about the rules still crop up in unexpected places:

[Royals infielder Whit] Merrifield is one of 10 [Kansas City] Royals players who won’t make the trip with the team to Toronto to play July 14–17, leaving the club with a depleted roster before Kansas City heads into the All-Star break. Players have known since the collective bargaining agreement that was signed in March and the release of the season’s schedule that if they did not receive the COVID-19 vaccine, they could not play in Toronto.

Over in China, Shanghai is largely reopened, but locals fear another lockdown is coming, as other cities are instituting partial lockdowns.

The ordeal of the pandemic inflicted serious wounds on the country — not just the more than a million Americans dead and far-reaching economic devastation, but the further tearing of our already-fraying national social fabric. A lot of public-health experts proved themselves insanely risk-averse, content to keep Americans locked up in their homes for months; a lot of elected officials made clear they felt no need to live by their own decrees; plenty of governors and local school officials shrugged off the infliction of near-catastrophic learning loss and psychologically harmful social isolation on kids; and plenty of busybodies relished appointing themselves the mask and social-distancing police in public spaces. To adapt a phrase from Tom Wolfe, we just lived through the Bonfire of the Credibilities — and we’re still navigating how to live with the significantly less deadly, but still persistent, problem of the virus.

I’m Feeling Nostalgic about the Early Seasons of That Nostalgic Show

Because we all need something a little lighter, yesterday I laid out my assessment of the recent fourth season of Stranger Things (note: spoilers at that link). Credit the Duffer brothers and their creative team for being willing to experiment with a popular show: making much longer episodes, darkening the tone and stepping into indisputable horror-movie territory, leaving the main setting of Hawkins for long stretches, and willing to put characters like Max, Eleven, Lucas, and Steve into new emotional territory. The characters remain as likeable, relatable, and fun to watch as ever. But not everything worked, and what was once this charming, ’80s-nostaglia-filled, suspenseful story of a seemingly ordinary small town with a scary monster lurking offscreen now increasingly resembles one of those overstuffed, explosion-filled summer blockbusters at the multiplex. Bigger isn’t always better, but that ominous closing scene suggests the fifth and final season will be the biggest yet.

ADDENDUM: FINAL CALL for National Review Institute’s Burke to Buckley Fellowship Program, this year in Chicago and Dallas. Applications for the program, designed for mid-career professionals, close on Friday, July 15. Over eight weeks you will enjoy dinner with friends and discussions on the foundations of conservative thought. Register today: https://nrinstitute.org/programs/burke

Economy & Business

Inflation Is the Five-Alarm Fire Burning Down the American Economy

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A person shops in a supermarket in New York, N.Y., U.S., June 10, 2022. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

On the menu today: We expected another month of abysmal inflation numbers, but this morning’s figures are even worse than the consensus projections: an astonishing 9.1 percent. Our national problems are exacerbated by our president who can’t admit when things are going wrong. Even as he approaches 80 and works in the Oval Office, Joe Biden exhibits signs of being deeply insecure.

Inflation Just Got Worse

Yesterday, I warned people to brace for another month of bad inflation numbers. This morning, the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics released the new inflation numbers for the month of June, and somehow, they’re even worse than the grim forecast:

Shoppers paid sharply higher prices for a variety of goods in June as inflation kept its hold on a slowing U.S. economy, the Bureau of Labor Statistics reported Wednesday.

The consumer price index, a broad measure of everyday goods and services, soared 9.1% from a year ago, above the 8.8% Dow Jones estimate. That marked another month of the fastest pace for inflation going back to December 1981.

Here are the U.S. inflation numbers, by month, since October: 6.2 percent, 6.8 percent, 7 percent, 7.4 percent, 7.8 percent, 8.5 percent, 8.2 percent, 8.6 percent, and now 9.1 percent.

That’s an absolutely brutal stretch, and the American people would be infuriated by it under any circumstances. But I suspect there’s particular anger among anyone who remembers Biden’s declaring about a year ago, “Our experts believe and the data shows that most of the price increases we’ve seen are — were expected and expected to be temporary. . . . There’s nobody suggesting there’s unchecked inflation on the way — no serious economist.”

Back in December, Biden said he thought inflation had peaked.

This should end the silly talk that the upcoming midterm elections will revolve around abortion, gun control, or the January 6 committee’s findings. Runaway inflation is the five-alarm fire that is burning down the American economy. The Biden administration keeps telling Americans that things are about to get better — that skyrocketing prices for gasoline, food, and just about everything they buy will start to ease. And month after month, Americans keep waiting.

Don’t forget, there is a good chance that, on the morning of July 29, the headline will be, “U.S. Now in Recession.”

Our Insecure President

One of the many problems of the Biden administration — and in fact one of its most severe, self-inflicted wounds — is the president’s reflexive defensiveness and denial when presented with bad news, new challenges, or evidence of failure.

Biden couldn’t just accept that some citizens of Central American countries interpreted his campaign rhetoric as an invitation to immigrate. He insisted that the surge in illegal immigrants at the border was just part of a routine seasonal pattern: “It happens every single, solitary year: There is a significant increase in the number of people coming to the border in the winter months of January, February, March. That happens every year.”

Except it wasn’t, and that surge of migrants is still ongoing. And quite a few of them are being kept here in the U.S. instead of deported. Jeffrey Anderson, writing in City Journal earlier this week, noted that:

DHS statistics show that from Biden’s Inauguration Day through May 2022 — just 16 months and change — about 1.05 million migrants were apprehended on the southwestern border and then released into the U.S. That’s more than were apprehended on that border and released into the U.S. during the four years from Fiscal Year 2017 through Fiscal Year 2020. Under Biden, authorities have detained and released into the U.S. about 2,200 migrants a day on average — four times as many as the approximately 550 per day apprehended and released during the eight fiscal years preceding Biden. And these tallies don’t include unaccompanied minors, let alone the unknown sums of people who have evaded capture.

If all 1.05 million of those migrants had settled in one place, forming a wholly new city in the process, that new settlement would now be the tenth-largest city in the U.S. Forty-four of the 50 states don’t have a single city that large.

As mentioned on The Editors yesterday, it’s not just that Joe Biden stands by his indisputably troubled and scandal-ridden son, Hunter. It’s that he insists that Hunter is “the smartest man I know” and that he’s confident Hunter has done nothing wrong.

Touting the capabilities of the Afghan army, dismissing reports of the Taliban’s strength, insisting Iran can be a reasonable negotiating partner . . . Biden keeps assuring us that everything will turn out fine. When things don’t turn out fine and disaster ensues, Biden insists he would have had to have been “a mind reader” to see the problem coming.

Joe Biden has been around American politics for a long, long time, and even the portraits that are relatively flattering, such as Richard Ben Cramer’s What It Takes, portray Biden as having deep-rooted insecurity, a constant need to prove how smart he is, and a prickly defensiveness at even the fairest criticism. Biden has a hard time changing course because that means admitting that his first decision was wrong.

Back in 1987, when taking questions at a campaign event in New Hampshire, Biden unleashed what the Washington Post called “his worst moment,” and it is rather spectacular for its raw portrait of a man bristling at the slightest possibility of criticism, and consumed with the fear that other people don’t think of him as smart:

“I think I have a much higher IQ than you, I suspect. I went to law school on a full academic scholarship — the only one in my class to have full academic scholarship. The first year in law school, I decided I didn’t want to be in law school and ended up in the bottom two-thirds of my class. And then decided I wanted to stay and went back to law school and, in fact, ended up in the top half of my class. I won the international moot court competition. I was the outstanding student in the political science department at the end of my year. I graduated with three degrees from undergraduate school and 165 credits; you only needed 123 credits. I would be delighted to sit down and compare my IQ to yours, Frank.”

Some may hear echoes of Fredo’s outburst from Godfather II — “I’m smart, and I want respect!”

It will probably not shock you to learn that Biden wildly exaggerated his credentials, as the Post noted:

  • Biden did not go to Syracuse Law School on a “full academic scholarship.” It was a half scholarship based on financial need.
  • He didn’t finish in the “top half” of his class. He was 76th out of 85.
  • He did not win the award given to the outstanding political-science student at his undergraduate college, the University of Delaware.
  • He didn’t graduate from Delaware with “three degrees,” but with a single B.A. in political science and history.

Three decades later, again as a presidential candidate in New Hampshire, Biden had another weirdly hostile, defensive exchange with a voter. The woman asked Biden why his supporters should trust that he could turn his campaign around after a fourth-place finish in the Iowa caucuses. Biden asked her if she’s ever been to a caucus before; when she said yes, Biden snapped, “No, you haven’t. You’re a lying dog-faced pony soldier.”

In Biden’s mind, the problem couldn’t possibly be that he had turned in a disappointing performance in Iowa; it had to be that the young woman just didn’t understand the caucus system. When she surprised him and said she had been to a caucus before, Biden’s mind rejected the possibility. (It is rather ironic that the allegedly feminism-friendly Democratic Party ended up nominating the Lord of the Mansplainers.)

ADDENDUM: Leave it to Kevin Williamson to have the sharpest assessment of Jill Biden’s taco comments:

We don’t need a “first lady.” I don’t know if IBM CEO Arvind Krishna is married, but I guarantee you that if he is, nobody calls his wife the “first lady” of IBM. Karen S. Lynch’s husband isn’t the “first gentleman” of CVS Health. Surely the government of the United States of America can manage to be at least as republican in its manners as the Fortune 500. Patty Smyth is the woman who sang “Goodbye to You,” not some special weird minor figure ceremonial in the tennis world because of her marriage to that lunatic John McEnroe. Dr. Jill Biden is a lightly accomplished, half-educated Ed.D-holding numbskull who sees the locals in San Antonio and thinks: “Tacos. What these people remind me of is tacos.”

Nobody would care if she weren’t married to the president. Nobody should care, even though she is.

Politics & Policy

Jill Biden’s Hard Lesson about the New Reality

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First lady Jill Biden speaks next to President Joe Biden during an Independence Day celebration on the South Lawn of the White House in Washington, D.C., July 4, 2022. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

On the menu today: The news isn’t really that Jill Biden made a series of cringe-inducing comparisons about America’s Latino communities in her speech, the news is that groups such as the National Association of Hispanic Journalists concluded they couldn’t just avert their eyes and give her a pass this time.

Before We Get Started, One Request . . .

Yes, this is another request for donations and subscriptions, and no, you cannot just skip over it.

When you have a moment, go over and check out NR’s masthead. Go all the way down, and take a moment to count how many people are involved in the creation of the magazine and website you read.

It’s not just the writers you read that first come to mind. There is a small gang of editors you don’t see, saving me from my own typographical errors and linguistic train-wrecks of grammar. There are all the content managers who make sure that the articles have illustrations and appropriate, eye-catching headlines; that the web articles are optimized for search engines; and all kinds of other details. They make sure that the Morning Jolt and The Tuesday and all of our other newsletters reach your inbox. When you ask me why your Morning Jolt hasn’t arrived, and I stare back with the expression of a hamster who has been asked to solve a quadratic equation, I forward your inquiry to these people, because they’ll know how to solve the problem.

Just producing the print magazine is an enormous undertaking. It needs an eye-catching cover and interior art and headlines, and each page needs to be laid out precisely, with each article trimmed to fit the space allotted, without losing any key detail or point. The same needs to be done for The Week section, shorter articles near the front; lengthy, deep features in the middle; arts and letters in the back; and columns such as James Lileks’s “Athwart,” Rob Long’s “The Long View,” Richard Brookhiser’s “Country Life”/”City Desk,” and Heather Wilhelm’s and other writers’ “Happy Warrior.”

On any given weekday at NR, there are 45 to 60 new items posted to the website — new articles that go up around 6:30 a.m., Corner posts that go up throughout the day, the Morning Jolt newsletter, and articles that are written in response to the day’s events, posted as soon as they’re edited.

Some days, the Corner seems to have something new every time you click “refresh.” On Monday, July 11, the Corner featured 21 posts published between 6:30 a.m. and 7:02 p.m. The Corner only gets quiet from the late evening to the predawn hours.

And when there’s some late-night event, such as big primary results or a major debate, the updates will go on late into the night.

Then there are the podcasts, and the news desk with the excellent reporting of Brittany Bernstein, Caroline Downey, and Diana Glebova. And then there’s Capital Matters, which is a sub-site of NRO that is almost a publication unto itself.

And on any given day, you’ll find several submitted op-eds and freelance pieces, all sorted through and selected by Jack Butler. All those contributors have to get paid, too, and trust me, they’re not overpaid.

All of that takes money. We’re hoping to raise $100,000 this month. One way you can support us is by subscribing; another is by donating. As Bartles and Jaymes used to say, “Thank you for your support.”

Jill Biden’s Tone-Deaf Speech

Let’s begin with an assessment that I suspect many readers will find too generous: First Lady Jill Biden has no discernible animosity, ill will, or hatred toward Latinos.

What Jill Biden does have is a certain tone-deafness and presumptuousness toward them — and likely toward lots of other people — along with far too much confidence that every word that drips from her lips is a gift on par with manna from heaven. This is a trait she shares with her husband.

Jill Biden’s prepared remarks at the 2022 UnidosUS Annual Conference in San Antonio on Monday included this paragraph: “Raul [Yzaguirre] helped build this organization with the understanding that the diversity of this community — as distinct as the bodegas of the Bronx, as beautiful as the blossoms of Miami, and as unique as the breakfast tacos here in San Antonio — is your strength.”

Except she pronounced “bodegas” as “bogodas.” Bodegas, blossoms, and breakfast tacos are all rather clichéd examples of American Latino culture; I suppose we should be thankful she didn’t add, “and as fast as Speedy Gonzalez.” Beyond that, the metaphor doesn’t really work; go order two of the same kind of breakfast tacos from the same restaurant and see how unique they are. If she had declared, “The Scandinavian-Americans of Minnesota are as unique as pancakes,” everyone would have instantly seen the problem with the comparison. It would have been bad enough if she said it off the cuff, but this was part of Biden’s prepared remarks, meaning it had been written, and approved, by an allegedly professional speechwriter.

The National Association of Hispanic Journalists couldn’t hold their tongue at the cringe-inducing comparison. “NAHJ encourages [the First Lady] and her communications team to take time to better understand the complexities of our people and communities. We are not tacos. Our heritage as Latinos is shaped by various diasporas, cultures and food traditions. Do not reduce us to stereotypes.”

Republicans are starting to win larger and larger shares of Latino voters, and Democrats are in a well-justified panic about the upcoming midterm elections. Joe Biden’s job-approval rating with everyone is abysmal, but in yesterday’s New York Times/Siena poll, just 12 percent of self-identified Latino voters said they “strongly approved” of the job Biden was doing. No doubt the subtext of the First Lady’s appearance yesterday was to remind Latinos why they’re supposed to prefer Democratic candidates.

Elected Democrats, or Democratic proxies such as Jill Biden, usually get a lot of slack when it comes to cringe-inducing statements about race. Jill’s husband may well be the most notorious example: “You cannot go to a 7-Eleven or a Dunkin’ Donuts unless you have a slight Indian accent. I’m not joking”; “[Obama is the] first mainstream African American who is articulate and bright and clean and a nice-looking guy”; “gonna put y’all back in chains; “these Shylocks”; “Poor kids are just as bright and just as talented as white kids”; “Unlike the African-American community with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community”; “Are you a junkie?” and so on.

Elderly white Democrats walk around believing that everyone recognizes them as one of the good guys, one of the enlightened ones, and thus they’re entitled to speak more bluntly and directly about race than the typical white person. They can’t be racist, insensitive, or abrasive; check their voter registration!

If you have a problem figuring out whether you’re for me or Trump, then you ain’t black,” Biden infamously told radio DJ Charlamagne tha God on The Breakfast Club in May 2020.

Biden, the six-term senator and two-term vice president who was born in 1942, felt comfortable asserting that someone else isn’t authentically black based upon their voting record. The term “white privilege” gets thrown around a lot, but it’s hard to imagine a more glaring example of an entitled viewpoint that dictating to other minority groups what makes them genuine members of their racial group or culture — whether that measuring stick is voting for Biden or using the term “LatinX.” Who the hell is Joe Biden to run around proclaiming what makes someone black?

There was a time, not that long ago, when the National Association of Hispanic Journalists would have chalked up Jill Biden’s ill-considered comments as the harmless verbal flourish of a 71-year-old woman who grew up in the ’50s and ’60s in white neighborhoods in New Jersey and Pennsylvania. The group would have averted its eyes and not issued a statement; no need to build up friction with someone who, on paper, is an ally.

Clearly, the NAHJ is exasperated from always being expected to play along and just pretend they didn’t hear what they just heard.

I think Charlie Cooke is right; Democrats are just tired of Joe Biden and of having to explain away his poor performance. Since Biden was elected, the only thing that has gone right is that the Covid-19 pandemic effectively ended and the unemployment rate has remained low. Inflation is out of control, gas prices are at record highs, grocery bills are skyrocketing, the stock market is getting battered and people’s 401(k)s are shrinking, crime remains high, mass shootings keep bedeviling America’s public spaces, Russia’s invading Ukraine, there’s a global food and commodity crisis, and the Taliban is running Afghanistan and oppressing women again. Democrats are apoplectic that the Supreme Court struck down Roe v. Wade, a New York State gun law, and the EPA’s right to regulate carbon emissions without explicit approval from Congress. Parents are up in arms, the teachers’ unions look like callous fools who kept schools closed and harmed a generation of schoolchildren, and “abolish the police” looks like a suicidal public policy. Republicans notice that waves of illegal immigrants headed north shortly after Biden’s inauguration and haven’t stopped coming since.

That New York Times poll found that 64 percent of Democrats want a different presidential nominee in 2024. Nobody’s willing to cover for this guy anymore; no one is inclined to avert their eyes when Biden or his wife blurts out something tone-deaf now.

There are some of us who would argue that Joe Biden has always been an insecure, abrasive, presumptuous, disingenuous, demagogic, insufferable blowhard who was largely protected by a cozy, all-too-friendly relationship with a press inclined to airbrush his glaring character faults, presenting him as a wacky neighbor or a kindly, ice-cream loving grandpa.

What we see now is what happens when much of the national media, the Democratic Party establishment, and liberal interest groups stop playing along with the narrative that Biden is a wiser, sharper, kinder, more energetic and sensitive man than he is. And the truth isn’t pretty.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday’s Three Martini Lunch podcast noted the harsh characterization of the late Shinzo Abe by some in the U.S. media, contrasted with the “austere religious scholar” characterization of the leader of ISIS. Some of the most provincial people you’ll ever meet are the ones telling you what to think about international affairs — incapable of seeing foreign leaders and foreign events outside of the lens of U.S. domestic politics. Generally, the smarter a person is, the more comfortable they are admitting what they don’t know.

World

Sri Lanka’s Collapse Points to Global Gloom

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Demonstrators protest on top of a police tear gas truck after they entered the Presidential Secretariat premises after President Gotabaya Rajapaksa fled amid the country’s economic crisis, in Colombo, Sri Lanka, July 9, 2022. (Dinuka Liyanawatte/Reuters)

On the menu today: You probably saw that footage of seemingly unending throngs of people swarming and overtaking the president’s residence and prime minister’s house in Sri Lanka. Our Dominic Pino has been keeping an eye on that troubled island nation for a while, and he lays out the sadly predictable path to chaos: a dumb ban on chemical fertilizers, corruption and mismanagement, the interruption of the usual trade routes and tourism, and a devastating wave of runaway inflation. Meanwhile, down in Georgia, there’s good reason to doubt that Quinnipiac survey showing Herschel Walker trailing Senator Rafael Warnock by ten points.

Why Sri Lanka Suddenly Matters

Back in March, as the world was still watching the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Reuters filed an ominous dispatch from Sri Lanka about the consequences of its government’s attempt to ban the use of artificial fertilizers:

“I cannot recall any time in the past when we had to struggle so much to get a decent harvest,” said [W. M.] Seneviratne, a lean 65-year-old with a shock of silver hair, who has been farming since he was a child.

“Last year, we got 60 bags from these two acres. But this time it was just 10,” he added.

The dramatic fall in yields follows a decision last April by President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to ban all chemical fertilizers in Sri Lanka – a move that risks undermining support among rural voters who are key to his family’s grip on Sri Lankan politics.

Although the ban was rolled back after widespread protests, only a trickle of chemical fertilizers made it to farms, which will likely lead to an annual drop of at least 30% in paddy yields nationwide, according to agricultural experts.

A month later, the Guardian’s correspondent sent back a dispatch with similarly grim warnings:

“We are a tropical country full of rice paddies and banana plantations, but because of this stupid fertilizer ban, now we don’t even have enough food to feed ourselves,” said Rajith Keerthi Tennakoon, 52, former governor of the southern province. “We have had past economic crises, security crises, but never in Sri Lanka’s history have we had a food crisis.”

But the Guardian being the Guardian, it had to add a paragraph insisting that a ban on artificial fertilizers was good in theory:

On the face of it, a push to organic farming would be seen as laudable, given concerns over the use of chemical fertilizers. Yet it was the sudden and obtuse manner in which the ban was introduced — imposed virtually overnight and with no prior warning or training – and the questionable motives behind it, that have left even organic farming advocates furious.

Sri Lanka is a small island nation off the coast of India. When Hollywood needs a jungle, it films there. The Bridge on the River Kwai, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, and one of the Jungle Book movies all included scenes shot on the island. It is about as far as a country can get from the United States, and when news about the country has reached Americans, it was usually bad news — such as the government’s long battle against the Tamil Tigers terrorist group, or the devastating 2004 tsunami.

Yet with the Tamil insurgency defeated, in the past few years, Sri Lanka had begun to look like a success story by the standards of the region. As our Dominic Pino laid out:

By 2019 it had been elevated from a lower-middle-income country to an upper-middle-income country by World Bank classifications. Its GDP per capita, adjusted for purchasing power, is about double that of India, about the same as the poorer countries of Eastern Europe such as Ukraine and Moldova, and only slightly behind Brazil. Its largest city of Colombo had become a tourist destination. It’s not a wealthy country by any stretch of the imagination, but it was doing well for its neighborhood, and its 22 million inhabitants saw a dramatic improvement in their quality of life in the past decade.

But everything fell apart fast: Inflation is raging out of control, the government defaulted on its debts, an energy crisis led to rolling blackouts, and the food shortages spurred massive crowds of people to storm into the houses of the country’s wealthy rulers and effectively topple the government. Inflation in Sri Lanka has reached jaw-dropping levels: “Consumer prices rose 54.6 percent in June from a year earlier, with transport surging 128 percent from the previous month and food 80 percent.”

Back in May, I noted that the Russian invasion of Ukraine meant that two of the world’s biggest grain exporters were effectively taken out of the market, as well as Russian exports of fertilizer. I also said:

The global fertilizer shortage is likely to reduce crop yields in a lot of places, which means we may be dealing with a worse problem in the coming months and years. Using less fertilizer usually translates into fewer crops. . . . Hungry people do things that well-fed people do not. They protest and they riot. Hungry people move across borders as refugees. They are more easily recruited into terrorist or extremist groups. . . . Hungry populaces are more likely to turn to demagogues promising an easy solution. Where there is hunger, there is conflict.

Back in early June, when very few Western minds were paying much attention to Sri Lanka, Dominic wrote an unnervingly prescient piece entitled, “Sri Lanka’s Collapse and the End of Globalization”:

Coming out of the pandemic, Sri Lanka was counting on the return of tourism, a vital industry to the island country with many beaches on the Indian Ocean. One problem: The first- and third-largest tourism markets for Sri Lanka were Russia and Ukraine. Russia is also a major buyer of Sri Lankan tea. The realities of the war and the sanctions on Russia have upended that plan. . . .

Protesters are in the streets, some of them setting politicians’ homes on fire, and police used tear gas to disperse them. Parkin writes that there are miles-long lines for gasoline, and some people are only eating one meal per day.

Sri Lanka’s default may just be the start of a wider financial crisis in the developing world as a result of worsening global economic conditions. The country had the disadvantage of exceptionally poor leadership and bad timing of the pandemic and the war in Ukraine. But poor leadership is common in the developing world, and less robust economies are especially susceptible to bad luck.

Countries are economically connected in strange ways. In many cases, those connections only become widely known in hindsight, after a crisis has made them obvious. It would be an overstatement to say that fewer Russians and Ukrainians going on vacation plunged Sri Lanka into crisis, but that seemingly innocuous fact was one of many contributing factors. Those in the prosperous West who are cheering for the end of globalization should be careful what they wish for.

And as the Wall Street Journal warns this morning, there are other debt-ridden countries that are probably not too far from Sri Lanka’s dire position:

Countries such as Zambia and Lebanon are already in the grip of crises and are seeking international help to provide loans or restructure their debts, while Pakistan’s new government, which came to power in April, says that it narrowly averted a debt default in recent weeks, driven by a soaring fuel-import bill. Foreign-exchange reserves held by the central bank dwindled to cover less than two months’ worth of exports, largely closing off Pakistan’s prospects of tapping international financial markets. China, a close ally, provided a $2.3 billion loan in June to shore up the foreign-currency reserves.

Bloomberg News adds El Salvador, Ghana, Egypt, and Tunisia to the troubled list.

But Pakistan stands out, as that country has an estimated 165 nuclear weapons. One Indian business publication’s assessment of the Pakistani economy reads like a horror show, and it explicitly compares that country to Sri Lanka: runaway foreign debt; skyrocketing cost of foreign imports; a collapsing currency; falling exports; shortages of food, fuel, and medicines; hoping for rescue from the International Monetary Fund but having no negotiating leverage; and a recovery plan that relies on people drinking less tea and exporting donkeys to China.

You would like to think that a country with a large nuclear arsenal would also know how to manage its borrowing, pay its debts, and keep its economy running smoothly. Then again, there’s probably some Pakistani out there wondering how an American could have the nerve to make that criticism.

Meanwhile, Down in Georgia . . .

It is hard to shake the feeling that Herschel Walker is going to be a disappointing nominee for Republicans in the Georgia Senate race. No one expected that a former college- and pro-football superstar to be a policy wonk fluent in the details of every federal-government decision, but Walker’s answers to policy questions are generic at best, and there are ominous indications that even his own staff is exasperated with him.

The Data for Progress survey released last week that found Walker two points ahead of incumbent Democrat Raphael Warnock was the first poll to put Walker ahead since April.

But if you’re looking for a reason to dismiss or pooh-pooh the Quinnipiac poll from late June that had Warnock ahead by ten . . . look back at the 2020 Senate race in next-door South Carolina. Back then, both Georgia and South Carolina were heavily Republican southern states, but Democrats thought that they had a perfect challenger for long-time incumbent Lindsey Graham in former state-party chair Jamie Harrison. A bunch of polls gave Graham a modest lead of a few percentage points, but Quinnipiac showed a tie three times — in July, in early September, and in late September.

On Election Day 2020, Graham won by more than ten percentage points. Either Graham enjoyed a late surge, or Quinnipiac’s sense of the electorate was way off. (Quinnipiac’s last presidential-race poll had Trump leading in South Carolina by just a percentage point, 48 percent to 47 percent. On Election Day, Trump won, 55 percent to 43 percent.)

It’s not a perfect comparison — Warnock is an incumbent, Harrison was a challenger — but it does suggest that Quinnipiac consistently includes too many Democrats in their samples. The Georgia Senate race is not a slam-dunk for Republicans, but it isn’t likely that Walker is trailing by double digits.

The Civiqs poll currently puts Joe Biden’s approval rating in the state of Georgia at 25 percent, with 63 percent of respondents disapproving.

Asking a Senate Democratic incumbent to run 20-some percentage points ahead of the approval rating of the current Democratic president is a really tall order.

ADDENDUM: I couldn’t put it better than Phil Klein did:

Regular readers of National Review who have noticed we’ve had a webathon this month might be wondering why. The simple truth is that the type of fearless and principled journalism we produce on a daily basis does not come cheap.

World

A Pointless Horror in Japan

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Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe makes a speech before he was shot from behind by a man in Nara, Japan, July 8, 2022. (The Asahi Shimbun/via Reuters)

On the menu today: The world is shocked by the assassination of Japan’s former prime minister, Shinzo Abe — a giant in Japanese politics and on the world stage during his long tenure as the leader of his country. As of this writing, the assassin appears to be some lone, disturbed nut. Unlike other shocking assassinations of national leaders by terrorists or rival political factions, it is hard to find a sense of meaning in this heinous crime — yet another case of an insignificant man trying to make himself significant by killing a greater man.

Japan’s Former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe Assassinated

What, the world wasn’t crazy enough already?

The people of Japan — orderly, safe, buttoned-up Japan! — just witnessed the horrific assassination of former prime minister Shinzo Abe by an apparently angry, disturbed man using a homemade gun:

Abe, 67, was stumping for a fellow politician from the ruling Liberal Democratic Party (LDP) in Nara, near Osaka, on Friday morning when a gunman opened fire with what police described as an improvised weapon.

Hidetada Fukushima, head of the emergency center at the Nara Medical University Hospital, said Abe had no vital signs when he arrived there at 12:20 p.m. Friday. Doctors found two gunshot wounds to the neck, and one of the bullets had reached the heart, Fukushima said. Despite efforts to save him, including a transfusion, Abe died of blood loss less than five hours later.

Because violent crime and gun ownership are so rare in Japan, when I heard the news that he had been shot, I wondered if it was some disturbing Aum Shinrikyo-style cult or some sort of Yakuza organized-crime retaliation against government authorities. But at this hour, it sounds like it’s just some nut, acting alone:

Tetsuya Yamagami, a resident of Nara, was arrested at the scene on suspicion of attempted murder, the police said. The suspect was formerly a member of the Maritime Self-Defense Force, according to government sources.

“It’s not a grudge against the political beliefs of former Prime Minister Abe,” Nara prefectural police quoted Yamagami as saying. He was also quoted as saying he was dissatisfied with Abe and planned to kill him. His home was later searched by the police.

Even more bizarrely, the Japanese newspaper Mainichi Shimbun reported that the assassin may not have understood whom he targeted and killed:

A man under arrest for allegedly shooting former Prime Minister Shinzo Abe during a stump speech here has told police that he intended to target a senior official of a religious group, sources close to the case have told the Mainichi Shimbun. . . .

During questioning, the suspect cited the name of a specific religious group and said, “I intended to target this senior official (of the group).” The named official, however, was reportedly not at the scene at the time.

At the same time, the suspect has made nonsensical statements, and Nara Prefectural Police are carefully investigating whether he is mentally competent to be held criminally responsible.

Even if you knew almost nothing about Japan, Shinzo Abe was likely one of the names you could recognize. He was the longest serving prime minister in Japanese history. During the closing ceremonies of the Olympics in Rio in 2016, Abe appeared dressed up as Mario from Super Mario Brothers, celebrating that the next summer Olympics would be hosted in Tokyo in 2020. (The Covid-19 pandemic pushed it back a year.) In the infamous picture of Trump and Angela Merkel at the 2018 G-7 Summit, Abe is standing between the two leaders, arms folded, with a look on his face that suggests he knows Merkel is wasting her breath, but it’s not worth trying to stop her from making the effort. Every now and then, Abe would use social media in an almost Trump-like way, talking about how much he enjoyed Taiwanese pineapples after China had banned the import of that produce.

In fact, Abe’s management of his relationship with Trump was a master class that every foreign leader should study:

Tuesday, Donald Trump concluded a three-day visit to Japan, inaugurating his Administration’s first official tour of Asia since Trump took office. It was no accident that the event kicked off at a Japanese country club. Shinzo Abe is one of the few world leaders to enjoy a close rapport with the U.S. President, cultivated through carefully observing and catering to his tastes. After a round on the links, the Prime Minister and President retreated to the clubhouse for hamburgers, where Abe proudly unveiled a gift for Trump and his entourage: a set of gleaming white baseball caps emblazoned with the genially fractured slogan “donald & shinzo, make alliance even greater.”

The gift, somehow managing to be both a little tacky and touching at the same time, was but the first in a series of “Donald & Shinzo” moments over the next few days.

For those who did pay attention to Japanese politics, Abe was the country’s modern master — a man who rose to the moment and managed to enact changes that others had found too difficult. Our Isaac Schorr assessed his legacy after he stepped down in 2020:

Shinzo Abe’s tenure has not been without its warts. He has failed to accomplish all of his goals — most notably a constitutional revision — and offended some in the region with his decidedly unconvincing apologies for Imperial Japan’s crimes. However, his economic program has provided much needed stability; his calculation regarding the need for a more imposing Japanese military given Chinese ambitions in the region has proven prescient; and his firm belief in both the nation state and the importance of a foreign policy that promotes “fundamental values” can serve as a model to other conservative leaders around the globe. For his efforts and example, Abe is assured a secure legacy, and one that will endure long after he leaves office.

A few years back, I visited the Sixth Floor Museum at Dealey Plaza, located within the former Texas School Book Depository building, which chronicles the life, assassination, and legacy of President John F. Kennedy. One of the later exhibits is about the conspiracy theories that have always surrounded Kennedy’s assassination, and why many believe — or more accurately, choose to believe — that Kennedy was killed by the Soviet Union, or the mob, or the CIA, or some other sinister, shadowy force that escaped justice.

In a short video at the exhibit, a psychologist declares something along the lines of, “We don’t want to believe that someone as significant as John F. Kennedy could be killed by someone as insignificant as Lee Harvey Oswald.”

When someone such as former Lebanese prime minister Rafik Hariri is killed by a bomb, it’s shocking and terrible, but at least it can be understood. Hariri defied the will of radical groups such as Hezbollah, and Hezbollah chose to make him pay. The slaying of Hariri led to the Cedar Revolution — which involved around a million Lebanese citizens, fed up with the violence and disenfranchisement brought by Syria’s meddling in their country’s affairs. About a decade earlier, former Israeli prime minister Yitzhak Rabin had a vision for a lasting peace with the Palestinians, and some nutty Israeli ultra-nationalist set out to stop him. As awful as those assassinations were, they reflected the brave choices of those men, their courage and defiance. They were willing to die for what they believed in, and the rest of us can look at that and say they accepted the risk of assassination in order to make the world a better place.

But this murder of Abe? This is meaningless. Some loon with a head full of bad wiring decided the best way to spend his time was to build a gun and track down and kill some famous face he recognized from the television screen.

Someone as insignificant as Abe’s assassin shouldn’t be able to influence the course of history in Japan.

ADDENDUM: It’s not the biggest deal in the world, but as 8 a.m. EST, the world had known about Abe’s shooting for eight hours, and his death for three hours — with no word from President Biden. Shortly before 1:30 a.m. Eastern time, a White House spokesman issued a two-sentence statement: “We are shocked and saddened to hear about the violent attack against former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe. We are closely monitoring the reports and keeping our thoughts with his family and the people of Japan.” This statement, which was not sent out to the general White House press email list or posted on the White House website, was the only comment from the White House until around 9 a.m. this morning when President Biden finally released a statement about Abe’s assassination.

Former president Donald Trump issued a statement at 6:24 a.m. EST:

Really BAD NEWS FOR THE WORLD! Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe is dead. He was assassinated. His killer was captured and will hopefully be dealt with swiftly and harshly. Few people know what a great man and leader Shinzo Abe was, but history will teach them and be kind. He was a unifier like no other, but above all, he was a man who loved and cherished his magnificent country, Japan. Shinzo Abe will be greatly missed. There will never be another like him! President Donald J. Trump

And then, at 8:02 a.m., Trump put up a new post about how high his poll numbers are in a potential matchup in the 2024 GOP presidential primary: “With all the lies and the greatest Witch Hunt in U.S. History . . .my number went up. MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!”

World

Boris Johnson’s Cautionary Tale

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British Prime Minister Boris Johnson makes a statement at Downing Street in London, England, July 7, 2022. (Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

On the menu today: United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson announced this morning that, after a tumultuous and often-controversial three years in office, he would resign as soon as his Conservative Party picked a new leader. Quite a few conservatives look at Johnson and see a cautionary tale; his undisciplined character overwhelmed his intellect — although there’s also the parallel state of frustration and exhaustion in American and British politics. In other news, the gun-control movement finds the least effective spokesman possible, and I wonder when it becomes fair to wonder about the progress of John Fetterman’s recovery.

Farewell, Boris Johnson

After almost three years in office, United Kingdom prime minister Boris Johnson announced today that he would resign once his party chose a new leader, Reuters reports.

Just two days ago, our Maddy Kearns noted Johnson’s changing story about whether he knew about allegations of sexual misconduct against Chris Pincher, the deputy chief whip of Conservatives in the U.K. Parliament, and summarized the exasperation with the troubled prime minister: “Boris Johnson was caught lying to cover himself. (Again.) More resignations could be forthcoming but, as with the no-confidence vote last month, when it comes to loyalty to the prime minister, there is an unsustainable split in the Tory party. It’s now not a question of whether Johnson goes, only when.”

Two days later, it turns out.

If you were going to lead a major world power, July 2019 was a hellacious time to take the helm, quiet as that summer may appear in retrospect. The Covid-19 pandemic was just around the corner, and Johnson himself suffered a life-threatening infection early in the pandemic. Covid not only offered an unprecedented international public-health crisis, but it brought the world economy to a screeching halt and exacerbated existing social tensions. The lockdowns in the United Kingdom were generally even stricter, more sweeping, and longer-lasting than the ones in the United States. While the British welcomed the end of the lockdowns, as our Diana Glebova notes, “Johnson has been embroiled in controversy ever since it was revealed that he hosted parties at his Downing Street office while imposing restrictions meant to curb the spread of Covid-19 on the rest of the country.”

And then, earlier this year, Russia invaded Ukraine, sending economic and geopolitical aftershocks reverberating throughout the continent, and with particularly strong consequences in London, a favorite home away from home for Russian millionaires and billionaires. While the U.K.’s inflation rate wasn’t quite as bad as America’s for much of the past year or so, by June, it had hit 9.1 percent — a dire crisis in a country that already has a high cost of living.

Johnson’s departure is the result of a series of personal scandals, controversies, and long-simmering national problems that accumulated weight and momentum like a snowball rolling down a hill. He entered 10 Downing Street with a reputation for being undisciplined but brilliant. He leaves with a reputation for being undisciplined and probably not as brilliant as he thinks he is.

Our Michael Brendan Dougherty sees the collective weight of all the U.K.’s problems breaking the floor beneath Johnson’s feet:

The United Kingdom has a housing crisis more widespread and insidious than the one that plagues our major cities in the United States. It also needs terrific investment in its transportation. The closest that Johnson’s premiership ever came to addressing these was their plan to “level up” depressed and forgotten parts of England and Scotland — making them more attractive places to invest, work, and live. But this agenda has mostly been throwing cash around in a disorganized way. Johnson’s government has been in a rut. The scandals hit just as inflation did, and No. 10 got stuck in fighting to renegotiate the Northern Ireland Protocol — a U.K.–EU–Ireland arrangement that provokes the Unionist community — to which Johnson agreed in order to deliver Brexit.

For a long time, Johnson managed to overcome what seemed like glaring personal deficiencies with a certain goofy charisma and his crazy unkempt hair, what I called three years ago “an endless volley of witty, eccentric, self-deprecating charm.” That charm stopped working — but as MBD notes, that asset will not be easily replicated by anyone else currently in Conservative politics:

I see zero evidence that another Tory figure can replicate or come close to rebuilding that coalition. The Thatcher-nostalgists will alienate both the traditional Labour voters and the Cameronized Tory party of the southeast of England. A successful Tory party in 2022 needs to campaign on completely different ideological terrain than what it conquered decades ago. The only man in the Tory squad with the creativity, ambition, and willingness to change so as to discover this territory is Boris Johnson.

As Dan McLaughlin observes, after Johnson rose to power and then won a snap election “on the lingering Brexit question, I said that if he did nothing else, Brexit would ensure him a legacy. Having gotten Brexit done, he has his legacy, but he did nothing else. ”

Samuel Gregg, the director of research at the Acton Institute, wrote late last month that Johnson increasingly came to be perceived as standing for nothing in particular beyond himself:

To the extent that Brexit represented successful pushback against the supra-nationalism favored by left-liberal politicians, NGOs, and internationalist bureaucrats, it was a conservative triumph. But beyond that triumph, Johnson’s government has looked distinctly devoid of any conservative vision or policy program.

Indeed, the Tories under Johnson have veered away from conservatism in many areas. They have raised National Insurance rates and corporate taxes, and shown no inclination to cut public spending. Johnson’s government has even pushed for a “green industrial revolution” that bears more than a passing resemblance to the Green New Deal. The Conservatives have also done little to halt woke takeovers of institutions such as the National Trust, and they’ve shown no signs of coming to grips with the U.K.’s growing illegal-immigration problem.

In short, there’s no indication of any major Tory commitment to things like greater economic liberty and smaller-but-strong government.

Just a few days ago, our Andrew Stuttaford looked at Johnson’s environmental and energy agendas and foresaw a path to energy rationing:

That Britain has become a poster child for the stupidities of the current state of climate policy does not say much for its governing (if that’s the word) Conservative party. That all Britain’s other major parties would push the climate agenda in roughly the same direction does not change that fact, or the increasing possibility that the Tories, having squandered their great victory in 2019, are headed for defeat in 2024.

With Conservatives like this, who needs the Labor Party?

Last night, MSNBC’s Chris Hayes described Boris Johnson as the British version of Donald Trump: “‘What you are seeing now is what it looks like when a conservative party decides they have had enough and that a leader is just too much of a menace to be tolerated,’ says Chris Hayes. ‘This pressure on Boris Johnson is a stark reminder that it can still happen.’”

If you squint, you can see some similarities between Trump and Johnson — on the right, larger-than-life personalities, striking appearances, a certain shamelessness and determination to just keep on going amidst great controversies. But no U.K. leader is ever a precise analogue to an American one, and I am skeptical that Trump is really the most relevant comparison right now.

Boris Johnson and Joe Biden are dramatically different personalities and often differ in their governing philosophies. But the mood described over in U.K. politics sounds a lot like the current one here in the U.S.: widespread, mounting frustration with the status quo; a growing resentment over the fact that the country’s political elites are economically and socially walled off from the gritty realities of the average citizen; and a sense that the current leader is just overwhelmed by the scale of the crises and incapable of rising to the task. Maybe the similarities stop there, but with the U.K. about to get a new leader and the U.S midterm elections approaching, that similarity seems resonant.

How About We Serve You a Tall Glass of ‘Shut Up, John’?

Was there a single American out there who was wondering about the gun-control views of John Hinckley Jr., the man who shot President Ronald Reagan, police officer Thomas Delahanty, Secret Service agent Timothy McCarthy, and press secretary James Brady outside the Hilton Hotel in Washington back in 1981?

Hinckley said he’s in favor of background checks and waiting periods to obtain a gun, especially with regard to people who are suffering, which were policies that were ushered by the Brady law.

“I think there are too many guns in America,” he said.

Hinckley is effectively saying, Hey, America, I’m the kind of nut job who runs around trying to kill presidents, cops, and innocent civilians, and if I can’t be trusted with a gun, neither can you!” Why does anyone care what this guy thinks? Why is ABC News sitting down with him and treating him like some fascinating celebrity or astute public-policy expert? Just what kind of moral authority or wisdom are we supposed to see in this lunatic?

What next, dietary tips from Jeffrey Dahmer? Marital advice from O. J. Simpson? Leadership lessons from Charles Manson?

I mean, just who is Hinckley trying to impress?

Oh.

ADDENDUM: Sure, Pennsylvania Democratic Senate nominee John Fetterman deserves the time and space to make a full recovery from his life-threatening stroke . . . but how long can he be away from any public appearances before it becomes fair to ask if his recovery is going as well, and as quickly, as his campaign says it is? Recall that Fetterman’s initial explanation of his hospitalization was, at minimum, a lie of omission. Fetterman didn’t mention his diagnosis of cardiomyopathy — a weakened heart muscle — and initially downplayed what was later revealed to have been a severe stroke; in a subsequent statement, Fetterman stated that he “almost died.” On primary night, his wife told supporters that he had “a little hiccup.”

Fetterman appears to be leading his Republican opponent, Dr. Mehmet Oz, in the polls, even though he hasn’t made any appearances in seven weeks. More than a few commenters have said that this style of campaigning should be called “Bidening.”

Elections

The Democrats’ Most Bitter Pill

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President Joe Biden speaks at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 5, 2022. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: You might think that, at this point, Joe Biden must have hit bottom in his job approval rating, but a Monmouth University poll finds him down to 36 percent. What’s notable about the polling lately is how many Democrats can no longer convince themselves that Biden is doing a good job. A lot of this is driven by the runaway-inflation crisis, and there’s a real problem for Democrats, in that the $1.9 trillion in new spending enacted in March 2021 — a massive spending bill that Larry Summers explicitly warned would “set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation” — was passed on party-line votes. As they approach a red tsunami midterm, the Democrats have no one to blame but themselves.

A Dark Day for Biden in the Polls

Normal Democrats are increasingly open about their disappointment with President Biden. Yesterday, the Monmouth University national poll had Biden’s job approval down to 36 percent. If you follow politics, you know the usual split in these polls by party. Usually only about 10 percent of the opposition-party respondents approve of the job the president is doing, usually almost all of the members of the president’s party approve, and independents are usually roughly evenly split.

In the Monmouth poll, just 3 percent of Republicans, 29 percent of independents, and 74 percent of Democrats approved of the job Biden is doing. The survey found that 19 percent of Democrats were willing to tell a pollster they didn’t approve of the job Biden was doing, and another 7 percent volunteered that they didn’t know enough to have an opinion.

In other words, roughly a quarter of Democrats can’t bring themselves to say, “Yes, he’s doing fine.”

One of the more buzz-generating moves in the past week or so was California governor Gavin Newsom’s running an ad in Florida, which was almost certainly aimed at getting national attention. It was also probably aimed to trigger an angry Truth Social post from former president Trump and response from Florida governor Ron DeSantis, or ideally both. On paper, Newsom is running for reelection in the Golden State, but the ad is a not-so-subtle hint to Democrats across the country that if they want to reconsider their presidential options for 2024, he’s available and interested.

When a president is doing badly, members of his party always like to tell themselves that the problem is that they’re on the defensive and that they need to go on the attack. One of the easy ways for an ambitious politician to stand out is to pose as a fighter and denounce the rest of the party as squishes and sellouts — think of Howard Dean shouting that he represented “the Democratic wing of the Democratic Party.” In fact, almost every rising star in U.S. politics in the past decade has adopted some version of the “I’m the real fighter for a party that desperately needs one” pose: Trump, DeSantis, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, AOC.

This “Our problem is that we just don’t attack enough” mentality is usually self-deluding nonsense, and that is the case for Democrats now. The problem for Joe Biden is not that Mitch McConnell, Kevin McCarthy, DeSantis, Greg Abbott, Brian Kemp, Clarence Thomas, Brett Kavanaugh, Amy Coney Barrett, or other figures associated with the political Right are not being attacked enough. The problem for Joe Biden is that he’s doing a lousy job, and Americans are feeling the consequences.

Biden is doing a lousy job for a lot of reasons, but the biggest one is that the U.S. inflation rate is currently at 8.6 percent, has been high since last fall, and isn’t likely to dramatically improve anytime soon. Even worse, Biden spent much of 2021 publicly insisting that inflation would be “temporary” or “transitory.” Inflation is high for several reasons, but a major factor was that the Biden administration and the Democratic Congress agreed to spend an additional $1.9 trillion on “Covid relief” in March 2021, as the vaccines were arriving and the economy was already recovering.

A small handful of Democrats warned — loudly — that throwing a ton of money into the economy as it was getting back to normal would light the fuse on inflation. In a February 4, 2021, Washington Post op-ed, former treasury secretary Larry Summers warned that, “There is a chance that macroeconomic stimulus on a scale closer to World War II levels than normal recession levels will set off inflationary pressures of a kind we have not seen in a generation, with consequences for the value of the dollar and financial stability” (emphasis added). Then he declared shortly after the bill’s passage that, “I think this is the least responsible macroeconomic policy we’ve had in the last 40 years.” As The Hill noted at the time, “Summers’s remarks are notable because Biden has received almost no pushback from Democrats in pursuit of his legislation.”

Just about the entire Democratic Party rejected Summers’s warnings. All 220 House Democrats voted to pass the massive spending package; all 210 Republicans voted against it. Every Senate Democrat voted to pass it; every Senate Republican voted against it. Rarely do you see such a stark and clear partisan divide on a piece of legislation.

In other words, the country is in brutally rough shape right now, in large part because of legislation that the entire Democratic Party, except for Representative Jared Golden of Maine, voted to enact. And this was legislation that just about every self-identified Democrat supported, too; a CNN poll from March 2021 found that 94 percent of self-identified Democrats favored it.

The hot economic idea in progressive circles for the past few years has been “modern monetary theory” — the notion that because the U.S. Treasury creates the money, the federal government can spend as much as it likes year after year, and everything will turn out just fine. To the extent that young progressives thought about economics, they believed that the federal government could spend as much as it liked — not just on the American Rescue Plan and an infrastructure bill, but on Build Back Better and the Green New Deal. In their minds, only lame old-fashioned nervous nellies believed that excessive government spending could have bad or even catastrophic effects upon the economy.

Lo and behold, those lame old-fashioned nervous nellies knew what they were talking about.

Democrats want to think about Gavin Newsom and the joy of “going on the attack against Republicans” because it’s too depressing for them to think about what is actually going on in the country under the president they nominated and under the policies they wanted.

A lot of Americans are hurting right now; 42 percent of respondents in that Monmouth poll said they are struggling to remain where they are financially, 57 percent said that the actions of the federal government over the past six months have hurt their family when it comes to their most important concern, and 54 percent said the middle class has not benefited at all from Biden’s policies.

What is most bitter to the Democrats is that lots of Americans are hurting because Democrats got what they wanted — and they were specifically warned about the danger of runaway inflation and dismissed the warnings. The Democrats got their way, and everybody ended up in worse shape.

Of course Democrats are depressed right now. They should feel depressed right now. It turns out that the world does not work the way they thought it did. Hard truths are metaphorically punching Democrats in the face, every time they go to fill up their tank, shop for groceries, and see the new monthly inflation numbers come out. The government cannot spend money and throw trillions upon trillions into the economy without setting off inflationary pressures. This means that Build Back Better would only make things worse, as would the Green New Deal or any other trillion-dollar spending spree.

Democrats could confront the hard truth that their preferred economic agenda has serious drawbacks and go back to the drawing board, accounting for this reality. But that’s unpleasant, so they’ll choose to fantasize about Gavin Newsom running in 2024 and “going on the attack.”

Oh, and there’s one other wrinkle in that Monmouth poll that should splash cold water on the notion that the repeal of Roe v. Wade will be some sort of game-changer for the midterm elections:

Nearly half of the public names either inflation (33 percent) or gas prices (15 percent) as the biggest concern facing their family right now. The economy in general (9 percent) and paying everyday bills (6 percent) are among other financial concerns mentioned. Abortion, which has registered less than 1 percent on this question in prior Monmouth polls going back to 2015, is currently named by 5 percent – predominantly among Democrats (9 percent).

In a national poll of adults, taken right as the Supreme Court’s decision was announced and in the days that immediately followed, abortion was the top concern . . . of 9 percent of Democrats.

Back in May, I doubted that abortion would displace inflation and gas prices as top concerns among voters. I was assured by Twitter commenters that this was just because abortion was settled law and that a Supreme Court decision would make it a much higher priority.

ADDENDUM: Our Charlie Cooke is slowly and methodically laying out a glaring problem with “red flag” laws: They don’t do any good if police and family members don’t use them when they’re most clearly needed. Apparently, the Highland Park shooter “had a collection of knives confiscated by police in 2019 after he threatened to ‘kill everyone’ at his house, police said.” Charlie points to at least four potential crimes that the Highland Park shooter could have been charged with; what’s more, the circumstances of that 2019 interaction with police make the shooter seem like a natural candidate to be involuntarily hospitalized for mental-health treatment.

But he was not arrested, charged with any crime, or sent for involuntary mental-health treatment, and no one involved thought to put the confiscation of his knives or threats into the National Instant Check System. And “the suspect legally purchased the rifle used in the attack in Illinois within the past year,” police said.

U.S.

Yet Another Mass Shooter ‘Known to Law Enforcement’

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Police deploy after a mass shooting erupted at a Fourth of July parade route in Highland Park, Ill., July 4, 2022. (Max Herman/Reuters)

On the menu today: The mass shooting at a Fourth of July parade in Highland Park, Ill., raises questions about the culture of angry young men in America, and we take a quick look at the Illinois gubernatorial race.

Horror in Highland Park

Yesterday’s horror at Highland Park’s Fourth of July parade is yet another case of an angry and seemingly disturbed young man “known to law enforcement” whose social-media feed “videos foretell his alleged violent acts.” In one, he “appears to dramatize a school shooting. In another video, [he] appears to animate his own demise in a confrontation with police.” He “left a long trail of tributes to mass shootings and public killings on social media platforms, according to numerous profiles that appear to belong to him.”

This is going to spur yet another round of arguments about gun control, but many of us who don’t hang around angry young men are left wondering about a separate issue: How many guys like this are out there? How many social-media accounts feature “long trails of tributes to mass shootings and public killings”? Just how many posts along those lines does a person have to publish before the company that operates the social-media platform contacts law enforcement? (Doesn’t this put the suspensions of the parody site the Babylon Bee, which seem to occur with metronomic regularity, in perspective?)

Are there far too many social-media accounts with material glorifying mass shootings to investigate? Is this just a way people strike rebellious poses or try to be edgy these days?

Back in 2018, the New York Times published an in-depth and surprisingly revealing look at what it characterized as the contagious nature of mass shootings, and what it characterized as a “Columbiner” online subculture:

The May 18 mass shooting at Santa Fe provides the latest evidence of a phenomenon that researchers have in recent years come to recognize, but are still unable to explain: The mass shootings that are now occurring with disturbing regularity at the nation’s schools are shocking, disturbing, tragic — and seemingly contagious.

Interviews with law enforcement officials, educators, researchers, students and a gunman’s mother, as well as a review of court documents, academic studies and the writings of killers and would-be killers, show that the school-shooting copycat syndrome has grown more pervasive and has steadily escalated in recent years. And much of it can be traced back to the two killers at Columbine, previously ordinary high school students who have achieved dark folk hero status — their followers often known as “Columbiners” — in the corners of the internet where their carefully planned massacre is remembered, studied and in some cases even celebrated.

Investigators say school shootings have become the American equivalent of suicide bombings — not just a tactic, but an ideology. Young men, many of them depressed, alienated or mentally disturbed, are drawn to the Columbine subculture because they see it as a way to lash out at the world and to get the attention of a society that they believe bullies, ignores or misunderstands them.

Jillian Peterson, an associate professor of criminology at Hamline University, and James Densley, a professor of criminal justice at Metro State University, studied mass shooters and put together a profile of their most common traits:

Peterson: There’s this really consistent pathway. Early childhood trauma seems to be the foundation, whether violence in the home, sexual assault, parental suicides, extreme bullying. Then you see the build toward hopelessness, despair, isolation, self-loathing, oftentimes rejection from peers. That turns into a really identifiable crisis point where they’re acting differently. Sometimes they have previous suicide attempts.

What’s different from traditional suicide is that the self-hate turns against a group. They start asking themselves, “Whose fault is this?” Is it a racial group or women or a religious group, or is it my classmates? The hate turns outward. There’s also this quest for fame and notoriety.

Where does this anger come from — an anger so dark and so deep that it makes someone want to point a rifle at a child and pull the trigger? Where does this sense of entitlement come from, to believe that your problems are so severe, so unique, and so abominable, that they justify mass murder?

We don’t know a lot about the Highland Park shooting suspect, but apparently, his father ran for mayor in 2019. The alleged shooter was an aspiring rapper with a face full of tattoos and an IMDb page on which he calls himself a “phenom,” and that features the seemingly false boast that one of his songs “amassed millions of plays so far across online streaming platforms.”

Was it just that this young man thought that by age 22, he should have been a superstar? Did he conclude that the world and his life was epically unjust because he hadn’t achieved fame and fortune yet? His songs and videos, full of blood-spattered violence, reimagine his life as being full of carnage and mischief and deadly conflicts — power fantasies that showcase his toughness and fearlessness.

Meanwhile, his reality was mundane; he is the son of a businessman who lives in the affluent suburb where John Hughes set many of his 1980s teen-movie classics, and the Chicago Bulls have their practice facility. Vanity Fair once declared that, “Highland Park has the feel of a gated community without the actual gates.” No doubt, compared to his lurid, bloody fantasies, his life was boring and safe and disappointing.

Was it just to deal with that gap between fantasy and reality that this young man — allegedly — picked up a rifle and shot 32 people, killing six?

Meanwhile, in the Governor’s Race . . .

One of my readers in the area noted that the Illinois Republican gubernatorial nominee, Darren Bailey, posted a video that, after calling for prayers for the shooting victims, declared, “Let’s move on and let’s celebrate — celebrate the independence of this nation.”

As much as there may be that sentiment of “If we cancel our holiday celebration plans, then the gunman wins,” many people in and around Highland Park and other parts of Illinois didn’t feel like celebrating yesterday. It’s hard to begrudge people feeling too overwhelmed with grief, shock, and anger to feel good about their country at that moment.

Incumbent Democratic governor J. B. Pritzker was already ahead by 13 points in the first post-primary poll; as recently as March, Illinois Democrats were worried about Pritzker. Despite the perception of Illinois being a heavily Democratic state, Republicans won the gubernatorial races in Illinois in 2014 and every race from 1976 to 1998, and Mark Kirk won the Senate race in 2010. In a good year for the GOP like this one, Republicans should have a shot at beating Pritzker, or at least make him sweat.

Bailey is the Trump-endorsed candidate who “benefited from tens of millions in Democratic Party advertising, with Democratic Gov. J.B. Pritzker and allies figuring Bailey would be the more beatable candidate to face in November.”

This reader fumes, “Bailey is truly one of the dumbest state level politicians elected in the country. . . . The Pritzker plan is to destroy the ‘Trump loving’ Bailey in Illinois and show Democrats nationwide he’s the candidate who can take it to Trump in 2024. He’s unique in the sense that he has the resources to outlast a weak field [of Democratic rivals]. . . . It’s obvious to many, but maybe not to a lot of Republicans, but the horrendous ‘Trump picks’ are adding up. Walker in Georgia, Dr. Oz in Pennsylvania, and Bailey in Illinois.”

Herschel Walker hasn’t led a Georgia Senate-race poll since April. The Pennsylvania Senate race is still considered a toss-up, but Oz was last seen trailing by nine points to a guy whom no one has seen on the campaign trail for more than a month because he’s recovering from a life-threatening stroke. And so far, there’s little sign that Pritzker is sweating his reelection bid much.

ADDENDA: Today is July 5, and I have long argued that this day should be a national holiday. Sure, it may seem self-interested to call for my birthday to be a day off for everyone in America, but let’s face it: There’s an excellent chance you’re dragging yourself to work or summer school this morning after enjoying the fireworks late last night.

Speaking of Independence Day, yesterday, Greg and I broke from our usual format on Three Martini Lunch to each come up with three aspects of America that we love, and that probably aren’t appreciated enough. Check it out.

U.S.

Why America Still Rocks

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People stand for the national anthem during patriotic exercises ahead of the 236th annual Military, Civic, and Firemen’s Parade as part of Independence Day celebrations in Bristol, R.I., July 5, 2021. (Quinn Glabicki/Reuters)

This is the last Morning Jolt until July 5. Heading into the Independence Day weekend, a new Gallup poll suggests that Americans’ patriotism is starting to wane — which raises the questions of just what it means to say you love your country and how to think about the country’s problems and flaws. Finally, the lament that “things have never been this bad” is usually an indicator of historical illiteracy.

Is Patriotism Slipping?

Six years ago, when Colin Kaepernick refused to stand during the national anthem, he explained, “I am not going to stand up to show pride in a flag for a country that oppresses black people and people of color.”

The overwhelming majority of Americans at all kinds of events stand for the national anthem — game after game, year after year. It is likely that some of those standing believe that America no longer oppresses black people and people of color. Others likely believe there still is some lingering oppression, but that the country is getting closer and closer to equality, personally and legally. Some probably believe that there is equality on paper, but not in practice. And there are probably some people who see the country in the same way Kaepernick does but stand anyway — because that’s the flag of their country, too.

The point is, few if any of those standing would say that their choice to stand and sing the national anthem means they think the country is perfect, or without serious flaws. They’re standing because America is theirs, too. A refusal to stand and associate yourself with America concedes the flag, the anthem, and the identity of American to the other guys.

You probably don’t think your parents, siblings, spouse, or children are perfect, but you love them anyway — or, at least I hope you do, and I hope they feel the same way about you.

Do Americans love America? The latest Gallup polling numbers tell us that American patriotism is slipping:

The 38 percent of U.S. adults who say they are “extremely proud” to be American is the lowest in Gallup’s trend, which began in 2001. Still, together with the 27 percent who are “very proud,” 65 percent of U.S. adults express pride in the nation. Another 22 percent say they are “moderately proud,” while 9 percent are “only a little” and 4 percent “not at all” proud. . . .

While the current 38 percent expressing extreme pride is the historical low by four percentage points, the combined 65 percent reading for those who are extremely or very proud was two points lower in 2020 than it is today. The current readings are well below the trend averages of 55% extremely proud and 80 percent extremely or very proud.

Before 2015, no less than 55 percent of U.S. adults said they were extremely proud. The highest readings followed the 9/11 terrorist attacks, when patriotism surged in the U.S.

Can you be proud of your country and simultaneously frustrated, disappointed, or angry with the state of your country as well? I see no contradiction. We have strong disagreements or fights with our family members, too — and that doesn’t mean we don’t love them. Oftentimes our love is one of the factors that inadvertently drives the conflict — we want our parents to go to the doctor to get that lingering health issue checked out, we think our spouses bring their work stress home with them, or our kids drive us crazy when they forget their chores or homework. Frequently, our anger and frustration with someone is driven by feelings like this: “You haven’t don’t that thing I wanted you to do, which I think is in your best interest. If I didn’t love you, I wouldn’t care. But I do care, which is why I’m irritated or angry that you haven’t done it.”

Criticizing your country can be an act of love, because you want your country to get better than it is. If you think your country is on the verge of making a terrible mistake, you want to prevent that. If you think your country has made a terrible mistake, you want to rectify it. The presence of love does not mean the absence of conflict. Sometimes, we see in those we love a potential greatness that they don’t see within themselves and struggle to get them to realize they can and should do better. (I’m reminded of Vince Vaughn in Swingers: “You’re so money, and you don’t even know it.”)

Because this is a political newsletter, people may start thinking about loving America in the context of politics and government policies — and it is difficult to pull apart our perception of a country from a perception of the national government. But a country is way more than its set of national laws and policies.

What’s wrong with America? This could take all day, but what pops in my mind at first . . .

  • American culture can seem excessively materialistic.
  • There’s nothing wrong with enjoying the performances of celebrities, but we certainly put them up on pedestals. (As I wrote back in 2019, the phenomenon of “extreme fandom” and “toxic fandom” sure looks like the religious impulse channeled toward modern idols.)
  • I wish Americans would cut each other some slack more often. We’re all trying to get through life, facing our own challenges, fighting our own demons, and sometimes keeping all of those hardships hidden.
  • I wish Americans would realize that social media is a funhouse mirror — distorting and exaggerating, as those mysterious algorithms push the most “engaging” material to the biggest audience, which is often another way of saying the most incendiary, controversial, or outrage-provoking material up top and to the front.
  • I wish Americans would stop thinking that the American Dream is going to be delivered to them, gift-wrapped, early in life, and that if it hasn’t arrived yet, they are the victim of some sort of unique injustice that rationalizes bitterness, scapegoating, rage, and despair.
  • I worry — a lot — about what would happen if someone who really studied our cultural anxieties tried to weaponize our divisions against us. Some might argue that this already happened with Russia’s efforts in the realm of social media, but there are much worse ways to exacerbate our divisions.

I wish every American could have the chance to live in another country for a year or two. This isn’t because other countries are terrible. They’re just different — and the experience illuminates what makes the U.S. unique. Other free-market democracies — in many ways, nice places to live or visit — allow the government to formally restrict speech. (In Turkey, it is illegal to write that the Armenian Genocide occurred. Back when I was living there, Turks were legally required to refer to it as “the so-called Armenian Genocide.”) Not so long ago, we saw how seemingly normal, friendly, welcoming Australia enacted widespread, strict lockdowns to deal with Covid-19. Those Canadians always seemed so nice and polite, right up until some truckers came to town objecting to vaccine mandates and pandemic restrictions. Lots of Americans sing the joys of visiting or living in France — right up until some vital public service inevitably goes on strike.

(Last month, French diplomats went on strike! “Hey, how is our effort to negotiate a temporary ceasefire between Russia and Ukraine going?” “I don’t know, our ambassadors walked off the job and they’re marching in circles with signs outside their embassies.”)

Any place on earth you travel to is going to have problems; I just prefer our problems to their problems — or maybe it’s more accurate to say that I prefer our ability to address our problems to their ability to address theirs.

Back in 2020, America had one of its greatest challenges thrown at it in the form of the pandemic — and with a lot of stumbles and mistakes along the way, we got through it. We developed vaccines in record time, lots of people caught Omicron and stayed home for a week, and between the vaccines and natural immunity from past infection, the virus is defanged and largely in our rearview mirror. Meanwhile, China is still contemplating another five years of attempting “Covid Zero” policies.

And somehow, while dealing with all of that grief and hardship, Americans figured out a way to be even more generous. In the calendar year of 2020, when the pandemic was turning American life upside down, Americans gave $471.44 billion to charities and nonprofits — a 5.1 percent increase from 2019. Sixty-nine percent of that enormous sum came from individuals. In five of the last six years, charitable giving by individuals has grown. An astounding 86 percent of affluent households maintained or increased their giving despite uncertainty about the further spread of Covid-19.

The perception that life in America is terrible is often accompanied by a belief that everything is getting worse. If you’re of a certain age, and you’ve been around a young person, there’s a good chance you’ve heard some version of the lament, “It’s never been this bad, and things have never been worse.” These are the sorts of historically illiterate complaints that spur Billy Joel to write hit songs like “We Didn’t Start the Fire”:

The song was Joel’s response to a conversation in the recording studio with Julian Lennon and a friend who had just turned 21. They were in the studio that day and stopped to say hi to Joel. The friend was lamenting how hard it was to turn 21 in 1989 and suggested to Joel that it was much more difficult growing up in the 1980s than the 1950s.

Joel, a life-long history buff, was surprised by the young man’s views. His lack of understanding about the turmoil of the 1950s and 1960s, which included momentous events like the Korean conflict, the Civil Rights Movement and the Cold War, sparked Joel to record a mini-history lesson in music covering forty years, from 1949 to 1989.

“You guys had it so much easier back then.”

Really? When exactly were things so much better? When the Soviet Union had its nuclear arsenal pointed at us? Or at the height of the AIDS crisis, before all those treatments were developed? When crack cocaine flooded the streets? When the militia movement blew up Oklahoma City? When were racial tensions better, during the L.A. riots or the O. J. Simpson trial? Back when cars had fewer safety features? Back when you had to read maps or stop and ask for directions, you had to memorize phone numbers, a cassette tape was the best quality for listening to music, and turning in your schoolwork included peeling the perforated ends off the paper after using your dot-matrix printer? When pollution and air quality was so much worse? Back when getting cancer was always considered a death sentence?

The world never stops turning, and problems come and problems go. But the United States of America endures.

ADDENDUM: I don’t follow college sports extensively, but I concur that the decision by the University of Southern California to join the Big 10 seems geographically, numerically, and historically odd at best. This could be the worst USC decision since Aunt Becky. My Three Martini Lunch co-host Greg disputes whether this is the worst decision since the Trojan marching band trampled Vincent Ludwig.

White House

Karine Jean-Pierre Has an Impossible Job: Making Biden Look Good

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White House Press Secretary Karine Jean-Pierre listens during a daily press briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., June 15, 2022. (Sarah Silbiger/Reuters)

On the menu today: Politico offers a blistering review of White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre after her first month on the job, but I would argue she’s been given an impossible task — to convince reporters and the country that President Biden and his administration are doing a good job. Elsewhere, Biden argues that the high cost of gas is the price Americans are willing to pay in order to oppose Russia’s invasion of Ukraine — an argument that seems more likely to undermine than to galvanize American support for Ukraine. Finally, have you noticed that most late-night talk-show guest lists are looking like the lineup of speakers for a Democratic National Convention?

It’s Not Really Karine Jean-Pierre’s Fault

White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre has been in her job for a month, and this morning Politico offers an unexpectedly scathing early review:

It’s been a rocky first month for White House press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre.

Her answers have baffled reporters, and even made some of her White House colleagues wince. She has increasingly found herself sharing the podium or splitting briefings with John Kirby, who has been taking the lead on foreign policy and at times appears to function as a co-press secretary. . . .

In her first 10 briefings as press secretary, Jean-Pierre said she didn’t have the information being sought 20-plus times more than predecessor Jen Psaki in her first 10 briefings, according to a review of the transcripts by West Wing Playbook.

And while White House reporters love to complain about non-answers from communications officials, many have privately grumbled that when Jean-Pierre does have answers, they are often vague and rarely stray from the pre-written talking points prepared in the binder at the podium.

“At a certain point it wouldn’t surprise me if people started voting with their feet,” one White House reporter told POLITICO, predicting the lack of news from the briefings could result in waning attendance of reporters.

Jean-Pierre isn’t good at her job, but in what is likely the mildest defense of her you’ll ever see, she’s not the source of the administration’s overall troubles. When it comes to the White House’s problems, she’s low tire pressure on a jalopy that is on fire and has parts falling off. It’s not that she doesn’t have good answers to reporters’ questions; it is that the entire Biden administration doesn’t have good answers to the country’s problems.

Just what is Jean-Pierre supposed to say?

The president keeps making promises he can’t keep. The administration’s plan on inflation is to hope the Fed’s interest-rate hikes are enough and to call for tax increases that Congress was always unlikely to pass, particularly in an election year. At least once a month, a new update to the Consumer Price Index comes along, showcasing that the president’s efforts to tackle inflation aren’t working; the next one arrives July 13. The administration’s response to runaway gas prices is to ask OPEC members to produce more, but apparently those countries are near their maximum production capacity. When Biden took office his administration was effectively greeted by a surge of illegal immigrants attempting to cross the southern border, and the administration has failed to stem the tide for a year and a half. (A Democratic city-council member from Allentown, Pa., speaking to the New York Times recently: “Look what’s going on in the country today. . . . It started with the border. I think it’s the most pressing problem we’re facing today. . . . Let’s get an immigration policy in place. What other countries allow what we do? It’s crazy.”)

For two months, the Biden administration knew that the Supreme Court was likely to overturn Roe v. Wade. Here’s Reuters:

The White House is unlikely to take up the bold steps to protect women’s right to have an abortion that Democratic lawmakers have called for in recent days, interviews with officials show. . . .

Protecting abortion rights is a top issue for women Democrats, Reuters polling shows. The White House, which misjudged when the ruling would be issued, is still not meeting the moment on the issue, some health experts and Democrats complain.

“The White House had a month, if not a year, to plan for this and they should have really come out with a major white paper plan of action the moment Dobbs was announced,” said Lawrence Gostin, a professor of medicine at Georgetown University and faculty director of its Institute for National and Global Health Law. “The impression is that the White House is leading from behind, that they were caught flat footed.”

You keep seeing those descriptions: “Flat-footed.” “Caught off guard.” “Slow to react.” “Slow-moving.”

Why is this administration so perpetually slow to respond and to move? If you’ve been reading this newsletter regularly, you know my theory. Most days, unless Biden is at a foreign summit, he does only one public event a day, and he spends almost every weekend in Delaware (with a chunk of Fridays and Mondays) — because at his age that’s all he has the energy to handle. He turns 80 later this year. Most men that age are living lives of relative leisure, not trying to run the executive branch of the federal government, an unending task that’s exhausting even for much younger men. In any administration, the most valuable and finite resource is the president’s time — and because of his age, Biden probably has fewer peak-performance hours in a day than most other presidents.

At the beginning of the month, Edward-Isaac Dovere of CNN shared what seems like a very revealing quote from an unnamed White House aide:

At the center is a president still trying to calibrate himself to the office. The country is pulling itself apart, pandemic infections keep coming, inflation keeps rising, a new crisis on top of new crisis arrives daily and Biden can’t see a way to address that while also being the looser, happier, more sympathetic, lovingly Onion-parody inspiring, aviator-wearing, vanilla chip cone-licking guy — an image that was the core of why he got elected in the first place.

“He has to speak to very serious things,” explained one White House aide, “and you can’t do that getting ice cream.”

Yes, and a lot of Biden’s image from 2019 through last year was shaped by those anodyne images of him eating ice-cream cones. As Kyle Smith quipped, “The media have developed a curious idea that every time Joe Biden has ice cream, it constitutes news.” If you can project your persona successfully only when the atmosphere around you is the breezy, carefree fun of an afternoon on summer vacation, you probably shouldn’t pursue the job of commander in chief. The presidency is a tough job even in the best of times, and the country is enduring challenging times right now. Biden is just in over his head.

That isn’t Karine Jean-Pierre’s fault, and there’s not much she can say to spin that hard truth.

A Likely Counterproductive Argument on High Gas Prices and Ukraine

This week Biden is in Europe, and to his credit, he hasn’t had one of those eye-popping “did he just say that?” moments, like his off-the-cuff declaration a few months ago that Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power.

But earlier this month, Biden argued that the exorbitant price of gas — down about 15 cents per gallon in the past two weeks, but still averaging $4.85 per gallon nationally — was a price Americans had to pay for the defense of Ukraine from Russian aggression: “We cut off Russian oil into the United States, and our partners in Europe did the same, knowing that we would see higher gas prices. We could have turned a blind eye to Putin’s murderous ways, and the price of gas wouldn’t have spiked the way it has.”

Does framing the argument that way make Americans more supportive of the effort to repel Russia in Ukraine? Or does it make Americans think, “Wait, I hate Putin and Russia’s invasion, but when this started, no one told me I would be paying nearly five bucks a gallon for the foreseeable future.”

ADDENDUM: I almost never watch late-night talk shows anymore, which means I hadn’t realized that political figures and elected officials are now an almost nightly feature on Stephen Colbert’s program. Colbert and his staff are free to book whichever guests they want, but I’m left wondering if anyone beyond the lawmakers themselves really enjoys this new politico-heavy guest list. Back in the Johnny Carson, Jay Leno, and early David Letterman days, the guests on late-night talk shows were generally — yes, I know there were exceptions — movie stars promoting their latest film, prime-time TV stars, musicians, comedians. Johnny Carson would often have some animal expert on, and almost inevitably the animal would pee on the stage, and his sidekick Ed McMahon would laugh so hard you would think he would lose bladder control, too. Maybe that tickles your funny bone, maybe it doesn’t, but that brand of humor didn’t automatically repel any right-of-center viewers.

Now Colbert’s audience can expect to see him talking to the likes of Beto O’Rourke, Cory Booker, and Nancy Pelosi, who usually get softball questions on the issue of the day and answer with extremely familiar talking points. How much fun is everyone having?

Politics & Policy

Help Support the Post-Roe Conservative Cause

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Pro-life demonstrators celebrate outside the United States Supreme Court as the court rules in the Dobbs v. Women’s Health Organization abortion case overturning Roe v. Wade in Washington, D.C., June 24, 2022. (Michael Mccoy/Reuters)

On the menu today: a request for your support; a question about all of the Trump administration staffers and cabinet officials who paint a horrific picture of their former boss; some tough questions about just what the January 6 commission is supposed to accomplish; and where Attorney General Merrick Garland is in all this.

NR Said ‘End Roe,’ and Go Figure, It Actually Happened

It’s not often that conservatives get to celebrate an unalloyed, long-awaited, indisputable, across-the-board, definitive triumph like the Dobbs decision.

(As noted on The Editors podcast this week, I look forward to the irritable and pessimistic nationalist-populist Right asking, “Okay, so other than overturning Roe v. Wade, what has the conservative movement ever done?”)

National Review has always been passionately pro-life, but back in November, we put out a special issue of the magazine examining the arguments — legal, political, and social — for finally ending the Roe era in America. The cover was simple and direct: “END ROE.”

And go figure, it actually happened. If only every argument on our covers became reality so quickly.

The pro-life cause is a fight to which National Review is wholly committed, and that’s why we’re asking you to contribute to our important and relentless work in this battle. Thanks to a generous supporter, your gift to National Review today will be matched dollar for dollar up to $100,000.

What Trump’s Former Employees Keep Telling Us, Over and Over Again

I am sure there are Donald Trump fans out there who tell themselves and anyone else who will listen that the witnesses who testify against the former president are all biased against him, and that they’re all making it up as a result. And who knows? While Cassidy Hutchinson’s account of what she was told by a Secret Service agent, that Trump attempted to grab the steering wheel from the agent driving the presidential SUV — after the agent refused Trump’s demand to be driven to the Capitol following his January 6 rally — is jaw-dropping, it’s troubling to hear reports from NBC News’ Peter Alexander and New York magazine’s Yashar Ali that the two Secret Service agents in question “are prepared to testify under oath that neither man was assaulted and that Mr. Trump never lunged for the steering wheel.” Maybe these are just rumors, and the January 6 Committee screwed up royally by putting an unreliable witness under oath and not thoroughly investigating and verifying her claims before putting her in front of the television cameras.

(If it didn’t happen, that would help explain how such a shocking anecdote — the sort of unhinged outburst that should instantly trigger the 25th Amendment — could remain a secret for so long.)

The problem is a lot of these critics and hostile witnesses worked for Trump and were picked for those jobs by him. If you say that you don’t trust Michael Cohen or Omarosa Manigault or some of the other Trump officials over the years, fine; most of these characters leave a trail of slime everywhere they go. If you don’t trust Michael Wolff’s accounts, and think that they are at best a mix of truth, exaggerations, unverified rumors, and just flat-out crazy stuff that he thinks will sell books, well, that makes two of us.

But there is this continuing pattern where once widely respected, reputable figures who worked with Trump come away from the experience telling the public that he belongs nowhere near any government power: James Mattis, Betsy DeVos, John Bolton, John Kelly, Rex Tillerson, Mark Esper, William Barr, Ty Cobb . . . and I’m sure I’ve forgotten a lot of other lesser-known figures.

Even Trump’s own vice president, Mike Pence, characterized Trump’s nutty belief that Pence could have selected which electors to recognize as spectacularly “un-American”:

“I heard this week that President Trump said I had the right to overturn the election. President Trump is wrong. I had no right to overturn the election. The presidency belongs to the American people, and the American people alone,” he said at a Federalist Society event in Florida.

“Frankly, there is almost no idea more un-American than the notion that any one person could choose the American president.”

All of these people who agreed to work for Trump came away with the impression that he is a maniac or deeply corrupt, stunningly ill-informed or ignorant, selfish, nuts, or some combination of these or other bad traits.

The typical cabinet-secretary memoir laments that the president didn’t listen to the author enough, but such memoirs don’t often characterize the author’s former boss as “an unprincipled person who, given his self-interest, should not be in the position of public service,” as former defense secretary Mark Esper contended.

All of those people are lying? Doesn’t it seem a little odd that so many cabinet secretaries and high-ranking officials, over a period of many years, came away from dealing with Trump with the same dire conclusions?

If you think Trump is the only one telling the truth, and everyone else is lying . . . just what is it about Trump that makes all these former loyal employees and cabinet members suddenly decide to make up terrible stories about him and be willing to say so under oath, under penalty of perjury?

And even if you believe that Donald Trump is the lone figure in Washington telling the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth, there is still the question of how you can excuse Trump’s selecting all these people whom you now deem traitorous pathological liars. Occasionally you will run into a Trump supporter who waves this away by saying, “Well, Trump has a bad habit of trusting the wrong people,” or shrugging and lamenting, “The problem is Trump keeps delegating power to people who want to work against him.”

Those are really terrible traits for a president to have! 

Picking good cabinet members and executive-branch staff is a really important part of the job! A good president is willing to hear what he needs to hear, not just what he wants to hear. Otherwise he becomes the hapless pawn of whichever bootlicking staffer flatters him the most.

Knowing whom to trust and delegating authority to the right people in your administration are huge components of a successful presidency!

What, do you think that in the past couple of years Donald Trump has become a much better judge of character and a much more discerning mind when it comes to whom to trust? Did Trump’s turning to Lin Wood and Sidney Powell reassure you that Trump still has that keen eye for picking the wisest counselors?

Did Trump’s little tirade and flopping effort to oust Governor Brian Kemp in Georgia reaffirm your faith in Trump as a master strategist playing 9-D chess? Did Trump’s endorsement of Mehmet Oz in the Pennsylvania Senate primary leave you nodding and beaming with confidence that, “yup, the big guy still has those unbeatable instincts”?

But What’s the Point of the January 6 Committee?

I’ve said for a while now that I don’t understand how Trump could have threatened the peaceful transfer of power, disrupted the constitutionally required actions of Congress, and instigated a riot and/or launched an insurrection without breaking any law in any way. The work of the January 6 committee is important but somewhat superfluous. It’s uncovering new details, but all of us watched the events play out live that day. We already got the gist.

Either the U.S. Department of Justice should indict Trump on criminal charges, or it should publicly state that it can’t prove such charges in a court of law. The events of January 6, 2021, occurred a year and a half ago. It is long past put-up-or-shut-up time. I don’t know what Attorney General Merrick Garland has been doing all this time, but it’s not hard to see why some who cheered his nomination to that post think they’ve gotten stuck with a lemon.

(The latest rumor is that Trump wants to announce he’s running for president again perhaps as soon as July 4. This is absurdly early in the four-year presidential cycle, and suggests Trump wants to run because he’s frustrated that he’s not the center of attention anymore. But the fact remains that, by moving at a glacial pace, Garland will have harmed any effort to prosecute Trump: An indictment of Trump by Joe Biden’s attorney general after Trump announces he’s running for president would look a lot more like a political vendetta against one of the president’s top rivals than an indictment announced before Trump makes his 2024 intentions clear.)

We’re told Trump is an aspiring tyrant, a menace, and a destructive megalomaniac, that he represents a threat to American democracy unlike anything else we’ve ever seen in our lifetimes. And yet we’re also told — at least so far — that the only thing that can stop him from taking power again is GOP primary voters and/or the entire electorate making the right choice in 2024. Really? Our national government and its system of laws are that powerless to generate metaphorical antibodies against a dangerous pathogen? Hey, U.S. Department of Justice, do you guys want to wake up and do something here?

Everybody in America already knows what they think of Donald Trump. Instead of trying to persuade voters, try persuading a grand jury.

ADDENDUM: Colorado Democrats spent $4 million to meddle in the state’s Republican Senate primary election . . . and they didn’t even get one of those stupid T-shirts.