White House

Impeachment Won’t End the Eternal Trump Fight

Senator Bernie Sanders talks to reporters during a break in the procedural start of the Senate impeachment trial of U.S. President Donald Trump in Washington, U.S., January 16, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: Why the impeachment trial is a remarkably lifelike simulation of an actually consequential, high-stakes political fight; why some Vermont Democrats don’t like Bernie Sanders and what the senator doesn’t seem to appreciate about political leadership; that guy you almost never remember never had a plan, as he insisted; and bringing a little something different to The Editors.

The Impeachment Drama That Is . . . Not All That Dramatic

With the coming Senate impeachment trial, we’re breaking ground on some sort of new and worse form of politics, a remarkably lifelike simulation of an actually consequential, high-stakes political fight, where the result is preordained and the lasting effects will be minimal.

The argument around impeachment is more or less the same argument we’ve been having since late 2015: “Donald Trump should not be president.” The specifics change, but the general argument is the same: He can’t distinguish between his personal interest and the national interest, he’s selfish, corrupt, crass, obnoxious, erratic, intemperate, barely knows the Constitution and isn’t interested in learning, demands others’ absolute loyalty to himself but demonstrates none to others, berates his staff, is easily flattered, publicly vents all of his rage in Twitter tantrums . . .

I happen to agree with a lot of those criticisms. But the GOP nominated him and enough people in enough states voted for him; the country has to live with the consequences of their decision, good or bad, until the next election. Republicans accuse Democrats of wanting to “undo the election.” I think that a lot of Democrats are more or less saying, “yes, this is exactly what we want to do. The voters got it wrong. Every day he demonstrates that they got it wrong. The election should be undone.”

In addition to the negative traits listed above, Trump is a narcissist, which means that even though he doesn’t like being impeached, he does like that the biggest news story is all about him. Impeachment stirs his blood.

Every day, we get some slight variation of the same argument: “Trump should have never been president, and based upon today’s news, he should not be allowed to remain president.” And the president and his fans respond, with versions of, “yes, he should remain president, he is the greatest.” Lots of people really enjoy having this argument, over and over again, even though you almost never see anyone changing their mind. You don’t need to know much to jump into this never-ending argument. You don’t need to know economics, or foreign policy, or social policy, or the law, or any policy at all. You just need to have an opinion — up or down, good or bad.

From the beginning, Democrats have known they’re not getting 67 votes to remove in the Senate. Trump has known this. The media has known this. It’s ultimately a fruitless exercise, unless you believe there’s a symbolic value to an impeachment that fails, setting down a record for history. Trump certainly isn’t going to come out of this process chastened, humbled, or defanged. The only thing that stops him being president is the decision of the voters in November. And yet not only are we all supposed to be emotionally invested in this impeachment that was probably inevitable the moment Democrats won the House, we’re supposed to be riveted by each twist and turn in this impeachment process — even though we know the ending.

Whether the upcoming Senate trial features many witnesses, only a few witnesses, or no witnesses, this all ends the same. The result is the probably the same, with the Rudy letter, with Lev Parnas’s comments, with whatever big revelation comes out in the coming days or weeks. Perhaps Mitt Romney or Lisa Murkowski joins the pro-impeachment side. Perhaps not. The outcome would be the same. Perhaps Joe Manchin or Doug Jones votes against removal. That would change the final vote only by a little. It’s like we’re in a time-travel movie where it’s been proven that no matter what the protagonist does, fate intervenes to make sure history follows a certain path.

Impeachment is moving at the pace of a kidney stone because far too many of the forces involved want it to move slowly. Democrats think they’re inflicting political damage on the president and GOP. (I’m not quite so convinced.) Trump thinks this is the greatest injustice in the history of mankind and he loves to talk about how unfairly he’s treated. The media is convinced we’re watching history being written. (Three impeachments in 45 years means it’s not that rare.)

We’ve seen both sides announce record fundraising from this. Impeachment keeps the bases riled up and enthusiastic. It enables both sides to say that they’re “fighters” and that they’re “not backing down” from the obvious malfeasance and injustice of the other side. It allows everyone involved to believe that they’re doing something of remarkable and historic importance, even though it has almost no impact on anyone outside the Beltway.

Bernie’s Record on Winning Friends and Influencing People

You may have seen the headline: “Bernie ‘will play dirty’: Ex-Vermont governor slams Sanders” over at Politico. When I first saw it, I figured it was Howard Dean. Some conservatives might see two Vermont liberals and figure they must have been close allies, but the two men had a lot of friction, and if you read between the lines, you get the sense that they really disdain each other.

In 1996, then-governor Howard Dean said he had never voted for Sanders, who was then in his third term as a congressman. Dean said he had left his ballot blank. In 1993, when Sanders was pushing for the state to embrace Canadian-style single-payer health care, Dean accused Sanders of being dishonest about the costs. As a superdelegate, Dean voted for Hillary Clinton over Sanders in 2016. In December 2017, Howard Dean said during an appearance on MSNBC that older members of the Democratic party need “to get the hell out of the way and have somebody who is 50 running the country.”

But the Politico article is about another former Democratic governor of Vermont.

In an interview with POLITICO, Peter Shumlin — who has endorsed Joe Biden for president in 2020 and served as Vermont’s governor from 2011 to 2017, while Sanders represented the state in the Senate — warned that Sanders, an independent and a self-described democratic socialist, ultimately did not feel loyalty to Democrats.

“What I’ve seen in Bernie’s politics is he and his team feel they’re holier than the rest. In the end, they will play dirty because they think that they pass a purity test that Republicans and most Democrats don’t pass,” said Shumlin. “What you’re seeing now is, in the end, even if he considers you a friend, like Elizabeth Warren, Bernie will come first. That’s the pattern we’ve seen over the years in Vermont, and that’s what we are seeing now nationally.”

Traditionally, the other lawmakers of the same party in a candidate’s home state are his biggest allies and cheerleaders, and for what it’s worth, Senator Patrick Leahy and Representative Peter Welch have endorsed Sanders. And as far as we can tell, most of Sanders’s colleagues in the Senate appear to respect him, and/or have a cordial enough relationship with him. But you don’t get a sense that there’s a lot of warmth or deep admiration. Most of Sanders’s legislation never goes anywhere. His Senate colleagues don’t see him as an effective legislator. Since Trump’s election, he’s been just another voice in chorus of opponents, introducing bills that everyone knows won’t pass.

Right around now, the Sanders defenders will insist that’s just because Sanders has never been a back-slapping deal-maker. Except . . . in our system, as much as they get denounced and demonized, back-slapping deal-makers are the kinds of political figures who get things done. I don’t know if I’ll ever read Robert Caro’s epic-length biographies of Lyndon Johnson, but I’ve read some of Caro’s essays and other writings about Johnson, and if there’s anything that he’s tried to teach us, it’s how unbelievably smoothly Johnson could ingratiate himself to other senators and gradually increase his influence and leverage over them. Caro made this comment in an interview: “LBJ made these [Southern segregationist senators] believe for 20 years that he believed something he didn’t believe at all. When people say that power corrupts . . . I don’t happen to believe that. Power reveals. When you’re on your way up, you have to conceal what you intend to do. Once you get power, then you see it, what he really wanted to do.” The ability to build strong and trusted relationships with your peers, even when you disagree, is an extraordinarily undervalued trait in our politics. A lot of people argue that either everyone or the vast majority of the political opposition is the embodiment of all manner of horrific traits and sins, and then later fume in frustration that the other side’s lawmakers are never willing to compromise. Why would they want to help you when you’ve spent so much time demonizing them?

Bernie Sanders would like to be another Lyndon Johnson, in terms of the sweeping legislation he would like to pass and the far-reaching expansion of government he would like to enact. But Sanders is nothing like LBJ in his relationships with other people in Washington. In the still not-terribly-likely scenario he becomes president, he will find this hard truth of leadership extremely frustrating.

Hey, Remember This Guy?

At what point can we conclude that Deval Patrick was not, in fact, “right on time” in his entry to the race as he contended, and that he did have illusions about how hard it would be to run for president, as he vehemently denied? How many times have you even thought about him since he entered the race in November?

Can we now safely say that his plan was to jump in and hope everyone instantly fell in love with him?

ADDENDUM: Over on The Editors podcast, I am steadily, week by week, increasing the number of references to 1990s pop culture.

White House

Post-Debate Dramatics

President Donald Trump (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

A full menu today: the uncomfortable truths revealed by President Trump’s interactions with Rudy Giuliani, Lev Parnas, and Igor Fruman; Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren saved their drama for after the debate, while Tom Steyer is oblivious; an advertising slogan with an unfortunate implication that is populist catnip; and an underappreciated congressional candidate.

What Kind of President Trusts Two Shady Ukrainians from South Florida?

Could even the most ardent fans of President Trump concede that he is constantly hiring the wrong people and listening to the wrong people?

As noted many times, there were proper and official channels for the U.S. government to investigate anything involving the Bidens and Ukraine. Trump didn’t use those proper and official channels. He used Rudy Giuliani, who apparently emphasized from the very beginning to the Ukrainians that he was acting as the president’s personal lawyer — not a representative of the administration or the U.S. government, and thus not on any official inquiry to sniff out corruption or violations of U.S. laws. He wrote this letter May 10. Giuliani is such a spectacularly loose-lipped figure, that the day before he wrote the letter, he specifically laid out in the New York Times what he was doing:

Giuliani said he plans to travel to Kiev, the Ukrainian capital, in the coming days and wants to meet with the nation’s president-elect to urge him to pursue inquiries that allies of the White House contend could yield new information about two matters of intense interest to Mr. Trump.

One is the origin of the special counsel’s investigation into Russia’s interference in the 2016 election. The other is the involvement of former Vice President Joseph R. Biden Jr.’s son in a gas company owned by a Ukrainian oligarch.

You would like to think that even if the president of the United States decided to go through with a back-channel inquiry to the Ukrainian government to see if he could get them to investigate the Bidens, he would take one look at Lev Parnas and Igor Fruman and say, “Whoa, whoa, whoa. These guys look like the most oafish henchmen since Jeff Gillooly and Shawn Eckardt went after Nancy Kerrigan. You wouldn’t trust these guys to pick up a take-out lunch order, much less use them to execute a secret and politically sensitive request of a foreign government.”

Just a minimum of due diligence would have alerted the president that Giuliani had not recruited the A-Team:

Reports by McClatchy and the Miami Herald showed that Fruman is an exporter of luxury goods and Parnas is a former stockbroker who has left a long trail of debts in Florida and beyond.

Parnas has been sued repeatedly over unpaid debts and has faced eviction from several properties, federal and state court records show. During his career as a securities broker, he worked for three brokerages expelled from the industry by regulators.

Before that, Parnas “worked in an unspecified capacity” for Ukrainian oligarch Dmytro Firtash. Who’s Firtash?

Firtash, one of Ukraine’s wealthiest businessmen, is battling extradition by U.S. authorities on bribery charges from Vienna, where he has lived for five years.

Federal prosecutors in Illinois said in court papers in 2017 that Firtash was an “upper-echelon” associate of Russian organized crime. He was indicted in 2013 and charged with bribing Indian officials for access to titanium mines. Firtash has denied any wrongdoing.

Firtash was “financing” the activities of Parnas and Fruman, the source familiar with their business dealings said. The source did not detail their specific work for the oligarch or how much money he had paid them and over what period.

An honest question: How did these guys get cleared by the U.S. Secret Service to meet with the president and vice president inside the White House?

Parnas and Fruman posed like well-connected Ukrainian movers and shakers, and Giuliani and Trump appeared to have bought into the image. Once again, they didn’t do their homework:

Fruman and Parnas don’t appear to be big names in Ukraine, despite the spate of reports in the U.S. about their efforts there.

John Herbst, who served as U.S. ambassador to Ukraine from 2003 to 2006 — and since 2014 has headed a program on Ukraine and the broader Eurasia region for the think tank Atlantic Council — said he doesn’t recall anything about the pair.

“I have never heard their name in Ukraine until this issue arose. They are not well-connected Ukrainians,” Herbst said in an interview.

There’s some evidence that these guys managed to ingratiate themselves with Giuliani and Trump by telling them what they wanted to hear, that there was some sort of secret evidence about Biden corruption in Ukraine, and that only they knew how to get it revealed:

Parnas told the Miami Herald last month that Ukraine’s government has access to information on alleged wrongdoing by Biden and his son and other U.S. officials overseas — but that the U.S. government had shown little interest in receiving it through official channels. Parnas said his and Fruman’s friendship with Giuliani was their avenue to get the information into the Trump administration’s hands.

“I got certain information and I thought it was my duty to hand it over,” he told the Miami Herald on Sept. 26.

Last night, Parnas appeared on Rachel Maddow’s program and more or less admitted that he and his partner were just a pair of schmoes from South Florida. They had no special connections or avenues of influence in Ukraine. The only reason any government officials in Ukraine were willing to meet with them and listen to them was because they said they were acting on behalf of the American president.

President Trump knew exactly what was going on. He was aware of all my movements. I wouldn’t do anything without the consent of Rudy Giuliani or the president. I have no intent, I have no reason to speak to any of these officials. I mean, they have no reason to speak to me. Why would President Zelenskiy’s inner circle or Minister Avakov or all these people or President Poroshenko meet with me? Who am I? They were told to meet with me. And that’s the secret that they’re trying to keep. I was on the ground doing their work.

Parnas pretty much said exactly what supporters of impeachment wanted to hear: “It was never about corruption. It was never — it was strictly about Burisma, which included Hunter Biden and Joe Biden.”

You’re probably going to hear a lot of Trump’s defenders attacking the credibility of Parnas now. He is facing indictments for conspiring to violate the ban on foreign donations, conspiring to make contributions in connection with federal elections in the names of others, and falsifying records. Indeed, he has every reason to tell Democrats, the media, and prosecutors exactly what they want to hear. And as the interview wore on, Parnas’s story seemed almost a little too perfectly tailored to the wishes of an MSNBC primetime audience. He told Maddow that Vice President Mike Pence knew about everything they were doing, and Attorney General William Barr had to know all of it as well. Parnas and Fruman are obviously good at telling people exactly what they want to hear; you see how far they got doing that to Giuliani and Trump.

You’ll hear the Trump defenders pointing to Parnas’s shady past and contend he’s an unreliable witness. And they’re right. But then the question is . . . why the heck these two guys were entrusted to handle all of this by Trump and Giuliani? If these guys are so obviously, glaringly, flashing-red-warning-sign untrustworthy, why did the president trust them?

Democrats are going to push for impeachment, contending the inquiry into Hunter Biden was improper and a partisan witch hunt, that Trump jeopardized the security of Ukraine, and that he stretched executive privilege beyond all recognition by refusing to cooperate with any of the House’s inquiries. They’re overlooking a much simpler and more persuasive argument. A president who entrusts sensitive duties to the likes of Parnas and Fruman is incapable of recognizing when someone it trying to con him — even an amateur and buffoonish attempt to fool him. And that’s a really dangerous person to have in the Oval Office.

Tom Steyer Just Wants to Say ‘Hi’

The Tuesday night Democratic debate saved up all the drama and comedy for right after it ended and the applause started. CNN aired the recording of what Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders said to each other, right after the debate. The short video is worth watching, if you haven’t already. Warren is indignant, Sanders is exasperated, and then Tom Steyer clumsily steps in, delightfully oblivious:

Warren: “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders: “What?”

Warren: “I think you called me a liar on national TV.”

Sanders: “You know, let’s not do it right now. You want to have that discussion, we’ll have that discussion.”

Warren: “Any time.”

Sanders: “You called me a liar. You told me — all right, let’s not do it now.”

It’s obvious to anyone with eyes that this is an extremely tense moment between two friends and allies. Well, anyone except Tom Steyer, who’s been standing there since the first ‘lets’ not do that right now,’ and who really wants to shake hands with Sanders, no matter what else is going on, and who’s determined to get that handshake, come hell or high water:

Tom Steyer: “I don’t want to get in the middle of it. I just want to say hi, Bernie.”

Sanders:”Yeah — good. OK.”

The Vermont senator is hilariously dismissive in that last exchange; clearly still frustrated with Warren, he absolutely no interest in interacting with Steyer any more than he has to, and face it, for a lot of us, we’ve never felt more like Sanders in our lives.

At least Steyer seems to have a sense of humor about it. Last night, after CNN aired the tape, he tweeted, “Just want to say hi, America.”

‘Who Are the Ad Wizards Who Came Up with This One?’

Surely, Politico means well when they put together a newsletter focusing exclusively on women leaders, and they chose to call it “Women Rule.” They promote it with a hashtag, “#RuleWithUs.” And they’ll be attending and covering the World Economic Forum at Davos, Switzerland, the annual gathering of the world’s political and economic elites. Our Jay Nordlinger described it as “a fairytale setting,” complete with heads of state, Middle Eastern royalty, the most powerful CEOs of multinational conglomerates, media moguls, a handful of celebrities — this is the one percent of the one percent, or maybe even the one percent of the one percent of the one percent.

I just wonder if the promotional slogan “#RuleWithUs at Davos” ends up with a connotation they didn’t intend.

ADDENDUM: Robert F. Hyde is the Giuliani associate who told Parnas in text messages that he was in contact with a “private security” team near the American embassy in Kyiv and suggested that he had U.S. ambassador to Ukraine Marie Yovanovitch under physical and electronic surveillance, with messages like, “it’s confirmed we have a person inside.” In May, police were called to Trump’s Doral resort in Miami-Dade County for a “male in distress fearing for his life,” according to a police report from the incident. According to police records, Hyde was involuntarily detained for concern for his mental health, and shortly thereafter a restraining order was filed against him for harassment.

Hyde is also a candidate for Congress in Connecticut’s Fifth District.

You know who is also running for Congress in that district as a Republican? Former federal prosecutor David X. Sullivan, who brings a lot of excellent qualities to the table. Until recently, we didn’t fully appreciate Sullivan’s excellent quality of “not being Robert Hyde.”

Elections

These Bad and Boring Debates

From left: Activist Tom Steyer, Sen. Elizabeth Warren, former Vice President Joe Biden, Sen. Bernie Sanders, South Bend Mayor Pete Buttigieg, and Sen. Amy Klobuchar onstage for the Democratic primary debate at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, January 14, 2020. (Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

On the menu today is just a big review of why last night’s debate was pretty terrible — not for partisan or ideological reasons, but for the way it offered the viewers watching at home the soothing balm that the next president won’t face any truly difficult decisions — and a reminder that we were supposed to be in Armageddon by now.

These Are Bad Debates

I’m not a fan of these debates, and I don’t think it’s just because I’m not a Democrat.

On foreign policy, the default answer of every Democratic candidate is always: “we need to work with our allies.” As a slogan, that’s fine as far as it goes, but anybody who has paid attention to foreign policy knows that our allies don’t always want to do what we want to do. Back in 2015, the New York Times reported that even before the Iran deal was signed, “European leaders and executives were heading to the airport to restart trade with an Iranian market described in almost feverish terms as ‘an El Dorado’ and potential ‘bonanza.’” Our allies had much fewer qualms or doubts about doing business with an oppressive regime and enriching them in exchange for promises about pausing their nuclear program.

On paper, I should be an easy target for the “work with our allies” argument. I concur that Trump treats the leaders of allied countries terribly and gets into petty fights and embarrassing public name-calling with such figures as Justin Trudeau and Angela Merkel. He tries to ingratiate himself with foreign leaders such as Vladimir Putin and Kim Jong-un. He wanted to invite the Taliban to Camp David around the 9/11 anniversary. Bizarrely, the less an ally acts like an ally, the more Trump seems to respect him — think of Recep Erdogan.

But the answer “we need to work with our allies” glides around the tougher question: What do we do when we want to take a particular course of action and our allies don’t? Do they get an effective veto? The only honest answer is that it depends upon the circumstances, and every presidential candidate’s argument amounts to: “Trust my judgment on the hard calls.”

Senators, mayors, and hedge-fund billionaires don’t make a lot of hard foreign-policy calls — and vice presidents don’t get the final say; otherwise we probably wouldn’t have launched the raid on Osama bin Laden. The discussion of what to do about Iran in 2020 quickly turned into the millionth relitigation of the 2002 vote to authorize the Iraq War. Presidential candidates usually prefer to discuss what we should have done then instead of what we ought to do now — besides, of course, “work with our allies.” Last night, both Bernie Sanders and Joe Biden brought up their opposition to the war in Vietnam. I think Pete Buttigieg could have won the nomination if he had just blurted out, “okay, Boomer.”

You also figure a lot of these candidates think they will avoid serious disagreements with allies. Most lawmakers walk around with a wildly exaggerated sense of their own persuasiveness. The all-time champion of this must have been William Borah’s response to the news that Nazi Germany had invaded Poland: “Lord, if I could only have talked to Hitler — all this might have been averted.”

Yes, it is difficult to lay out specifics in the short amount of time that candidates are given to speak.  But the result often turns into incoherent and contradictory gobbledygook.

Here’s Amy Klobuchar, when asked: “would you leave troops in the Middle East or would you pull them out?”

I would leave some troops there, but not in the level that Donald Trump is taking us right now. Afghanistan, I have long wanted to bring our troops home. I would do that. Some would remain for counterterrorism and training. In Syria, I would not have removed the 150 troops from the border with Turkey. I think that was a mistake. I think it made our allies and many others much more vulnerable to ISIS. And then when it comes to Iraq, right now, I would leave our troops there, despite the mess that has been created by Donald Trump.

So she wants to bring the troops home, but would leave some there, but not too many, but not too few, but they would do counterterrorism and training — just what the heck does she think they’re doing now? — but she would have left the troops where Trump took them out, and she would leave them in Iraq, and maybe put them back on the border with Turkey?

As I’ve mentioned before, a lot of leading figures in our politics — and not just Democrats — believe that elected office comes with a magic wand. Last night I observed that the entire health-care discussion ignores the experience of the state of Vermont when it tried to enact single-payer from 2011 to 2014. There was no Republican sabotage, no foot-dragging from those allegedly nefarious conservatives, no sinister lobbyists blocking some oh-so-easy win-win idea. This is Vermont, where there’s no shortage of well-meaning progressives around. Democrats had the votes, and the governor made it his signature proposal. Everybody who mattered in state government believed in it, everybody wanted to make it happen, everyone had the best of intentions . . . and then they ran the numbers and realized enacting it would require the state to double its current overall spending. Taxes would have to be almost doubled, across the board. And the cost savings on care were projected to be pretty modest. The governor scrapped the plan as unworkable, and single-payer advocates were left insisting that a state government full of progressive Democrats just didn’t try hard enough.

Look at the way the candidates discussed health care last night:

Sanders: “We have 87 million uninsured — uninsured and underinsured, and while 30,000 people die each year . . . You’ve got 500,000 people going bankrupt because they cannot pay their medical bills. We’re spending twice as much per capita on health care as do the people of any other country.”

Warren: “People are suffering. I’ll just pick one: 36 million people last year went to the doctor, got a prescription, this is what they needed to get well, and they couldn’t afford to have the prescription filled. They looked at it and said it’s either groceries or this prescription . . . The average family in America last year paid $12,000 in some combination of deductibles and co-pays and uncovered expenses and fees.”

Klobuchar: “We need to make it easier for people to get long-term care insurance. We need to make it easier for them to pay for their premiums.”

Too many uninsured, high premiums and deductibles and co-pays, unaffordable prescriptions, too much spending for too little care . . . none of those candidates on stage acknowledged that these were the sorts of problems that the Affordable Care Act, or Obamacare, was supposed to fix. These are the exact same complaints about the health-care system that were used to justify the passage of Obamacare. It’s as if the biggest fight in American politics in 2009 and 2010 — stretching into 2014! — was simply erased from history. And no one on that stage felt any obligation to explain why their new effort at health-care reform would work where the previous one they touted so enthusiastically didn’t. And they certainly weren’t pushed to explain that by the moderators. Sorry, Wolf Blitzer, you’re my favorite member of the Mission: Impossible team, but you should have pushed the candidates more on this.

Bernie Sanders rolled out the “our infrastructure is crumbling” line again. We spent nearly a trillion on the 2009 stimulus and hundreds of billions on transportation bills over the past decade, and all of that was supposed to fix that “crumbling infrastructure.” Why does no one ever acknowledge that their past highly touted legislative efforts did not fix the problem they’re currently lamenting?

Last night, Pete Buttigieg said, “in my lifetime, it’s almost invariably Republican presidents who have added to the deficit, a trillion dollars under this president.” It’s as if the Obama years just didn’t happen, huh? Notice Buttigieg referred to the annual deficit, not the cumulative debt. I notice a lot of Democrats do this, because then they can brag that Obama “reduced the deficit” from $1.4 trillion in 2009 to $585 billion in 2016, and I think a lot of Americans are fuzzy on the difference between “reducing the deficit” and “reducing the debt.”  Overall, Obama increased the debt each year, adding up to nearly $9 trillion in new debt by the end of his two terms. Buttigieg is correct that Trump is indeed terrible on runaway spending; we’re on pace to add $5 trillion to the debt in Trump’s first term, a figure that is pretty bad considering we’ve been enjoying a good economy and should be getting higher tax revenues. Every year since 2013 has seen record federal tax payments, even with new tax cuts enacted. We have a spending problem, and neither party is seriously interested in addressing it.

Beyond that, political journalists are acknowledging that these monthly debates — hyped by the cable networks on a level just short of the Super Bowl — are pretty boring, and last night’s was surprisingly free of anything dramatic or interesting or new.

John Harris: “Most of the dynamics on display were familiar — as in, very familiar. John Podhoretz called it “the dullest major political event in years.” Kevin Drum: “Tonight’s debate was . . . really boring. No big fights. No memorable lines. No serious FUBARs. And no clear speaking, either. I found myself not really getting a good idea of what each candidate stood for even though I already knew the answer.”

I don’t think these complaints are a reflection of an audience that wants to be entertained, as Stuart Stevens contends. I think this reflects that six people on that stage want to be liked by as many future caucus-goers and primary voters as possible, which means they desperately want to avoid telling those voters anything they don’t want to hear. No Democratic-primary voter wants to hear that we’ve been hearing promises to bring all the troops home from Afghanistan for four consecutive presidential elections, and it hasn’t happened because that course of action involves risks, both to innocent Afghani civilians and Americans. They don’t want to hear that the federal government will never set up a health-care system that is simultaneously fast, high-quality, and cheap.

One of the key elements of Donald Trump’s appeal in the 2016 cycle was his repeated insistence that the answers were easy, and simply hadn’t been enacted because we were governed by idiots, wimps, and crooks. “You’re going to have such great health care, at a tiny fraction of the cost—and it’s going to be so easy.” “It would be very easy, and very quick, to get gasoline prices down.” “The wall is going to be built, it’s easy.” “Mexico is going to pay for the wall, it’s going to be so easy.”

As Kevin Williamson observes, “everything is easy when you don’t know the first thing about it.”

Democratic-primary voters are not that different, despite their widespread insistence that they’re nothing like those “deplorable” Trump supporters.

ADDENDA: Hey, weren’t we supposed to be in World War III by now?

Does anybody — say, the person who freaked out about seeing a lot of troops in uniform at the Atlanta Hartsfield-Jackson International airport, and tweeted out that this had to be some sort of mobilization for war with Iran — want to pause and say, “wait a minute, maybe I overreacted and spread panic”?

Elections

Warren Breaks Her Truce with Bernie

Senators Elizabeth Warren and Bernie Sanders on Capitol Hill, September 2017. (Yuri Gripas/Reuters)

On the menu today: On the eve of the last debate before the Iowa caucuses, Elizabeth Warren accuses Bernie Sanders of saying a woman can’t beat Donald Trump; as Cory Booker departs the race, most Democratic candidates demonstrate that they learned the wrong lessons from 2016; the outlook grows darker for the Iranian mullahs; and the weirder bits and pieces of Sanders’s life.

Elizabeth Warren Tries to Nuke Bernie Sanders

Elizabeth Warren, back in July, discussing her friendship with Bernie Sanders: “Bernie and I have been friends for a long, long time,” said Warren in an interview, insisting their civil relationship will carry over to the debate stage. “I can’t imagine why it wouldn’t.”

I guess she didn’t have much of an imagination:

Senator Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts said on Monday night that Senator Bernie Sanders of Vermont told her in 2018 he did not think a woman could win the presidency. Ms. Warren’s description of the comment, from a private one-on-one meeting, represents a remarkable salvo at her leading liberal rival in the 2020 race just three weeks before the Iowa caucuses.

Mr. Sanders vehemently denied making the remark earlier on Monday and accused the Warren campaign staff of “lying” about it, in a statement intended to refute a news report by CNN that relied on anonymous sources. The New York Times and other outlets confirmed the CNN report on Monday afternoon, while the Warren campaign initially declined to comment.

I find myself in the odd position of feeling like Heath Ledger’s Joker. This was his assessment of the ethics of the people of Gotham City: “See, their morals, their ‘code’? It’s a bad joke, dropped at the first sign of trouble. They’re only as good as the world allows them to be. I’ll show you. When the chips are down, these, uh, these ‘civilized people,’ they’ll eat each other. See, I’m not a monster. I’m just ahead of the curve . . .”

As for whether it’s true, we’re in the odd situation where this is the sort of thing Sanders would say and simultaneously the sort of thing Warren would lie about. It’s extremely easy to believe Sanders would express some concern that a woman candidate might have a tougher time beating Trump. Then again, we’ve only seen one woman run against Trump, and she was pretty flawed. And even she came within 80,000 votes in three states of winning.

Maybe this is just a reflection of the cynical opportunism that will inevitably manifest itself in a hard-fought presidential primary. Then again, we’ve all seen how easygoing and lenient outspoken progressives are when someone expresses something that challenges their beliefs. The most zealous on the left see everything in politics through a personal lens and a rather Manichean worldview, despite their ardent belief that they’re the sophisticated thinkers who appreciate nuance. Think about what has to be going through Warren’s mind for her to unveil this charge at this moment. She knows darn well what the likely consequences of this are. This is going to be a big issue in tonight’s debate, and there’s a good chance that Sanders will lose some support among women. What’s more, there’s no guarantee that those voters will shift to Warren; the biggest beneficiary of this fight might well be Joe Biden. Sanders has spent his whole life working toward this moment, and now she’s kneecapping him, gambling that this helps her and not the aging centrist that they both would prefer to defeat. There’s no going back to being friends after this.

Bernie Sanders may seem like a good progressive, but if he ever uttered something that Warren construed as sexist or anti-feminist, he must be destroyed at the right time — years of friendship and shared political efforts be damned. Then again, she probably feels like Sanders has it coming, because in her mind he broke the truce and had his volunteers use those anti-Warren talking points.

Amazingly, after sticking the shiv between Sanders’ ribs, Warren then tried to downplay the importance of what she just said:

“Among the topics that came up was what would happen if Democrats nominated a female candidate. I thought a woman could win; he disagreed,” she said. “I have no interest in discussing this private meeting any further because Bernie and I have far more in common than our differences on punditry.” She added that she and Mr. Sanders were “friends and allies” and said she believed they would continue to work together to beat Mr. Trump.

Most of the 2020 Democrats Did Not Heed the Hard Lessons of 2016

As mentioned above, there’s a debate tonight — 9 p.m. Eastern, featuring Biden, Sanders, Warren, Pete Buttigieg, Tom Steyer, Amy Klobuchar . . . and that’s it. No Andrew Yang, no Tulsi Gabbard, no Michael Bloomberg, no Michael Bennet, no John Delaney, no Deval Patrick. Folks like me who complained that the crowded debate stage meant that almost no actual debating occurred will finally get a reasonably contained six-candidate stage.

From where I sit, the theme of the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is that a lot of the “rising stars” in the Democratic party — Kirsten Gillibrand, Kamala Harris, Beto O’Rourke, Julian Castro, Cory Booker — were paper tigers.

A grand total of 29 Democrats of varying stature looked at Donald Trump’s victory in 2016 and concluded: “why not me?” But that was entirely the wrong lesson to take; Trump entered the 2016 GOP presidential primary with 99.2 percent name recognition, according to a survey commissioned by GOP consultant Liz Mair. What a lot of people who cover politics missed in 2015 and 2016 — including myself — was how much Trump’s image and reputation in the political realm had already been shaped by his fame in the cultural realm. It almost didn’t matter what Trump said or did as a candidate, because a lot of people felt like they already knew him — and that they had known him for a while. Since the 1980s, Trump had associated his personal brand with ostentatious wealth, luxury, and success. He had somehow convinced major news organizations that he was an all-purpose expert who made for a good interview, no matter the subject — in part because he was never boring.

CNN’s Larry King would regularly have Trump on and ask about the news of the day, like what the U.S. government should be doing about Somali pirates — as if the Manhattan real estate mogul was some sort of naval-warfare expert. On Fox News, Greta Van Susteren asked him how he would negotiate a deal to avoid a government shutdown. He was a frequent guest of Regis Philbin. Barbara Walters declared him one of her “most fascinating” people of 2011, alongside Kim Kardashian.

Trump was such a celebrity that entertainment shows like the late-night talk and comedy shows didn’t treat him like a presidential candidate, even after he started running. In November 2015, while Trump was running for president, Saturday Night Live invited him to guest host — a decision that cast member Taran Killam later said: “only grows more embarrassing and shameful as time goes on.” (And members of the media wonder why no one heeded their criticism of Trump in 2016.)

The lesson of 2016 was not: “If Donald Trump can become president, anybody can become president.” The lesson was: “If Donald Trump can become president, any celebrity who is already extremely famous and associated with popular things can become president.”

Most politicians are not well known, and many politicians have no idea how obscure they are or are in deep psychological denial about it. Why, everywhere they go, people recognize them! Yes, because they remember the one person at the airport who recognized them and everyone else sitting at the gate who didn’t — or who didn’t care that they were a former mayor or senator or congressman.

Running for president is hard. Only one person succeeds at it each cycle. Successful candidates have to figure out how to appeal to a lot of people who are not their natural supporters. Gillibrand, Harris, O’Rourke, Castro, Booker — most of these figures had thrived in fairly liberal parts of the country and hadn’t faced a tough primary fight in a long time. None of these figures entered the presidential race with the kind of skepticism they deserved. Because members of the mainstream media want to discover the next Bill Clinton or Barack Obama, they greet Democratic up-and-comers with an optimistic willingness to believe.

Some of these failed candidates might complain that media choices, the debate formats, and the well-established bases of support for Biden and Sanders didn’t allow fresher faces to thrive. But that gripe doesn’t hold water. Buttigieg and Yang were even more obscure when this cycle started, and they figured out a way to gain traction in this environment.

Meanwhile, in Iran . . .

Hey, remember last week, when all of those wise foreign-policy voices warned us that the U.S. strike on Soleimani had made our country isolated and strengthened the mullahs? Eh, never mind, apparently:

Britain, France and Germany triggered the dispute resolution mechanism in the 2015 Iran nuclear deal on Tuesday, a tough warning to Tehran and the first step toward reimposing further United Nations sanctions on Iran.

Triggering the dispute resolution mechanism will set the clock running on what could be some 60 days of negotiations with Iran about coming back into full compliance with the deal, and could end up with a “snapback” of United Nations sanctions on Iran, including an arms embargo.

CNN: “Though demonstrations were smaller on Monday and nearly outnumbered by riot police, some observers have already begun to wonder if this could be the beginning of the end for the current regime.”

The New York Times: “The bleak economy appears to be tempering the willingness of Iran to escalate hostilities with the United States, its leaders cognizant that war could profoundly worsen national fortunes. In recent months, public anger over joblessness, economic anxiety and corruption has emerged as a potentially existential threat to Iran’s hard-line regime.”

ADDENDUM: Yesterday’s piece on Bernie Sanders, and how he’s just about the last person in the world anyone would expect to be a top-tier Democratic presidential candidate, had a lot of bits and pieces that just didn’t fit in the final draft: his long-ago complaint about fake news, his 1987 folk album (no, really), his comparison of American lack of interest in voting to Apartheid South Africa, his call for massive defense cuts while keeping the pork-barrel spending coming to Vermont, and his astonishing write-in rate in the 2016 general election.

World

The Iranian People Are Taking a Stand

(Henry Nicholls/Reuters)

Monday launches the week with lots of good news: Crowds of ordinary citizens of Iran are marching in the streets, outraged about their government’s lies about the downed passenger airliner; the truce between Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren is torn to pieces; the old Obama crew comes off the sidelines to hinder Bernie; and a consultant who’s not as well-known as he used to be endorses the presidential candidate that almost everyone has forgotten. But there’s sad news, too, as National Review says farewell to one of Great Britain’s greatest thinkers and writers.

May God Bless and Protect the Iranian People in This Dangerous Hour

We’ve witnessed the Iranian people marching in the streets against the regime back in 2009 and 2017, but this latest round of angry protests feels a little different. Sometimes these are just flares, brief releases of tension, and sometimes they signify a genie being let out of a bottle. Over in Hong Kong, it is hard to imagine the relationship between the people and the government will ever be quite the same.

Think about it: One of the highest priorities of the Iranian regime is to constantly use propaganda to instill loyalty within the people. Televised propaganda, murals on public walls, speeches — all of it with the endless message that the regime is the heroic guardian of the people, that the United States and Israel are implacably malevolent and bloodthirsty menaces. Think about what it’s like to grow up in that culture, and to have the mental strength and courage to say, “no, that’s not true, the regime is lying to us.”

We’ve seen Americans argue that the ultimate cause of the downed Ukrainian jetliner is the United States — that while the Iranian military fired the missile, they were simply acting rationally in a dangerous situation created by American policymakers. And yet a lot of Iranians are calling that nonsense — even after being subjected to anti-American propaganda for a decade. As Reuters reports, they’re willing to risk their lives in order to tell the regime that they know that explanation is nonsense:

Video from inside Iran showed riot police and protesters back out on the streets on Monday after two days of violent anti-government demonstrations. Images of the earlier protests showed slogans chanted against the supreme leader, with pools of blood on the streets and gunfire in the air.

Authorities denied that police had opened fire, while U.S. President Donald Trump tweeted: “don’t kill your protesters.”

Videos posted late on Sunday recorded gunshots in the vicinity of protests in Tehran’s Azadi Square. Wounded were being carried and security personnel could be seen running with rifles. Other posts showed riot police hitting protesters with batons as people nearby shouted “Don’t beat them!”

“Death to the dictator,” footage circulating on social media showed protesters shouting, directing their fury at Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei and the system of clerical rule.

“They killed our elites and replaced them with clerics,” demonstrators chanted at a protest outside a university on Monday, an apparent reference to Iranian students returning to studies in Canada who were among those killed on the flight.

At Shahid Beheshti University campus in Tehran, authorities painted the American and Israeli flags in the street, so that students and pedestrians would symbolically step on those flags in disrespect every day. And then during one of the recent protests . . . many, though not quite all, of the students walked around the flags painted on the ground. These students may not love the United States, and I have a hard time believing they have much love for Israel. But they’ve clearly reached their breaking point with the scapegoating. They know the Americans didn’t shoot down that passenger airliner — and have probably noticed that the strike that killed Soleimani was aimed at the regime, not ordinary people.

This puts the United States in a happy but awkward spot. This is what we’ve wanted to see in Iran for a long, long time. But if we take overt actions to fan the flames of this conflict, the regime will claim, semi-accurately, that we’re trying to help the crowds overthrow the government. So far, it looks like the Trump administration is taking the right tone — “Do not kill your protesters” and “Stop the killing of your great Iranian people” are pretty uncontroversial statements.

The Warren-Sanders Truce Is Over. Cry Havoc, Progressives!

Silly as it may seem, the most dramatic development in the race to win the Democratic Iowa caucus may come from a list of talking points distributed to Bernie Sanders volunteers.

Sanders’ campaign has begun stealthily attacking Warren as a candidate of the upper crust who could not expand the Democratic base in a general election, according to talking points his campaign is using to sway voters and obtained by POLITICO.

The script instructs Sanders volunteers to tell voters leaning toward the Massachusetts senator that the “people who support her are highly-educated, more affluent people who are going to show up and vote Democratic no matter what” and that “she’s bringing no new bases into the Democratic Party.”

Warren is treating this as if it’s a sleazy, underhanded tactic and great injustice:

“I was disappointed to hear that Bernie is sending his volunteers out to trash me,” Ms. Warren, of Massachusetts, said. “I hope Bernie reconsiders and turns his campaign in a different direction.”

“We all saw the impact of the factionalism in 2016, and we can’t have a repeat of that,” she warned. “Democrats need to unite our party and that means pulling in all parts of the Democratic coalition.”

Bernie Sanders responded by blaming rogue low-level employees in the Cincinnati IRS office — er, I’m sorry, I’m mixing up my Democratic excuses. He blamed rogue low-level campaign staffers who allegedly wrote up the script and used it and never bothered to check with him:

In a rare question-and-answer session with reporters after his final event of a weekend Iowa swing, Mr. Sanders — in response to a question on whether he approved of his campaign’s criticism of Ms. Warren — denied responsibility for the script, saying he himself had never attacked Ms. Warren. And he blamed the news media for overstating the tension between the two campaigns. “I got to tell you, I think this is a little bit of a media blowup, that kind of wants conflict,” he said.

The informal truce between Sanders and Warren couldn’t last forever. The signs of strain were there as early as October. Presidential nominees are like the destiny of the immortals in Highlander — “there can be only one.” It’s not uncommon for presidential candidates in the same party to be either friends or friendly acquaintances — I understand former governors Rick Perry and Bobby Jindal are buddies — but eventually every leading candidate has to argue: “I am the best choice, which means I am better than all of my rivals, and here’s why.”

Both candidates are engaging in a risky strategy, whether they realize it or not. Often in a primary fight, when Candidate A goes negative on Candidate B, the one who benefits is Candidate C. Perhaps the most vivid example of this came right around this time in the cycle in 2004, when Dick Gephardt went negative on Howard Dean and Iowa Democratic caucus-goers shifted . . . to John Kerry.

As Predicted, the Obama Team Doesn’t Want Sanders to Get Nominated

Your friendly neighborhood political correspondent, January 8: “The old Hillary Clinton crowd still resents [Bernie Sanders] over 2016, and the old Obama crowd doesn’t like Sanders’ implicit and sometimes overt criticism of the Obama record. There are a lot of powerful forces in the party’s infrastructure who have mostly remained on the sidelines but who could get active if they think a Sanders nomination is imminent.”

Politico, January 8: “Barack Obama’s 2012 campaign manager is warning that Democrats would struggle in a general election against Donald Trump if Bernie Sanders is the nominee.”

In an interview with POLITICO, Jim Messina predicted that Trump would exploit Sanders’ stamp of socialism in battleground states needed to defeat Trump, keep control of the House and have a shot at winning the Senate.

“If I were a campaign manager for Donald Trump and I look at the field, I would very much want to run against Bernie Sanders,” Messina said. “I think the contrast is the best. He can say, ‘I’m a business guy, the economy’s good and this guy’s a socialist.’ I think that contrast for Trump is likely one that he’d be excited about in a way that he wouldn’t be as excited about Biden or potentially Mayor Pete or some of the more Midwestern moderate candidates.”

For Sanders, the downside of the “hey, Bernie Sanders could actually win this thing” coverage is that it gets people who don’t like the idea of him nominated sufficiently motivated to take action to prevent it.

RIP, Roger Scruton

Roger Scruton, who passed away Sunday, didn’t get enough attention here in the United States. Yuval Levin describes him as “just an unfathomably fruitful and productive mind. He published at least fifty books, produced countless essays, was constantly giving brilliant lectures, and even wrote music and starred in a documentary or two, all of which just sparkle with his brilliance.” Jay Nordlinger attempts to summarize the sheer depth and breadth of his thinking: “Scruton was latitudinarian, as Bill Buckley would say. He was big, broad, capacious. He could bring down the hammer — he had principles — but he was no dogmatist. What genuine conservative is?”

 Michael Brendan Dougherty offers what Scruton taught him:

From him most of all I took my own idea of what conservatism is, the attempt to preserve or recover a home in this world — a place of consolation, a sanctified somewhere that connects us to the dead, the unborn, and our neighbors through love, memory, and sacrifice. A place that belongs to us and implants in us a longing for the true home that can never be destroyed by storms, war, neglect, or the encroachment of speculative exurban developers who want to replace our homes with parking lots and Panera Bread. We put in our labors to preserve freedom, decency, and culture, so that our children receive this somewhere as a place prepared for me by my father.

This morning I came across this quote, which says so much in so few words:

Conservatism starts from a sentiment that all mature people can readily share: the sentiment that good things are easily destroyed, but not easily created. This is especially true of the good things that come to us as collective assets: peace, freedom, law, civility, public spirit, the security of property and family life, in all of which we depend on the cooperation of others while having no means singlehandedly to obtain it. In respect of such things, the work of destruction is quick, easy and exhilarating; the work of creation is slow, laborious and dull. That is one of the lessons of the twentieth century. It is also one reason why conservatives suffer such a disadvantage when it comes to public opinion. Their position is true but boring, that of their opponents exciting but false.

ADDENDUM: We close the morning with two pieces of shocking news. First, former Bill Clinton strategist James Carville endorsed Colorado senator Michael Bennet for president. Second, Michael Bennet is still running for president.

World

Give Blame Where It’s Due, Please

Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy lays flowers to commemorate victims of the Ukraine International Airlines Boeing 737-800 plane crash, at a memorial in Boryspil International airport outside Kiev, Ukraine January 9, 2020. (Ukrainian Presidential Press Service/Handout via Reuters)

On the menu today: how the claim that the United States is ultimately responsible for the Iranian military shooting down a passenger airliner is just the latest example of “blame America first,”; the New York Times prepares to endorse a candidate in the Democratic presidential primary; David Brooks offers some painful honesty; and yet another pretty good jobs report.

They Always Blame America First

Jeane Kirkpatrick accurately declared: “they always blame Americans first.”

Sure, the Iranian air-defense system would not have been on highest alert this week if the United States had not killed Soleimani outside the Baghdad International Airport January 3. But the Iranians made the choice to fire rockets into Iraq that evening, the Iranian government made the choice to permit civilian air traffic in the hours after their rocket attack, and ultimately it was the Iranian military that fired the surface-to-air missile. You really have to squint and stretch to say that this tragedy — which killed 82 Iranians, 63 Canadians, eleven Ukrainians (including the crew members), ten Swedish, seven Afghans, and three Germans — is President Trump’s fault.

One question for the military-technology experts: Does this tragedy stem from poor training on the part of the Iranian military, or does Russian air-defense system equipment do a lousy job of differentiating between civilian airliners and military jets?

Whatever the answer to that question is, the fact remains that right now, the Democratic grassroots believe that Trump is the root of all evil, and all bad things that happen lead back to him in one form or another. There’s a Democratic primary and impeachment battle going on simultaneously. No one of any stature in the Democratic party can afford the political risk of publicly arguing or even acknowledging that anything isn’t Trump’s fault. The Democratic presidential candidates, in particular, have to offer the biggest, most vocal, most emphatic, “yes, you’re right, grassroots” that they possibly can.

“Innocent civilians are now dead because they were caught in the middle of an unnecessary and unwanted military tit for tat,” Pete Buttigieg declared. The most common term floating around Thursday night was “crossfire,” even though Tuesday night only one side was firing any weapons. Keep in mind, so far in this conflict, the United States military hasn’t fired anything into or in the direction of Iranian territory.

If we really want to extend blame beyond the Iranian military, there is a long list of individuals and institutions who should be standing in line ahead of President Trump. Let’s start with Iranian aviation authorities who kept their local civilian aircraft flying, and the airlines who chose to keep flights taking off shortly after Iranian military action — when no one could know for sure whether the military action had concluded.

About 2 1/2 hours before the Ukraine International Airlines jet with 176 people on board took off, the Federal Aviation Administration issued emergency orders prohibiting American pilots and airlines from flying over Iran, the Persian Gulf or the Gulf of Oman.

The notices warned that heightened military activity and political tension in the Middle East posed “an inadvertent risk” to U.S. aircraft “due to the potential for miscalculation or mis-identification.”

Foreign airlines aren’t bound by FAA directives, but they often follow them. In this case, however, several large international carriers — including Lufthansa, Turkish Airlines, Qatar Airways and Aeroflot — continued to fly in and out of Tehran after Iran fired missiles at military bases inside Iraq that house U.S. troops. They still were flying after the FAA warning, and after the Ukrainian jetliner crashed, according to data from Flightradar24, which tracks flights around the world.

“It was awfully peculiar and awfully risky,” said Peter Goelz, a former managing director of the U.S. National Transportation Safety Board. “That’s a theater of war and these guys were acting like there was nothing going on.”

Goelz said airlines should have canceled all flights when Iran fired the missiles.

That Kirkpatrick speech from the 1984 Republican National Convention, linked above, is always worth rereading, because while the particular issues change, the philosophy doesn’t. (Although note one section of her speech dealt with Iranian-backed terrorism: “When our Marines, sent to Lebanon on a multinational peacekeeping mission with the consent of the United States Congress, were murdered in their sleep, the “blame America first crowd” didn’t blame the terrorists who murdered the Marines, they blamed the United States.”)

Kirkpatrick concluded: “The American people know that it’s dangerous to blame ourselves for terrible problems that we did not cause. They understand just as the distinguished French writer, Jean Francois Revel, understands the dangers of endless self-criticism and self-denigration. He wrote: ‘Clearly, a civilization that feels guilty for everything it is and does will lack the energy and conviction to defend itself.’”

A certain kind of U.S. foreign-policy thinker or lawmaker believes that if we just apply the right combination of incentives, every problem beyond our shores can be fixed. If some foreign leader takes action against us, it’s because we didn’t do something we should have or because we did do something we shouldn’t. It’s as if they don’t really see foreign leaders and peoples as having independent wills and agencies, just instinctive responses to our actions, and that all of their acts, no matter how malevolent, are entirely rational responses to our failures to meet their expectations.

A couple people griped that Monday’s piece assessed the behavior of the Iranian government starting in 1979 — you know, when the revolution and current regime took over — and didn’t go back to the coup in 1953 or the formation of the Anglo-Persian Oil Company in 1914. (At least this is a refreshing change from the folks who believe Iranian history began when Trump withdrew from the Iranian nuclear deal.)

I’m a big fan of studying history, but the past can’t be changed. When trying to figure out how to deal with the threat of this regime, declarations like, “well, we never should have opposed Prime Minister Mohammed Mossadeq 67 years ago!” don’t really get us anywhere.

The New York Times Endorsement Is Coming. Curb Your Enthusiasm!

The common reaction in conservative circles to the news that the New York Times will have “a transparent process” before their endorsement in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary will be to scoff that no one cares what the Times thinks and that no one decides who to vote for based on newspaper endorsements.

Look, one lucky Democratic presidential candidate is going to get one good news cycle out of this. Even if the endorsement is not enormously consequential, every Democratic campaign would rather have it than not have it. The candidate who gets it will almost certainly mention it in some television ads during the primary, although not the general election. And the stakes matter more for some candidates than others. Elizabeth Warren was more or less engineered in a laboratory to appeal to the Times editorial board. If she doesn’t get the endorsement, it’s a bad day for her.

And no matter what the editorial actually says, people will read certain meanings into the choice. If the Times endorses Joe Biden, it will be seen as a sign that the Times editorial board doesn’t have faith that the rest of the field can beat Trump. If the Times endorses Buttigieg, it will be seen as a sign that the Times editorial board wants the formula that worked for Bill Clinton and Barack Obama — the young, smart, well-spoken rising star. If the Times endorses Bernie Sanders, it will be seen as a sign that the Times editorial board wants to lead the Socialist Revolution from the offices of a skyscraper in midtown Manhattan.

As for me, I hope that the process begins with each candidate first individually pouring his or her heart out, directly to a camera, talking about their hopes and dreams and what they feel they can offer the editors of the Times that the other candidates can’t. I hope they say what the endorsement means to them, and how it could be the start of something life-changing and unforgettable. I want to see an edited montage of each candidate talking with the editors, hopefully showcasing a wide range of moments showcasing their entire personality — impassioned, laughing, solemn. Then I want all of the candidates to come out in a group, dressed in their finest, and then deputy editor Kathleen Kingsbury comes out with a single rose, and they sort this out like on ABC’s The Bachelor — lots of heated competition, crying, and broken hearts.

‘The Ultimate Bonding, Attention-Grabbing and Profit-Maximization Mechanism’

Speaking of the New York Times, David Brooks writes a painfully honest column about how issues get discussed during this presidency, with a paragraph his readers probably won’t want to hear: “This is Trump’s ultimate victory. Every argument on every topic is now all about him. Hating Trump together has become the ultimate bonding, attention-grabbing and profit-maximization mechanism for those of us in anti-Trump world. So you get a series of exaggerated fervors — the Mueller report! Impeachment! The Steele dossier! — that lead ultimately nowhere.”

A Trump rival — in either party, really — could make a completely different argument. The argument would focus upon promising to deliver the same results that people like from this presidency without all of the endless circus, controversy, erratic decision-making, chaotic staff turnover and gleeful antagonism that comes with this president. A candidate could promise that he won’t mess with an economy that is roaring by instituting any giant, sweeping new regulations or massive tax increases. A candidate could promise to continue enforcement of current immigration law, but with measures to ensure that everyone, even those who enter the country illegally, are treated humanely and with dignity while in U.S. custody. A candidate could promise to release his tax returns, put his finances into a blind trust, and bend over backward to ensure his personal financial interests and government policy never intersect or intertwine. A candidate could pledge that no matter how much his political foes irritated him, he would strive to treat everyone in public life with respect, to set a good example. A candidate could pledge that he would try to resist the temptation of the imperial presidency and trying to change policy as much as possible through executive orders and recognize that any major change to U.S. law needs to have buy-in from representatives from both major parties.

But a candidate like that wouldn’t get big television ratings, I guess.

ADDENDUM: Just as this newsletter is sent off to the editors, we learn the latest jobs report is fine, but not great: “The US economy added 145,000 jobs in December, the Bureau of Labor Statistics said Friday. The unemployment rate remained steady at 3.5%, which is a historic low.”

World

The Good and Bad of the Western Media’s Iran Coverage

Facility at Aramco’s Shaybah oilfield in the Empty Quarter of Saudi Arabia in 2018. (Ahmed Jadallah/Reuters)

On the menu today: In light of the recent military tensions with Iran, it’s worth looking back at how the major U.S. and other Western media covered the attack on the Saudi Arabian oil facilities in September, and how they consistently suggested the administration’s claims were flimsy and that Iranian denials were worth keeping in mind; some terrific reporting on how the administration responded to intelligence that Iran was planning a missile attack; and Senator Mike Lee just wants a little consultation that’s consistent with the Constitution.

How the Media Botched Their Coverage of Iran’s Attack on Saudi Arabia in September

Foreign affairs are covered and discussed poorly in the Western media, and the habits, instincts, and mental framework of those who cover these events work to the benefit of dishonest and authoritarian entities such as the Iranian regime. Let’s look back at the Iranian attack on Saudi Arabian oil facilities from this September.

On September 14, 2019, drones attacked two key oil installations inside Saudi Arabia, damaging facilities that process most of the country’s crude oil and briefly disrupting world oil supplies. America’s intelligence community quickly determined this was an Iranian attack. Despite the Iranian regime’s long sponsorship of terror, aggression against its neighbors, and well-established history of lying about all of it, the Western media treated the Tehran’s denial of responsibility as sufficiently plausible to doubt claims of U.S. intelligence officials. Few Western media entities came out and outright denied that Iran launched the attacks, but almost none were willing to spotlight the implausibility of the Iranian regime’s denials. The net effect was to create a blurry gray area and confusion about who launched the attack, which was exactly what Tehran wanted.

The day of the attack, Secretary Pompeo declared on Twitter, “There is no evidence the attacks came from Yemen.”

This is such irresponsible simplification, and it’s how we get into dumb wars of choice,” Senator Chris Murphy, (D., Conn.) said about Pompeo’s tweet to ABC News. “The Saudis and Houthis are at war. The Saudis attack the Houthis and the Houthis attack back. Iran is backing the Houthis and has been a bad actor, but it’s just not as simple as Houthis [equal] Iran.”

On September 15, a tweet from Iran’s foreign minister, Javad Zarif, claimed, “having failed at ‘max pressure,’ Secretary Pompeo’s turning to ‘max deceit.’ US & its clients are stuck in Yemen because of illusion that weapon superiority will lead to military victory. Blaming Iran won’t end disaster.” That denial was all it took to get the Western news media to treat the U.S. claims about the attack with a consistently skeptical tone.

The Washington Post, September 15: “There was ‘no evidence the attacks came from Yemen,’ Pompeo said in a tweet; he has not offered evidence for his claims.”

The retired military officials cited by CNN on September 15 contended that the available evidence just couldn’t confirm the U.S. claims: “Ret. Gen. Mark Hertling said the images ‘really don’t show anything, other than pretty good accuracy on the strike of the oil tanks.’ Ret. Adm. John Kirby echoed this point, stating ‘there is nothing I see in these pictures which confirms a launch from any particular location.’”

The New York Times, September 16: “The publicly available evidence is consistent with a few aspects of the White House claims. But American officials have offered no evidence beyond the satellite photos, which analysts said were insufficient to prove where the attack came from, which weapons were used and who fired them.”

Slate, September 16: “the Saudis aren’t yet backing up the administration’s confident claim that Iran was the staging ground for the attack. The Trump administration really is all on its own.”

Robin Wright of The New Yorker wrote a lengthy article on the attacks that acknowledged that U.S. officials said Iran was responsible, but then laid out the evidence and arguments that the Houthis in Yemen could have done it:

The Houthis had previously fired ballistic missiles and drones at Saudi oil installations, military facilities, and airports—from Jeddah, in the west, to the oil fields in eastern Saudi Arabia, on the Persian Gulf.

For years, Iran has been the primary arms supplier to the Houthis, whose military capabilities have increasingly expanded. If the attacks did come from Yemeni soil—a fact the United States and Saudi Arabia disputed—the drones would have had to fly more than five hundred miles. In January, the U.N. reported that the Houthis had drones capable of flying up to fifteen hundred kilometres, or about nine hundred and thirty miles. On Monday, Sare’e threatened further Houthi attacks on the kingdom. “We assure the Saudi regime that our long arm can reach any place we choose and at the time of our choosing,” he tweeted. Future attacks, he said, “will expand and be more painful.”

The argument that the identities of the perpetrators of the attack were a great unsolved mystery, and that any U.S. claims that Iran launched it had to be irresponsible warmongering, was also asserted by the Russian Foreign Ministry, September 16: “We strongly recommend not rushing to conclusions about who carried out this attack on the Saudi refineries. We consider it counterproductive to use what happened to build up passions around Iran in line with the well-known U.S. line and all the more unacceptable are options that provide for retaliatory force measures, which are allegedly being discussed at present in Washington.” I mention this only because we’ve spent much of the past three years hearing that the absolute worst thing the American news media could do would be to echo Russian propaganda.

September 17, the Washington Post: “Officials in Washington and Riyadh spent the day analyzing satellite photos and other intelligence that they said indicated that Iranian weapons were used in the assault on the Saudi Aramco facilities. But they presented no new information that would conclusively show that Iran directed or launched the attack.”

Vox, September 20: “At this point it’s mostly America and Saudi Arabia’s word against Iran’s, and the current governments of those three countries are not exactly known for their commitment to honesty and transparency.”

Long after the attack had fallen out of the headlines, Western media continued to contend that this was another case of American scapegoating. The BBC reported on December 11, “The UN has reportedly so far been unable to confirm Iran was involved in drone and cruise missile attacks on two key Saudi oil facilities in September.”

Now the United Nations investigation is complete, and we learn . . .

Yesterday, Reuters: “Yemen’s Houthi group did not launch an attack on Saudi Arabia’s oil facilities in September, according to a confidential report by U.N. sanctions monitors seen by Reuters on Wednesday, bolstering a U.S. accusation that Iran was responsible.”

Also yesterday, a New York Times article declared: “with tensions between the United States and Iran at the highest level in four decades, the unexpected success of the September strike on the Saudi oil facilities is a stark reminder that Tehran has an array of stealthier weapons in its arsenal that could pose far greater threats if the hostilities escalate.”

Somewhere along the line, the American national news media either decided or realized that Secretary Pompeo and the U.S. government were not lying, were not making this up, and were not using shoddy intelligence to hype a threat from an authoritarian Middle Eastern regime. The declaration that Iran was responsible stopped being controversial, disputed, or unproven. It just became a fact, one that can be cited in an article about how dangerous the current moment is and the high risks of the president’s actions.

This is all leftover guilt about the Iraq War, isn’t it? So many of the people in foreign affairs journalism imbibed the “Bush lied us into war” rhetoric so deeply that they’ve concluded that American officials must be treated with way more skepticism than officials in secretive and serially dishonest authoritarian regimes. They say generals are always fighting the last war; apparently journalists are always covering the last one, too.

‘Haspel Had Predicted the Most Likely Response Would be a Missile Strike from Iran’

With that complaint out of the way, it’s worth remembering American coverage of foreign policy isn’t all bad. The New York Times has a terrific story today on how the administration and military responded when spy agencies determined that an Iranian missile attack would be launched within three hours. This section is particularly intriguing:

Appearing on a video screen was Gina Haspel, the C.I.A. director, who was monitoring the crisis from the agency’s headquarters in Northern Virginia. In the days before General Suleimani’s death, Ms. Haspel had advised Mr. Trump that the threat the Iranian general presented was greater than the threat of Iran’s response if he was killed, according to current and former American officials. Indeed, Ms. Haspel had predicted the most likely response would be a missile strike from Iran to bases where American troops were deployed, the very situation that appeared to be playing out on Tuesday afternoon.

Though Ms. Haspel took no formal position about whether to kill General Suleimani, officials who listened to her analysis came away with the clear view that the C.I.A. believed that killing him would improve — not weaken — security in the Middle East.

When You’ve Lost Mike Lee, You’re Just Not Trying Very Hard

Look, Trump administration, Senator Mike Lee is one of the most reasonable senators out there. He’s no peacenik dove, he’s no knee-jerk critic of the administration (he votes with the Trump administration 74 percent of the time) he’s no softie on the Iranian mullahs, and he’s not looking for an excuse to criticize or attack the White House. So if Lee comes out of a classified briefing on the strike that killed Iranian commander Qasem Soleimani and calls it the “worst briefing I’ve had on a military issue” during his nine years in the Senate, it means you’ve made a genuine unforced error.

Almost every Congress thinks that the president and the administration are insufficiently cooperative, but the two most recent presidencies have hit the accelerator to the point where the White House simply ignores Congress. (Obama’s “I have a pen, and a phone” philosophy led to a lot of sweeping policy changes enacted by executive orders.)

At one point one of the briefers said something like, ‘Don’t worry, we’ll consult you,’” Lee said. “Consultation isn’t a constitutional declaration of war. Drive-by notification or after the fact lame briefings like the one we just received are inadequate.”

Just a little bit of effort to keep Congress in the loop — at least with the overall goals of policy in the region, if not in specific operations — would do a lot of good. Even if the Congressional Democrats remain implacably opposed to every administration action, you would at least get Congressional Republicans to buy in and feel invested in defending those policies. Ideally, you get the opposition to believe they suggested the idea.

ADDENDUM: I am amazed about the way some people discuss the “Rooney Rule” in the National Football League. I figured that whether you’re white, black, Latino, or whatever, you would like to see every talented potential head coach to get a fair shot at getting hired for the top job. Whether you think the NFL currently having three black head coaches and one Latino is enough or a striking underrepresentation, I’d like to think that everyone would like to see as many good coaches as possible get a decent opportunity to prove themselves in the top spot. I also marvel that anyone who really follows the NFL can believe that the dearth of minority coaches is just a reflection of owners picking the best possible person for the job, and my perspective is not entirely fueled by my volcanic disdain for New York Jets head coach Adam Gase. I think it’s really odd that Kansas City Chiefs offensive coordinator Eric Bieniemy has interviewed for seven jobs in the past two years and never gotten an offer. (Does he just bomb in every interview?) I think it’s weird that Jim Caldwell, who got the Colts to the Super Bowl, has interviewed for another three jobs and not gotten hired. Was Freddie Kitchens a better choice in Cleveland? Was Pat Shurmur a better hire by the Giants? How’s Matt Patricia working out for the Detroit Lions so far? Or Zac Taylor with the Bengals?

(And yeah, I don’t understand how Gase gets another chance after three years of mediocrity with the Dolphins but a guy like Caldwell doesn’t.)

I doubt that overt racism motivates these hiring choices, but I think NFL owners have an idea of who they want to hire before they fire the old coach, that in many case the owners’ preferences are for recognizable names that will generate buzz, and that most owners don’t know many promising minority coaching candidates and can’t be bothered to look for them. And I think minorities have a fair gripe that a rule that was designed to give them a fair shot has turned into a laughably transparent process of meaningless interviews of token candidates.

National Security & Defense

A Rough Night for Iran

The Iranian flag flutters in Vienna, Austria, March 4, 2019. (Leonhard Foeger/Reuters)

On the menu today: Politics takes a back seat as we focus on shocking events in the Middle East, from an Iranian counterattack with minimal casualties and an oddly timed plane crash in Tehran to some earthquakes near an Iranian nuclear reactor.

Whew! A Frightening Night for America Turned Out Not Quite So Bad

Last night, around the dinner hour, the situation in the Middle East looked pretty scary. We knew the Iranian military had fired some number of missiles or rockets at bases in Iraq that were housing U.S. troops. American reporters on the ground in Tehran were reporting that the Iranian Air Force had “been deployed,” with no specification of whether this was routine air defense in anticipation of an American counterattack, or whether the deployment was part of a second wave of strikes. Many of us noted that these were precisely the moments when online disinformation efforts kick into high gear, and like clockwork, random accounts claimed to have the first scoop on the damage from the Iranian attacks and U.S. casualties.

As of this writing — and who knows, by the time you read this, the circumstance may have changed — it appears that for the United States, last night’s attack turned out as minimally harmful as possible. The U.S. government has no reports of American casualties yet, and Iraqi military officials are saying none of their personnel were killed either. The Iranian government is telling its people it killed 80 Americans. The Iraqis say the Iranians fired 22 missiles.

Mohammad Javad Zarif, Iran’s foreign minister, issued a statement on Twitter declaring, “Iran took and concluded proportionate measures in self-defense under Article 51 of UN Charter targeting base from which cowardly armed attack against our citizens and senior officials were launched. We do not seek escalation or war, but will defend ourselves against any aggression.”

Notice that word, “concluded.” That suggests that in their minds, they have now settled the score — at least in their public rhetoric. Last night was not the first of multiple waves of missile attacks.

Military experts will be debating this for a while, but if a country fires 22 missiles at targets and doesn’t kill anyone, either they’re really bad at their jobs or this operation was primarily symbolic. The Iranians could have tried other methods more likely to kill Americans last night, but they didn’t. The Iranian Air Force stayed within its own territory. They’re telling their people that they won a great victory. The message to us, between the lines, is that they don’t want this fight to get any bigger.

If both sides are willing to deescalate, we can avoid an all-out war between the United States and Iran — and that’s pretty darn good news.

But it is also worth remembering that the Iranian regime has a history of responding to attacks with terrorism through proxies. Yashar Ali spotlighted examples last night — hitting back after an Israeli strike by killing Israeli diplomats in Georgia, India, and Thailand a month later, and then six months later, bombing a bus full of Israeli tourists in Bulgaria. Last night may just be the symbolic, short-term retaliation while Tehran plots a more dangerous operation for some time down the road. All we can do to prevent that is continue our spying and eavesdropping, be on alert for all of the traditional targets — embassies, consulates, groups of Americans living, working, or traveling abroad — and make clear that any Iranian attack on civilians would bring a thunderously devastating response.

(What kind of devastating response? Just to spitball for a moment, almost all of Iran’s crude oil exports pass through terminals located on the islands of Kharg, Lavan, and Sirri in the Persian Gulf. Some Tomahawk missiles could take them out of commission for a long time. By last autumn, the current sanctions had driven down Iranian oil exports from 1.7 million barrels per day to less than 500,000 barrels per day. Imagine the state of the Iranian economy if that number shrank down close to zero for a stretch.)

The ball is now in President Trump’s court. He probably has two competing impulses right now. Iran threw a punch, and Trump’s instincts are always to counterpunch. But last night’s Iranian “punch” by and large missed, and the president can avoid getting drawn into a larger and more deadly conflict by making any U.S. response similarly symbolic and deescalatory. If the fight ends now, the United States is the big winner. We killed Soleimani, demonstrated that we can target just about anyone in the Iranian regime and eliminate them without warning, and have, so far, not lost any American lives in the Iranian counterattack, nor have our Iraqi allies.

What Made a Ukrainian Passenger Jet Crash outside Tehran Last Night?

This is the sort of event that sets off new conspiracy theories around the globe:

A Ukrainian passenger jet carrying more than 170 people crashed in Iran early Wednesday shortly after takeoff from Tehran’s main international airport, killing all aboard, officials said.

In the aftermath of the crash, Ukraine has banned all flights from Iranian airspace, a move also taken by several other countries in light of the rising tensions between Iran and U.S. forces in the region.

The Boeing 737-800 likely crashed due to technical difficulties, Iranian state media quoted Ali Kahshani, a senior public relations official at the airport, as saying. Ukraine’s embassy in Iran at first concurred, issuing a statement ruling out terrorism, but then took it down without explanation.

The aircraft involved in Wednesday’s incident, a Boeing 737-800, was three years old and purchased from the manufacturer as new by Ukraine International Airlines, the carrier said in a statement. It had its last routine technical maintenance on Monday.

A lot of people might see this news and think, “that can’t possibly be a coincidence.” But it happens. On November 12, 2001, American Airlines Flight 587 crashed shortly after take-off from John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York City — just two months after 9/11, during the U.S. campaign to topple the Taliban. It was the second-deadliest plane crash in American history, and almost everyone believed it had to be terrorism at the time. But terrorists had nothing to do with the crash:

The investigation into Flight 587 quickly shifted its focus from terrorism to [First Officer Sten] Molin. The vertical stabilizer fin’s separation from the craft before the crash indicated that great stress had been placed on the component. The NTSB’s final conclusion holds that Molin used” “unnecessary and aggressive” rudder controls to stabilize the airplane from turbulence it encountered in the wake of the Japan Airline Boeing 747 that States and Molin discussed just prior to takeoff.

A crashed jetliner in New York City, two months after 9/11, a terrible death toll . . . and it turned out to be just an awful coincidence, nothing to do with terrorism.

We don’t know the cause of the Ukrainian plane crash in Tehran, and they’re apparently not eager to share the black box. But one theory that might make sense is that Iranian air defenses were presumably on high alert last night, and had been since the strike that killed Soleimani. A combination of fatigue, stress, inexperience, insufficient training, or just plain routine human error prompts some Iranian air-defense team to mistake the passenger jet for an American fighter jet — and tragedy ensues.

No, We Don’t Have a Secret Earthquake Weapon . . . . Right?

Then there was the other odd coincidence of the night: “An earthquake measuring 4.7 on the Richter scale struck two towns in southern Iran near the Bushehr nuclear power plant but didn’t cause any casualties, the state-run Islamic Republic News Agency reported.” Forget your theories that this is covering up some sort of massive bomb dropped by Americans — this is a region known for earthquakes, and the epicenters of the two quakes were about five miles down — far too deep to be caused by anything on the surface.

Neither the United States nor any other country have developed a weapon that can create earthquakes . . . as far as we know. But that doesn’t mean that various scientists haven’t researched the idea. Back in 1997, then-secretary of defense William Cohen gave a speech with this intriguing and vague reference:

Alvin Toeffler has written about this in terms of some scientists in their laboratories trying to devise certain types of pathogens that would be ethnic specific so that they could just eliminate certain ethnic groups and races; and others are designing some sort of engineering, some sort of insects that can destroy specific crops. Others are engaging even in an eco- type of terrorism whereby they can alter the climate, set off earthquakes, volcanoes remotely through the use of electromagnetic waves.

And the High Frequency Active Auroral Research Program, or HAARP, always was the centerpiece of wild conspiracy theories. The Air Force, the Navy, the University of Alaska, and the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency teamed up on the massive research project, based in Alaska. In 2015, the government ended its role in the program and turned the whole thing over to the University of Alaska.

Still, in an American government where everything leaks, including transcripts of the president’s calls with foreign leaders, do you think everyone in the government and every contractor and technician involved could manage to keep a weapon that creates earthquakes secret? Come on, put enough drinks in a lot of guys, and they’ll be boasting to the cocktail waitress that their day job is running the secret earthquake machine — even when they’re really just the deputy assistant technician.

As someone put it, the clearest evidence that the U.S. government isn’t secretly keeping the bodies and craft of aliens who crashed in Roswell locked up at Area 51 is that if we really had them, Trump probably would have tweeted about it by now.

ADDENDA: File this away under “good news that probably doesn’t get enough attention, and adds to cultural pessimism”: From 2016 to 2017, the United States saw its largest-ever single-year drop in overall cancer deaths, a 2.2 percent plunge spurred in part by a sharp decline in lung cancer deaths, according to the American Cancer Society.

Politics & Policy

The Cowardice of Congress

A tote board shows the votes of members of Congress as House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) presides over the final of two House of Representatives votes approving two counts of impeachment against President Donald Trump in the House Chamber on Capitol Hill, December 18, 2019. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: Iran’s U.S. diplomats have some complaints; Congress is too scared to do its job; and Bernie Sanders might start racking up frequent-flyer miles.

Iran Complains the U.S. Is Restricting the Movement of Its Diplomats

Maybe the Trump administration should just tell Iranian foreign minister Mohammad Javad Zarif that it just isn’t safe to travel into Bill de Blasio’s New York City these days:

The Trump administration is barring Iran’s top diplomat from entering the United States this week to address the United Nations Security Council about the U.S. assassination of Iran’s top military official in Baghdad, violating the terms of a 1947 headquarters agreement requiring Washington to permit foreign officials into the country to conduct U.N. business, according to three diplomatic sources.

Iranian Foreign Minister Mohammad Javad Zarif requested a visa a “few weeks ago” to enter the United States to attend a Jan. 9 Security Council meeting on the importance of upholding the U.N. Charter, according to a diplomatic source familiar with the matter. The Thursday meeting was to provide Tehran’s top diplomat with his first opportunity to directly address the world community since U.S. President Donald Trump ordered the Jan. 3 drone strike that killed Maj. Gen. Qassem Suleimani, a top Iraqi militia leader, among others.

The Iranian government was awaiting word on the visa Monday when a Trump administration official phoned U.N. Secretary-General António Guterres to inform him that the United States would not allow Zarif into the country, according to the Washington-based diplomatic source. 

Gee Iran, it really stinks when another country ignores international law and doesn’t allow your diplomats to move freely, huh? We won’t let your guys enter, you wouldn’t let our guys leave . . . yup, diplomacy would be so much easier if everyone honored their signed agreements.

Of course, I’d let him into the country, just because I figure it’s easier to conduct covert espionage while he’s on our soil.

Yes, We Should Update the Authorization for Military Force. But Congress Is Cowardly.

Kevin had a typically strong column this weekend. House speaker Nancy Pelosi contends that the strike on Soleimani was provocative and disproportionate, that it put the lives of American service members, diplomats, and others further at risk, and that Congress was not properly notified. Kevin observes she’s acting like an irritated pundit, rather than one of the heads of the legislative branch of government:

But Nancy Pelosi is the speaker of the House, not a passive bystander unable to do anything at all about a situation that, if we take her at her word, she believes to be potentially catastrophic. She can do more than stamp her foot. She could, if she were so inclined, begin the process of repealing the Iraq AUMF (authorization of the use of military force) — which is long overdue, irrespective of the wisdom or propriety of the killing of Qasem Soleimani.

The Iraq AUMF has been on the books since 2002, when it was enacted to empower the administration of George W. Bush to depose Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein, who is long gone. It is supplemented by an earlier AUMF, passed shortly after 9/11, which authorized the U.S. government to go after those responsible for the attacks of that day and any “associated forces.” But the version of al-Qaeda responsible for 9/11 is long gone, too, even if the name lives on. Also gone is the principal actor behind the attack, Osama bin Laden, killed by U.S. forces and buried at sea. Conversely, the Tehran-backed militias (Kata’ib Hezbollah et al.) causing havoc in Iraq today — and killing Americans in the process — did not exist in 2001 or 2002. And if either AUMF was meant to include the Iranian state, then that certainly was not made explicit in the relevant texts. 

The only difference between Kevin and myself is that I think in the absence of a repealed AUMF or a new one, the current version, stretched here, there, and everywhere like silly putty, does cover the strike on Soleimani. Like it or not, the people of the United States told their government after 9/11: “stop the guys who did this.” While the specific guys who did this, Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda in Afghanistan, have been largely pounded, the various offshoots are still active and very much want to kill more Americans. That 2001 authorization was written pretty broadly, and that didn’t happen by accident.

As Americans, we have a Constitution that declares only Congress can declare war, but we have an executive branch that is the supreme commander of the armed forces, and we live in a world where we frequently need some sort of not-quite-full-war military operation, sometimes on short notice, hitting targets of opportunity. There isn’t time to call Congress to debate and approve every special-operations team raid, every air strike, or every launch of a Hellfire missile from a Predator drone.

The War Powers Act of 1973 was supposed to clear all of this up. That law requires the president to notify Congress within 48 hours of committing armed forces to military action and forbids armed forces from remaining for more than 60 days, with a further 30-day withdrawal period, without a congressional authorization for use of military force (AUMF) or a declaration of war by the United States. When the law passed, President Nixon vetoed it, and Congress overrode its veto. But most presidents have either ignored it (Bill Clinton during the bombing campaign in Kosovo, the Obama administration’s actions in Libya) or contended it is an unconstitutional infringement of the president’s authorities as commander-in-chief.

Last year, 215 House Democrats and 21 Republicans voted for an amendment to the Defense Authorization Bill expressing “the sense of Congress that the 2001 AUMF has been utilized beyond the scope that Congress intended; and that any new authorization for the use of military force to replace the 2001 AUMF should include a sunset clause, a clear and specific expression of objectives, targets, and geographic scope, and reporting requirements.” (If you’re going to do something this important, vote on this idea by itself on the merits — don’t stick it into some larger bill.) But it never went anywhere in the Senate.

Plenty of members of Congress are terrified of the consequences of voting to authorize or reject military action. You could argue the vote to authorize the invasion of Iraq was the issue that helped Barack Obama beat Hillary Clinton in the 2008 Democratic primary, or at least one of the issues. In the current primary, Joe Biden is still getting grief for his vote over Iraq. Passing a new authorization of military force would require Congress to declare that one set of military strikes is authorized but another set is not — a vote that could hurt them down the road. They’ll be accused either of reckless warmongering or of denying the military the authority to strike a gathering threat.

Many members of Congress are extremely comfortable with the imperial presidency, as long as their party controls the White House. Many would quite literally prefer not to know what is being done in the name of fighting terrorism, to avoid even the responsibility of knowledge. Florida representative Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee, believed that President Obama’s “kill list” for drone strikes was a nutty conspiracy theory — after it had been covered in the New York Times.

Back in 2014, Representative Sheila Jackson Lee and the 14 other members of the “Full Employment Caucus” in Congress introduced not legislation but drafted executive orders that they wanted the president to sign. Frustrated by being in the legislative minority, they started dreaming up new ways for the executive branch to change the laws and regulations. She declared, “we’ll give President Obama a number of executive orders that he can sign with pride and strength, in fact, I think that should be our number one agenda, that’s write up these executive orders, draft them, of course, and ask the president to stand with us.” As the meme goes, that’s not how this works, that’s not how any of this works. If you want to serve in the executive branch, then leave the legislative branch.

Pelosi announced the House will introduce and vote on a “War Powers Resolution to limit the President’s military actions regarding Iran” amid rising tension. Declaring Iran off-limits is a step, but the country would be better served by an authorization that clarifies whether or not Congress authorizes, and accepts responsibility, for ongoing counterterrorism operations in Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Niger, Somalia, and elsewhere.

Those Darn Fat-Cat Candidates Flying on Private Jets Like . . . Bernie Sanders

There are two ways the impeachment trial in the Senate can progress: very quickly or very slowly. Clearly, Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell would prefer to get this over and done with as quickly as possible and move on to more consequential legislation. (Apparently the U.S. Senate could end up passing the new U.S.-Mexico-Canada trade agreement as early as this week.)

But McConnell could change his mind and decide that if the Senate is going to have a trial, it should have a lengthy and in-depth trial, with witnesses like Hunter Biden. In 1999, the impeachment trial of Bill Clinton met every afternoon, six days a week, for five weeks. This is terrible if your name is Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Amy Klobuchar, Cory Booker, or Michael Bennet.

Wait, never mind. NBC News says Bernie Sanders will have access to private jets to get him to the primary states in the evenings.

Of the five senator-candidates — Elizabeth Warren of Massachusetts, Bernie Sanders of Vermont, Cory Booker of New Jersey, Amy Klobuchar of Minnesota and Michael Bennet of Colorado — Sanders appears to be the best positioned to balance his senatorial duties with campaigning.

Sanders’ war chest, including his field-leading $34.5 million haul in the last quarter of 2019, allows him flexibility that other contenders can’t match — including the use of private jets to ferry him back and forth for late rallies in early states.

“They’re not going to be meeting at night [for the trial], so we can obviously fly from D.C. to states and hold events in the evening and fly back, you know, so he can be back in the morning to do his work in the Senate,” Sanders campaign adviser Jeff Weaver told NBC News. 

Must be nice to be able to afford all those private-jets flights!

ADDENDUM: Yesterday’s article on Iran brought some kind words from Brit Hume and Andy McCarthy and many readers. That said, you should probably read more than one article about Iran!

World

Iran’s Isolation

An Iranian flag flutters in Vienna, Austria, September 9, 2019. (Leonhard Foeger / Reuters)

On the menu this morning: The dirty little secret that the Iranian regime has no allies, is sputtering on fumes economically, and has good reason to fear a bigger conflict with the United States; the Democrats realize they may not have a clear frontrunner after Super Tuesday; a weird new longest-of-longshot presidential candidate; and an update that thing that seemed really important in December but that we’ve all forgotten about now.

Say, Doesn’t Iran Look . . . Pretty Isolated Lately?

The U.S. strike that killed Qasem Soleimani is not primarily a Donald Trump story, although he’s clearly the man who ordered it and made it happen. Soleimani had enemies around the world, and his legacy is not merely the 608 American troops killed by improvised explosive devices in Iraq between 2003 and 2011. Soleimani financed, trained, armed, and commanded various militias and factions in Afghanistan, Pakistan, Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Yemen. Every foe of those groups, as well as dissidents of the regime in Iran, all are rejoicing about his death, either publicly or secretly.

We keep hearing about how global power is shifting away from the United States and towards China and Russia, and in some arguments, Iran. There are still good reasons to worry about the long-term trend, but . . . do you notice that China and Russia are, so far, only offering rhetorical support to Iran? China has its own problems to deal with, particularly in Hong Kong. China needs Iran’s oil, and Iran needs China as a buyer of its oil. China does not want the situation to blow up even worse and disrupt Iranian oil shipments.

Meanwhile, in the past week, oil prices are up five percent. Russia doesn’t mind that; it’s the world’s second-biggest oil exporter. As far as Russia’s concerned, this is all good news.

“Russia doesn’t have the slightest intention of getting involved in this squabble, and is trying to distance itself from it as far as possible—even though it will keep expressing support for Iran with very loud declarations,” said Ruslan Pukhov, director of the Center for Analysis of Strategies and Technologies, a Moscow think tank that advises Russia’s defense establishment.

“Short-term at least, this is all beneficial to Russia: oil prices are up, and the Iranians—a very difficult partner—are being forced to become much more cooperative,” he added.

Notice that you’re not seeing the usual complaints about a “war for oil.” Even the anti-war crowd has realized that the United States imports way less oil than it used to, and only 16 percent of our imports in 2018 came from Persian Gulf countries. (We have never really needed oil from Iran.) Those crowds in the streets of Iranian cities are full of nationalist fervor now. But the situation for the Iranian economy is dire — and will get even worse if this conflict escalates.

Iran’s GDP is believed to have shrunk by almost 10 percent in 2019, and the official unemployment rate is expected to hit 17 percent. For perspective, the Great Recession reduced U.S. gross domestic product by four percent, and unemployment peaked at 10 percent. Iranian oil production has almost halved. The Iranian currency, the rial, has lost half its value, and the cost of living was increased an estimated 35 percent in the past year. This is an economy in free fall.

This doesn’t automatically mean that the Iranian government will not choose the most bellicose or confrontational path forward. Saddam Hussein’s Iraq was getting squeezed pretty hard by sanctions in the run-up to the Persian Gulf War in 1990 and 1991, and he refused to leave Kuwait. But when an economically struggling country takes on the most powerful and technologically advanced military in the world . . . well, we saw the results in the Persian Gulf War. Sure, the Iranians could use more non-conventional methods, all the way up to terror attacks on the American homeland or cyberattacks. (We already saw a hack of the Federal Depository Library Program’s website Saturday.) But the U.S. military would control the skies and probably the seas of the Persian Gulf and could hit any target it wanted. The Iranian military could get wiped out, its government buildings reduced to rubble, airport runways bombed, oil platforms sunk, refineries destroyed. It would be the end of Khomeni’s revolutionary regime as we know it.

The president’s recent talk of hitting Iranian “cultural sites” is nonsensical and asinine. There’s no military value in destroying those targets, and those strikes would probably just make the Iranian population rally around the government. (Hopefully the military minds who recognize this manage to persuade the president.)

Over on NR’s homepage, I note that since 1979, no one in the United States has figured out a good way to handle the regime in Tehran. From the very beginning, they have made themselves clear: “Death to America” is a slogan, a goal, a philosophy, and a policy. They made their disdain for traditional diplomacy clear the moment their angry mob overran our embassy and took our citizens hostages. For 40 years, we’ve been having the same arguments about how to deal with them, and no matter what we tried, the results were disappointing. Killing Soleimani may make things worse — it will almost certainly spur some violent Iranian response in the coming days, weeks, or months — but it may also force the Iranian regime’s leaders to move more cautiously, knowing they can personally be targeted for vengeance.

But because most American media institutions prefer to interpret every event through the lenses of, “is this good for Trump?” or “is this bad for Trump?” the consequences of this attack are being covered as if they must be disastrous.

Institutions like the New York Times inform us that “teeming crowds chant ‘death to America.’” Yes, that is what they have chanted pretty much every week since 1979. Of course the Iranian government managed to get millions of people into the streets to hail Soleimani as a martyr. Big public demonstrations of nationalist rage and grief are the regime’s bread and butter.

We are warned that the Iranian regime has pledged to restart uranium enrichment. Iran had always developed nuclear weapons in secret and always lied to the world. President Obama assured the American people that under the Iran deal, “inspectors will also be able to access any suspicious location.” Iran never lived up to that promise, as military sites were always off-limits. Based upon their history, there is no reason to think the Iranian regime stopped pursuit of a nuclear weapon when the Iran deal was enacted. What changed is that now no one has any incentive to continue pretending that the Iranian government is keeping its promises.

European governments can “scramble” to preserve the nuclear deal, but preserving the deal will require Iran to not retaliate in some outrage-generating fashion — that is, if they blow up Saudi oil refineries or sink tankers in the Persian Gulf or if a truck blows up outside some American embassy, the U.S. government is not going to sign on to a new or revised deal.

This Year, Super Tuesday Might Actually Be Super Important

The next best thing to the same old states going first in the presidential primaries cycle after cycle is a competitive race with multiple viable candidates continuing after the first big four contests. Naturally, this has Democrats terrified: “The Iowa field is bunched together with little daylight between a handful of well-funded candidates. Each of the four early voting states continues to present the prospect of a different winner. And, at the end of that gauntlet on Super Tuesday, a free-spending billionaire — Michael Bloomberg, the former New York City mayor — is waiting to challenge whichever candidate or candidates emerge.”

There’s always the chance that Democrats, seeing the prospect of a lingering four-way or five-way race, all fall in line behind somebody. The hand-wringing quotes in the article above seem strangely misplaced to me. Are Democrats really worried that they’re not going to be able to unify the party in a race to prevent Donald Trump’s reelection? If the Democratic party can’t unify for a general election contest in circumstances like this, with stakes as high as they are . . . when can they unify?

You’re Not Going to Believe Who Wants to Run for President Again

Lincoln Chafee plans to run for president . . . as a Libertarian. If his name isn’t ringing a bell, he was nominated to replace his father as a Republican in the Senate in 1999, and then won his own term in 2000, but rarely agreed with his GOP colleagues. He last ran for president in the 2016 cycle as a Democrat, on a platform of switching America to the metric system. Back then, I pointed out how that was a terrible idea from, to quote Buzz Lightyear, a sad and strange little man. He was in the race for about twenty minutes. Apparently, he’s that odd sort of Libertarian who voted for the Patriot Act, against tax cuts, supports “universal health care,” raising the minimum wage, raising automobile mileage requirements, tougher environmental regulations, and was rated “F” by the NRA.

We really need some sort of twelve-step program for recovering presidential candidates, so they can overcome their addiction and move on to live happy, productive lives.

ADDENDA: Hey, remember impeachment?

Over in Politico’s morning newsletter: “She’s widely expected to send the impeachment articles to the Senate this week — thereby starting the trial — no one has any idea what she’s going to do because she has not made her intentions clear. The speaker’s office said no decision has been made on when she will send the articles.”

What was the point of this delay again?

World

Iran’s Indispensable Man Is Dead

Members from Hashid Shaabi hold a portrait of Quds Force Commander Major General Qassem Suleimani during a demonstration to show support for Yemen’s Shi’ite Houthis and in protest of an air campaign in Yemen by a Saudi-led coalition, in Baghdad March 31, 2015. (Thaier Al-Sudani/Reuters)

This is one of those mornings where there’s just one big issue: Last night, the U.S. military killed Qasem Soleimani, the second-most powerful man in Iran — and the Middle East will probably never be quite the same.

Qasem Soleimani Is Killed, and We Wake Up to a Different World This Morning

The good news is that after decades of abominable acts and wanton cruelty, the United States just surprised everyone by walking up to the biggest bully in the Middle East and punching him harder than he’s been punched in about forty years. The bad news is that the bully isn’t incapacitated and now has a chance to hit back.

Yesterday morning, Qasem Soleimani was commander of the Quds Force, benefactor of Hezbollah and Hamas, the personification of Iranian foreign policy and support for terrorists, the architect of Iran’s ambitions for the entire Middle East, the hardliner among the hardliners, the force behind the killing of several hundred American military personnel, and one of the most important Iranians on earth — the country’s “indispensable man” as Andrew Exum put it. This morning he’s a bloody mess on the road to Baghdad International Airport.

Take your time and go read that first-rate profile of Soleimani by Dexter Filkins in The New Yorker from 2013. One interestingly prophetic paragraph:

Since then, Suleimani has orchestrated attacks in places as far flung as Thailand, New Delhi, Lagos, and Nairobi—at least thirty attempts in the past two years alone. The most notorious was a scheme, in 2011, to hire a Mexican drug cartel to blow up the Saudi Ambassador to the United States as he sat down to eat at a restaurant a few miles from the White House. The cartel member approached by Suleimani’s agent turned out to be an informant for the U.S. Drug Enforcement Administration. (The Quds Force appears to be more effective close to home, and a number of the remote plans have gone awry.) Still, after the plot collapsed, two former American officials told a congressional committee that Suleimani should be assassinated. “Suleimani travels a lot,” one said. “He is all over the place. Go get him. Either try to capture him or kill him.” In Iran, more than two hundred dignitaries signed an outraged letter in his defense; a social-media campaign proclaimed, “We are all Qassem Suleimani.”

No one has any idea what’s going to happen next. The Iranian regime is already announcing their intention to strike back at the United States:

Hard-line lawmaker and cleric Mojtaba Zolnouri made the threat Friday after a U.S. airstrike near Baghdad killed Iran’s top general, Qassem Soleimani.

Zolnouri told state TV: “When the U.S. is killing Iranian forces outside of Iran, the U.S. must see its troops killed at its bases in the region.”

A senior Revolutionary Guard commander, Gen. Mohammad Reza Naghdi, said that “the White House must leave the region today or it must go to the market to order caskets for soldiers.” The general added: “We don’t want bloodshed. They have to choose by themselves.”

Iran’s Supreme Leader Ayatollah Ali Khamenei has warned that a “harsh retaliation is waiting” for the United States.

We, the public, have no idea where or when Iran will counter-punch. Hopefully our intelligence community has some sources and methods to know what the Iranians are thinking and planning.

The response could come in Iraq, or in the Persian Gulf, or in Saudi Arabia, or Israel, or the Iranians could well try to strike the United States in their homeland. Because Soleimani was an important figure in their military, foreign policy, and intelligence communities, they may target our high-ranking officials for assassination. We’ve just hit them in a way they never thought they would be hit; they no doubt would love to do the same to us.

Last night you could see the conventional wisdom response assembling itself in real time on Twitter. It was darkly amusing to see the number of supposedly serious foreign-policy thinkers and lawmakers who skipped over the pro forma, “Make no mistake, Suleimani was a bad guy who killed a lot of Americans, but . . .” Within a few hours, that conventional wisdom had concealed: “Sure, Suleimani was a bad guy with a lot of innocent blood on his hands, but what’s the endgame?”

“What’s the endgame here?” There is none, and there never is one. Foreign policy is never “fixed,” and things never get tied up in a neat little bow, particularly in the Middle East. You manage the situations as best you can and try to adapt as best you can. We will probably know more in the coming days, but it’s not likely that the United States knew when and where Soleimani would be over an extended period of time. The man had plenty of enemies, and he traveled with security and in secrecy. There was no “kill Soleimani” button in the White House Situation Room. The U.S. forces may have known when and where he would be Thursday night, and that was about it. (You have to wonder if certain well-placed Iraqis started getting tired of the Iranians throwing their weight around on Iraqi soil.) If you have a good opportunity to take him out, do you take it, knowing the risks?

The notion that this was a bad decision unless it had some sort of preconceived “endgame” is part of this foreign-policy wonk mentality that believes that if the United States just tries hard enough, we can create peace between the Israelis and Palestinians, that Iran is full of reformers who are just itching to create a lasting peace, and that a lot can get done at international summits. There is no “five-step plan for comprehensive peace in the region.” You’re not assembling IKEA furniture.

Foreign policy is always more complicated than it looks, particularly in the Middle East. Never mind the factions and divisions and contradictions within foreign populations; there are factions and divisions and contradictions within foreign governments. (“Deep state” was originally a Turkish term.) A lot of leaders will publicly condemn U.S. action but privately support it, and vice versa. The Middle East has always been deeply dysfunctional, with autocratic regimes, bloody concepts of justice, long memories, macho posturing, strategic deception, intense propaganda, fierce scapegoating, and strict hierarchical systems, but also sudden shifts in loyalty.

American foreign policy is always going to be this messy effort to manage our interests, protect our people and allies, and deter our enemies in an amorphous, dark, confusing, complicated region with dozens of factions. If none of our people and none of our allies got killed today, we probably did it right. But in a region with factions, militias, spies, assassins, terror groups, and fundamentalist maniacs, we’re never going to keep the days and nights quiet for long.

The Trump administration and the U.S. military did something big and consequential last night, and it was probably worth the risk, but we will know more in the coming days, weeks, and months. It would be nice to have a grown-up conversation about this. Alas, the prospects for a realistic assessment of our foreign-policy options are not good. There’s a Democratic presidential primary debate in a little more than a week. In the rare moments when terrorism and foreign-policy threats are discussed, the candidates retreat into insipid clichés.

Asked about terrorism in Afghanistan in the September debate, Elizabeth Warren responded, “We need to treat the problem of terrorism as a worldwide problem, and that means we need to be working with all of our allies, our European allies, our Canadian allies, our Asian allies, our allies in Africa and in South America. We need to work together to root out terrorism.” Work with our allies! What an original and groundbreaking suggestion!

Moments later, Pete Buttigieg added, “if there’s one thing we’ve learned about Afghanistan, from Afghanistan, it’s that the best way not to be caught up in endless war is to avoid starting one in the first place.” And he’s one of the experienced veterans in the field. Did the U.S. start the war in Afghanistan? Or did al-Qaeda start it with the 9/11 attacks?

Bernie Sanders added, “I think that what we have got to do is bring this world together — bring it together on climate change, bring it together in fighting against terrorism. And make it clear that we as a planet, as a global community, will work together to help countries around the world rebuild their struggling economies and do everything that we can to rid the world of terrorism. But dropping bomb on Afghanistan and Iraq was not the way to do it.”

And Joe Biden is stuck in this reflexive: “whatever President Trump is doing at any given moment must be the wrong thing” mentality — shifting back and forth between Trump being too weak and feckless, and too aggressive and reckless, depending upon the day. Back in June, Biden declared, “Two of America’s vital interests in the Middle East are preventing Iran from obtaining a nuclear weapon and securing a stable energy supply through the Strait of Hormuz. Trump is failing on both counts.” (This was after Iran claimed it had shot down an American drone.) First, it’s as if Biden had completely forgotten Iran seized American crews and released photos of them on their knees back in 2016. Second, since that drone incident, ships have been passing through the Strait of Hormuz without incident — presumably in part because of the U.S. Navy making regular exercises, patrols, and demonstrations of force in those waterways.

ADDENDA: It’s much smaller news compared to what’s happening in the Middle East, but the odds are good that two months from now, all of the delegates in the Democratic presidential primary have been won by Biden, Sanders, Warren, and Buttigieg, and the all-white primary might just spur Democrats to seriously consider changing the order of the states in the 2024 presidential election. And if the Democrats can find the will to change the order . . . why can’t Republicans?

World

The Undeniable Expense of Running for President

Candidates in a Democratic presidential debate, November 20, 2019, Atlanta, Ga. (Brendan McDermid/Reuters)

Welcome to 2020! We kick off this new year with a pleasant bit of news about the Morning Jolt. Everyone who wants to get this newsletter entirely in email form, and to not have to click through to the NR website after a few paragraphs, you now can get the Jolt completely in email form . . . if you subscribe to NRPlus. Hey, right now it’s just $40 per year, which comes out to about eleven cents a day. NRPlus gives you full access to the magazine and its archives, way fewer ads, a members-only Facebook page where I and other NR staff hang out, and early access and invitations to NR events. It’s definitely worth it, and particularly to that guy who stopped me at the farmer’s market to say he wanted the Jolt to go back to pure email form. He should have subscribed by now, if he hasn’t already.

Today’s menu: An extremely tense situation around the U.S. embassy in Baghdad appears to have resolved itself peacefully, at least for now; Democratic candidates announce their fundraising numbers (spoiler, the president’s campaign war chest is much bigger), providing a quick lesson on why serious campaigns require so much money; an odd claim about leverage in that quickly fading impeachment fight; and a review of those end-of-the-year awards you may have missed.

Good News for Americans in Iraq . . . At Least For Now

That extraordinarily tense situation in Baghdad has a calm ending, at least for now: “The siege by supporters of an Iranian-backed militia at the U.S. Embassy in Baghdad ended Wednesday after the militia ordered them to withdraw, bringing relief to the diplomats trapped inside and averting a potential showdown between the United States and Iran.”

But note this detail that isn’t showing up in the headlines: “The leaders later announced that their agreement to withdraw was conditioned on a commitment from Iraq’s prime minister, Adel Abdul Mahdi, to move ahead with legislation to force American troops to withdraw from Iraq.”

Lawmakers allied with these pro-Iran militias have raised this issue before in the Iraqi parliament and not gotten much traction. But now? Who knows. This appears to have been a straight-up demonstration of power by Tehran, an exhibition of who really controls what happens on the streets of Baghdad, according to the Wall Street Journal’s Ghassan Adnan and Isabel Coles: “It also starkly revealed the dominance of factions allied to Tehran within the Iraqi government, drawing it more closely into Iran’s orbit. Militia supporters disregarded orders from caretaker Prime Minister Adel Abdul-Mahdi to withdraw from the embassy on Tuesday but almost immediately began dismantling tents they had pitched on the opposite side of the street in response to the PMF’s request.”

The irony, of course, is that many Americans would like to leave Iraq. But we can’t leave entirely unless we A) feel certain that Iraqi security forces can unilaterally handle any attempt at a comeback by ISIS and B) that our diplomats and other personnel in the country are protected.

The discussion on social media feels like alternating premature celebrations. When the siege began, you saw more than a few folks on the left seemingly excited and enthusiastic about what they were certain would be “Trump’s Benghazi.” When U.S. forces mobilized quickly and the militias withdrew, Trump supporters started gloating that their man had faced down the challenge correctly. What happened over the past 24 hours is good news . . . but this test of wills isn’t finished, it merely paused. The Iranians aren’t just going to say “oh, well,” and stop trying to antagonize us. As Randa Slim, a senior fellow at the Middle East Institute in Washington, tells the New York Times today, “this is one round of many rounds to come.”

Go Figure, It Turns out Running for President Requires a Lot of Money

The new year means a new fundraising quarter for the presidential candidates; Bernie Sanders raised $34.5 million in the last quarter, Pete Buttigieg raised $24.7 million, and Andrew Yang raised $16.5 million. Meanwhile, the Trump campaign raised $46 million last quarter. As the New York Times puts it, “the Trump campaign said it had raised $143 million for 2019 and held a staggering $102.7 million in cash on hand.” If your preferred candidate hasn’t announced their numbers by now, it isn’t guaranteed to be bad news . . . but campaigns rarely sit on good news for long.

Late last week, a fundraising email from the Sanders campaign lamented that running for president requires “obscene” amounts of money, and I wondered just how much the Sanders camp or anyone else thinks it should cost. A serious presidential campaign is a massive endeavor, an attempt to reach and persuade tens of millions of people across all fifty states, requiring paid staff and offices and transportation and advertising. The power to make decisions for the entire executive branch of government is at stake. Why would anyone think you could do this on a shoestring?

If your target audience is “just about every adult in America,” you have to spend a lot of money to reach that audience. If you’re seeing the same message from New York to California and from Minnesota to Florida, chances are somebody paid a lot of money to make that happen. Back in 2018, Chevrolet spent $825 million, Verizon spent $935 million, Amazon spent $1 billion on advertising, and American Express spent $2.8 billion. And remember, when it comes to television and radio advertising, candidates for federal offices are guaranteed the lowest available rate for the time slots they request.

(Every cycle, George Will points out that the sum of money Americans spend on elections each year is less than the amount that they spend on chewing gum.)

The lament that running for president is too expensive often comes with the contention that the fundraising necessities mean a lot of good potential presidents can’t complete or choose not to run. Color me a bit skeptical of this assertion. I suspect a lot of good potential presidents don’t want to deal with the hassle involved with running for president, including the complete loss of privacy, the impact on their families, the grueling and relentless schedule, the frustrating compromises that almost always come with the job. I also suspect that some of the best potential presidents recognize that no matter how well you do the job, some young men and women in uniform are almost certainly going to die on your watch because of your orders, and you’re going to have to write the condolence letters to their families. The best leaders recognize that the presidency is a heavy responsibility, not a grand prize.

Good leaders adjust to the realities of the time that they’re living in and the requirements of the mission at hand. If you want to be president, you need to develop a national fundraising network capable of raising tens of millions of dollars, full stop. This has been reality for decades; it didn’t sneak up on anybody. You need a plan to accumulate resources; you can’t simply hope that money will appear. The Internet has made it much easier for campaigns to raise money than before the 1990s. As seen above, Sanders, Buttigieg, and Yang figured out how to raise more than ten million in a quarter, much of it from small donors. Four years ago at this time, Ben Carson, Ted Cruz, Marco Rubio, and Donald Trump had raised eight-figure sums in one quarter. If they can figure out how to do it, then surely the next great president can figure out how to do it.

When I hear a candidate lament, “I would make an excellent president and commander in chief, I’m inspiring, people believe in me, people trust that I have the judgment to make the country a better place . . . but I just can’t get people to give me money,” I’m skeptical that he would be as great a president as they think.

Hey, Remember Impeachment?

Eleanor Clift seems convinced that time is on Nancy Pelosi’s side, and that the longer she waits to send the impeachment articles to the Senate, the more leverage she has over Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell.

Really? The House impeached Trump two weeks ago. There’s nothing about impeachment on the front page of today’s New York Times, Wall Street Journal, or Washington Post. The country is already refocused on the violence in Iraq, the latest threatening rhetoric from North Korea, the Democratic primary, the vaping ban, the partial deal on trade with China, the church shooting in Texas, and the violence against Jews in New York . . . Life moves on pretty quickly these days. Americans are not sitting on the edge of their seats, dying to know how this dispute between Pelosi and McConnell gets resolved.

ADDENDA: If you’re not listening to the Three Martini Lunch podcast that I tape with Greg Corombos — twelve to twenty minutes or so, every weekday, a fast and funny take on the day’s top headlines — you missed out on our end-of-the-year awards over the holidays.

  • Most Overrated Political Figure . . . Jim’s pick: Beto O’Rourke. Greg’s pick: Pete Buttigieg.
  • Most Underrated Political Figure . . . Jim’s pick: Andrew Yang. Greg’s pick: Amy Klobuchar.
  • Most Honest Political Figure . . . Jim’s pick: Mitt Romney, the Trump critic who votes with the administration’s position 79.3 percent of the time. Greg’s pick: Mark Sanford.

 

  • Sorry to see you go . . . Jim’s pick: David Koch and Pat Caddell. Greg’s pick: His father, Ted Corombos, who in addition to being an exemplary father, was mayor of Iron Mountain, Mich.
  • Rising Star: Jim’s pick: New York representative Elise Stefanik. Greg’s pick: Florida governor Ron DeSantis.
  • Fading into Oblivion: Jim’s pick: Mark Sanford. Greg’s pick: Howard Schultz.

 

  • Worst Scandal: Jim’s pick: The abandonment of our Kurdish allies. Greg’s pick: FISA abuse.
  • Best Political Theater: Jim’s pick: Boris Johnson’s Conservatives, Actually ad. Greg’s pick: Tulsi taking out Kamala Harris in one of the debates.
  • Worst Political Theater: Jim’s pick: the Democratic debates because of the terrible ten-candidate format. Greg’s pick: How the left is exploiting Greta Thunberg.

 

  • Best Idea: Jim’s pick: the U.S. working out some trade agreements with Japan, the EU, and now, it appears, USMCA. Greg’s pick: Trump tariff threat vs. Mexico to improve border security.
  • Worst Idea: Jim’s pick: Trump hiring Rudy Giuliani as his personal lawyer. Greg’s pick: the Green New Deal.
  • Boldest Tactic: Jim’s pick: The White House refused to cooperate with the impeachment process at all, and as far as we can tell, paid either no or minimal price for it. Greg’s pick: Virginia counties and other locales claiming Second Amendment sanctuary status.

 

  • Most Overreported Story of the Year: Jim’s pick: the Russia collusion theory. Greg’s pick: The smear of the Covington Kids.
  • Most Underreported Story of the Year: Jim’s pick: The U.S. becoming a net crude oil and petroleum product exporter in September. Greg’s pick: Virginia Democrats’ scandals.
  • Best story of the Year: Jim’s pick: The death of Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and the effective end of ISIS. Greg’s pick: Hong Kong and Iran protesters.

 

  • Person of the Year: Jim’s pick: Boris Johnson. Greg’s pick: Bill Barr.
  • Turncoat of the Year: Jim’s pick: Tulsi Gabbard, declaring at a Democratic debate that “our Democratic Party, unfortunately, is not the party that is of, by, and for the people.” Greg’s pick: NBA cowards — especially LeBron and Steve Kerr.
  • Prediction for 2020: Jim’s pick: The ugliest presidential election in American history. Greg’s pick: The Democratic nominee won’t be Biden or Warren and may not even be in the race yet.
Culture

Predictions, Old and New

A Star Wars popcorn box during the Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker opening night fan event in New York City, U.S., December 19, 2019. (Jeenah Moon/Reuters)

Today is the last Morning Jolt of 2019, with a lot of business to resolve before 2020 starts: the cold hard facts and difficult lessons of this weekend’s attacks on houses of worship; how accurate my instincts were in the past year, plus predictions for the coming year; knocking around some insufferable critics of the new Star Wars film; and a buffet table full of podcasts . . .

Why America Needs Armed Citizens

Let’s get one thing straight: An armed citizen responding to an attempted mass shooter in a place of worship, like yesterday at the West Freeway Church of Christ, is no one’s first choice or ideal scenario. We would all prefer a world where no gunmen ever charged into a church, and no man with a knife ever charged into a rabbi’s house, as in Monsey, N.Y. Saturday night. We would all prefer to live in a world where the cops were already on-scene in those situations, and the police would always know where they need to be before the worst even gets started. But we don’t live in either of those worlds.

In light of those cold hard facts, we need to choose the next best option. There are a lot of gun-control advocates who believe the next best option is for worshippers to remain unarmed in houses of worship and to just hope for the best. On any given day, the vast majority houses of worship and religious gatherings will not be attacked, even if the weekend’s attacks spur copycats. In the minds of gun-control advocates, the idea of an armed citizen doing something wrong — firing at the shooter and hitting an innocent bystander, or accidentally firing his weapon — that it is better to just remain unarmed and hope for the best. If an attacker does burst in during services, I guess their advice would be to duck, hide, and pray . . . which is ironic, because every other time this crowd insists that your thoughts and prayers are meaningless.

There’s no guarantee that an armed citizen will always respond as quickly and effectively as we saw at the West Freeway Church of Christ Sunday. But the presence of an armed citizen makes that scenario possible. The alternative is to be like the Hasidic Jews at the rabbi’s house in Monsey, trying to repel the attacker with furniture and whatever else is available. You might stop an intruder by throwing a chair at him. But you have a much better chance of stopping him with a firearm — perhaps without even firing a shot, depending upon how rational he is at that moment.

By the way, a revealing detail about the Monsey attacker:

In 2018, he had been charged with fourth-degree criminal possession of a weapon, second-degree reckless endangerment and menacing a police or peace officer, according to a police report in a local paper. He was released on $1,000 bail, the report said. 

The gunman’s pastor told the New York Times that he has untreated schizophrenia.

As John McLaughlin Used to Bellow, ‘Predictions!’

I went back and checked my predictions for 2019. A few I nailed:

  • ·“Supreme Court Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg does not retire or meet her maker and ends 2019 on the court.”
  • “The vast majority of Democratic presidential campaigns fizzle out quickly.”
  • “Special counsel Robert Mueller’s report finds no evidence of Donald Trump colluding with Russia.”
  • “On an almost entirely party-line vote, the House impeaches the president.”
  • Avengers: Endgame earns rave reviews as the way to end an epic story and set up a new era of Marvel films.”
  • “Critics compare [Star Wars Episode Nine] to Return of the Jedi and complain that J. J. Abrams played it safe and stuck to the old formulas, but audiences are pleased again.” 

And some were wildly off-base:

  • ·“Supreme Court Justices Clarence Thomas and Samuel Alito come under increasing pressure from conservative legal minds to retire.” If there was any pressure this past year, it was really quiet.
  • “As the year ends, the conventional wisdom is that [the Democratic primary] is a four-person race, with Biden, Beto O’Rourke running surprisingly strong, Kamala Harris running a less combative campaign than everyone expected, and Amy Klobuchar emerging as the dark-horse candidate.” Yeesh, what was I thinking?
  • “The economy has a mild bear market and not-quite recession.”
  • “Vladimir Putin will deny rumors of serious health issues.”

A couple people argue that no one in the news business should ever make public predictions, because the one constant lesson of the news business is that life is unpredictable. I suppose the idea is that a journalist making a public prediction indicates what he thinks will happen, and that gives the audience a sense of possible preconceived notions that could be shaping how he sees what he covers. This may shock you, but those expectations of what is going to happen will be formed in journalists’ heads whether or not they are ever shared with the public. Beyond that, it’s fun. Lighten up, Francis.

The “serious” predictions for 2020:

  • ·Early in the year, Nancy Pelosi relents and sends over the articles of impeachment after Senator Mitch McConnell makes a fig-leaf concession to House Democrats that is entirely symbolic, not substantive. There are growing murmurs that senators in both parties want to get impeachment off their plate as quickly as possible. Both articles of impeachment fall short with 46 votes; all Republicans and Democratic West Virginia senator Joe Manchin vote against removal. By March, the general public has almost entirely forgotten about impeachment.
  • Joe Biden wins the Democratic nomination, but he somewhat backs into it because every other candidate makes bigger mistakes or proves less acceptable to some key faction of the Democratic party. Because of Biden’s age, there’s intense interest in his running mate selection. Biden surprises many by selecting Minnesota senator Amy Klobuchar, concluding she gives him the best shot in the upper Midwest.
  • As for the overall political environment, much like Clubber Lang in Rocky III, my prediction is pain. The 2020 presidential election will be even uglier than the one in 2016 — nastier, uglier, more outright criticism of the other side’s voters, more false attacks, more accusations and counter-accusations of foreign influence and social media disinformation. President Trump’s rallies will be even more raucous and shocking to the national media, the protesters outside the venue will be even angrier, and more Americans succumb to the temptation of violence in the name of politics. At least one seemingly respectable cable news talking head has an on-air meltdown.
  • I’ll be honest, I have no idea whether Trump wins reelection in 2020. I think it all comes down to who the electorate is angrier at, or finds less appealing, when early voting starts in autumn. The Democratic nominee could win easily with a simple, “end the circus of chaos that has been running Washington for the past four years” message. But they have largely forsaken that, and the economy is humming along.
  • Speaking of the U.S. economy, I predict it continues to enjoy its current strength in 2020 — not great, but good. The unemployment rate increases slightly but stays below 4 percent.
  • In Hong Kong, the year brings neither a Tiananmen Square-style large-scale crackdown nor political liberation; the tense and uneasy standoff with intermittent small-scale clashes between police and protesters becomes the “new normal” by the end of 2020.
  • By historical standards, 2020 is a calm one on the world stage. Foreign leaders know that depending upon who wins in November, U.S. foreign policy could change dramatically — so for now it’s best to lay low and wait and see what happens; a lame duck President Trump might retaliate to any provocation with a wildly disproportionate response. 

The fun predictions for 2020:

  • The Baltimore Ravens beat the San Francisco 49ers in a repeat of Super Bowl XLVII; Lamar Jackson is MVP and everyone in the league starts looking for the next strong-armed quick mobile quarterback.
  • The Cincinnati Bengals select Joe Burrow with the first pick in the 2019 draft.
  • The Saint Louis Blues beat the Washington Capitals in six games to win the Stanley Cup.
  • The Los Angeles Lakers win the NBA Finals over the Milwaukee Bucks in seven games; our old friend David French tries to convince the guys at The Dispatch to make the new publication entirely focused upon LeBron James.
  • Helped by new free agent pitcher Gerrit Cole, the New York Yankees win the World Series in seven games against the Los Angeles Dodgers.
  • The top-grossing summer movies are Wonder Woman 84, Marvel’s Black Widow, and Top Gun: Maverick. The critical darling of the year is The Many Saints of Newark, the Sopranos prequel film starring Michael Gandofini as a young Tony Soprano, playing the role his late father James Gandolfini embodied.

Speaking of films . . .

It’s Safe to Discuss Star Wars with Spoilers Now, Right?

J. J. Abrams’ Star Wars: The Rise of Skywalker is a giant middle finger to Rian Johnson and the preceding film, The Last Jedi. He might as well have called it: Star Wars Episode Nine: The Apology for Episode Eight.

SPOILERS AHEAD!

Picture Abrams’ “to-do” list as he sat down to write and put together Episode Nine. He had to . . .

  • ·Wrap up the Disney trilogy as well as the over-arching arc of the nine-film series, now being nicknamed “the Skywalker saga.”
  • Write around the tragic death of Carrie Fisher, with only a few bits of unused dialogue from other films available to make her “appear.”
  • Win back fans irritated by The Last Jedi.
  • Decide whether Ben Solo/Kylo Ren could be redeemed, which would more or less define the theme of the trilogy.
  • Figure out a new main villain, as the previous film unceremoniously killed off Snoke.
  • Figure out what shape the Resistance is in, as the last film suggested they had been whittled down to about two dozen combatants and explain why the rest of the galaxy didn’t seem to care which side won the war.
  • Include all the traditional elements of Star Wars movie with space battles, lightsaber fights, chases, etc. 

Abrams returned the favor to Johnson, ignoring, un-doing, or blowing off every choice Johnson made in The Last Jedi. We learn where Snoke “came from” in the opening minutes. The Resistance appears to be in roughly the same state as at the end of The Force Awakens. Rose Tico practically disappears. Luke Skywalker’s ghost appears and rebukes Rey for throwing away her lightsaber, a line that might as well be delivered from Mark Hamill to the preceding director. The galaxy cares, Ben Solo is redeemed, the Force is apparently now any super-power the heroes need, and the old classic big bad villain, the Emperor, is back. (I don’t get why everyone thinks Palpatine’s return from the dead is impossible when the prequel films already featured an army of clones. Abrams never spells it out, but two quick bits of dialogue hint that A) the emperor had been studying the use of Sith magic to bring back the dead since the prequels and B) all of the “rough draft” Snokes in vats of fluid show Palpatine had been working on cloning for a long time.)

Some of the complaints in the not-so-glowing reviews for The Rise of Skywalker is that the movie is A) way too “busy,” with too many characters moving too fast rushing around chasing MacGuffins and B) consists of a lot of “fan service,” scenes and lines and moments that call back to previous movies. These criticisms are accurate but not that consequential. This is a heaping buffet table of fanservice, with offerings piling up and tumbling onto the floor. But it’s good fanservice — every little musical cue from John Williams, every little bit of dialogue that echoes the original trilogy. It’s a delight to have Billy Dee Williams back being charming, aging gracefully into the elder statesman role. The complaint of “too much fanservice” can be interpreted as, “this movie has too many scenes, lines of dialogue, jokes and moments that fans will enjoy.” How dare Abrams do that!

Among the many parts of The Last Jedi that didn’t work quite right was how much our main trio of characters spent apart — and early on in The Rise of Skywalker we’re reminded of the chemistry John Boyega, Oscar Isaac, Daisy Ridley are capable of demonstrating onscreen. I could have watched them bicker with romantic tension for two hours. Adam Driver has always seemed like he was acting in a different movie, and it’s not surprising to see this actor popping up everywhere these days — Driver brings his A-game, 110 percent, every time.

And Harrison Ford came back, for the one scene and circumstance where seeing Han Solo again would make sense. Maybe I’m precisely the target audience for the idea of turning grey and having a moody long-haired son and loving him and believing in him no matter what mistakes he makes or what he does wrong, but boy, there are no better or more fitting last words for this character to say onscreen than, “I know.”

Some of these reviews are furious; I think there’s a certain class of critic who not only enjoyed The Last Jedi but loved the way it seemed to slap around fans of the pervious movies and mock their expectations. I don’t want Star Wars to turn into a political football, but clearly some folks brought expectations to this movie that were shaped by our ongoing cultural conflicts. You see complaints like, “everyone has been coded as being aggressively straight” and “Poe Dameron’s gung-ho heroism is a clumsy expression of toxic masculinity,” and you realize some people can’t turn it off — everything has to be viewed through their ideological prism, and they cannot enjoy themselves unless they are being reassured about these real-world issues that never seemed that central to tales set a long time ago in a galaxy far, far away . . .

ADDENDA: Whatever your taste in podcasts, chances are I recorded one in recent weeks that is to your liking. There’s a special bonus holiday-themed edition of the pop-culture podcast with Mickey, the rant against Adam Gase and a culture of excuses on Turn on the Jets, a long chat about the Democratic primary and a bit of The Mandalorian with Jonah, talking Christmas memories with The Editors, and our ongoing end-of-the-year awards on the Three Martini Lunch . . .

Elections

Democratic Debates Leave Much to Be Desired

Sen. Elizabeth Warren and former vice president Joe Biden during the Democratic primary debate at Loyola Marymount University in Los Angeles, Calif., December 19, 2019. (Mike Blake/Reuters)

This is the last Morning Jolt until December 30. Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa, or nothing at all, I hope you have a good one. As for today’s topics, there was a Democratic debate last night and the articles of impeachment are in limbo, but . . . come on, today everybody’s going to be talking about Star Wars.

These Aren’t Debates, These Are Public Recitations of Competing Wish Lists

I don’t like these debates, and I don’t think it’s merely because I’m a right-of-center guy and these are left-of-center candidates. Our old friend Tim Alberta asked some really good questions last night, on whether climate change warranted relocating Americans’ homes, nuclear power, special-needs education, and President Obama’s recent contention that “if women were in charge, you’d see a significant improvement on just about everything.” But most of the time, the candidates ignored what was asked and simply responded with a bite-sized version of their stump speech. And their stump speeches are full of, “we must do this, and we will do this” with almost no, “this is how we’re going to do this.”

For example, Alberta asked Bernie Sanders what he would do if Medicare for All couldn’t pass the Senate. “Are there smaller, specific measures that you would take immediately to expand coverage and decrease costs as president?” Sanders simply rejected the premise: “I think we will pass a Medicare for All single-payer system, and I will introduce that legislation in my first week in office . . . We’re going to have the American people behind us. We will have Congress behind us.” These candidates are convinced that somewhere in the Oval Office, there’s a magic wand that takes away all political opposition and skeptics, and they intend to use it.

Schrödinger’s Impeachment: Trump Is Impeached and Not Yet Impeached Simultaneously

It is as if House Democrats just now suddenly realized that Trump’s impeachment trial will be held in a GOP-controlled Senate, full of lawmakers who have no interest in removing the president or spending one more minute on the process than necessary. As of this writing, the articles of impeachment are going into the freezer to be preserved until the House comes back on January 7. Democrats seem to think that eventually, Mitch McConnell will feel a need to hold a trial on terms more amenable to the desires of House Democrats. Good luck with that.

“I admit, I am not sure what leverage there is in refraining from sending us something we do not want,” Mr. McConnell said with a wry smile from the Senate floor. “But alas, if they can figure that out, they can explain it. Meanwhile, other House Democrats say they would prefer never to transmit the articles. Fine with me!”

Has President Trump been impeached? Legally . . . not yet! That’s the assessment of Noah Feldman was one of the law professor experts who testified during the impeachment hearings, an invited witness of the Democrats. “Impeachment as contemplated by the Constitution does not consist merely of the vote by the House, but of the process of sending the articles to the Senate for trial. Both parts are necessary to make an impeachment under the Constitution: The House must actually send the articles and send managers to the Senate to prosecute the impeachment. And the Senate must actually hold a trial.”

Trump would love the argument, “legally and under the Constitution, I was never impeached.” Why does Nancy Pelosi think McConnell is going to fold on this?

The State of the ‘Star Wars’ Union

There are no spoilers for The Rise of Skywalker ahead, just the previous films.

Back in December 2015, a friend invited me to an early screening of Star Wars: The Force Awakens. The mood in the theater was actually sort of tense and nervous, as this was the first new Star Wars film made by the new owners and creative team at Disney. Fan reaction to the prequels had been intensely divided, and some fans argued that the last non-disappointing Star Wars film had been The Empire Strikes Back, released in 1980. If the new sequel was a dud, Star Wars fans would have to conclude that the first movies were lightning in a bottle, never to be replicated again and that the beloved films of their childhood had turned into just another piece of “intellectual property” used by Hollywood as an ATM.

The good news was, audiences largely loved The Force Awakens; unadjusted for inflation, it’s the fourth highest-grossing film of all time. The mood in the audience for the early screening of the sequel, The Last Jedi, was enthusiasm and excitement. And for what it’s worth, people came out of that screening in good spirits, convinced they had seen something bold and groundbreaking and daring.

But Star Wars fans were deeply divided in their response to The Last Jedi. Two years ago, I was something of a defender of the film, admiring how it went in some really unexpected directions. I liked it the first time I saw it, but the second time, months later, the flaws became tougher to ignore. Those unexpected directions don’t make a lot of sense in retrospect.

Why does the main plot revolve around a slow-motion chase? Why does one of the main subplots revolve around an admiral refusing to reveal her plan to the rest of her leadership team? Why do characters veer off into a subplot to make a heavy-handed argument that wealthy war profiteers are the real villains? Why does Rose’s love interest in Finn seem to come out of nowhere? Director Rian Johnson seemed to have no interest in the ideas or plotlines set up in the previous film, and simply ignored or downplayed them. He left the heroic Resistance whittled down to only about two dozen remaining combatants, we learned the rest of the galaxy ignored their distress calls — suggesting the galaxy didn’t seem to care that the evil First Order was taking over. The implication was that nothing our heroes had done had mattered at all.

Luke casually tossing away his old lightsaber generates a laugh in that initial scene, but . . . it’s not earned. When a director chooses the story direction and tells an audience, “hey, remember your favorite character from your childhood, who appeared to have grown to embody all of the good and heroic and noble traits? Well, since you last saw him, he’s become a bitter old man who abandoned his friends and family and who doesn’t care about anyone or anything anymore” . . . you cannot begrudge fans for responding negatively. Actor Mark Hamill revealed a lot when he said his relationship with writer and director Rian Johnson was initially strained. “I, at one point had to say to Rian, ‘I pretty much fundamentally disagree with every choice you’ve made for this character. Now, having said that, I have gotten it off my chest, and my job now is to take what you’ve created and do my best to realize your vision.’”

But a funny thing happened on the road to The Rise of Skywalker: it became okay for the other actors to admit they weren’t thrilled with the previous movie, either.

The Force Awakens I think was the beginning of something quite solid, The Last Jedi if I’m being honest I’d say that was feeling a bit iffy for me,” John Boyega declared in a magazine interview. 

“I didn’t necessarily agree with a lot of the choices in that and that’s something that I spoke to Mark [Hamill] a lot about and we had conversations about it. And it was hard for all of us, because we were separated.”

Daisy Ridley said she cried with relief at the news that the director of The Force Awakens, J.J. Abrams, would come back for the next one. And Abrams offered his own subtle criticism of Johnson’s film:

Abrams praised “The Last Jedi” for being “full of surprises and subversion and all sorts of bold choices.”

“On the other hand,” he added, “it’s a bit of a meta approach to the story. I don’t think that people go to ‘Star Wars’ to be told, ‘This doesn’t matter.’”

Winner, winner, chicken dinner, delivered to Abrams in one of his beloved “mystery boxes.” Maybe Star Wars . . . didn’t need to be subverted or deconstructed. A lot of folks decreed that criticism of The Last Jedi reflected “toxic fandom” or anti-feminism, or some sort of delayed-reaction hostility to the cast’s ethnic diversity that somehow hadn’t bothered anyone in the first film. I’m sure if you looked hard enough, you could find examples fitting that description. But maybe, just maybe . . . it was just an uneven movie that left a lot of fans disappointed! You can love Ridley as an actress and still think the character of Rey seems a little too perfect or think the same of Kelly Marie Tran but find her character of Rose Tico underwritten and unappealing. (Never punish an actor for a screenwriter or director’s bad decisions.)

The Force Awakens showed our old heroes from the original trilogy in a dark place, but they had appeared to have found some new hope for the future. The Last Jedi ended with our heroes in a really grim spot. Han and Luke are gone, and the tragic passing of Carrie Fisher limited what this film could do with Princess Leia.

We’ve seen a lot of movies and television shows that check in with once-beloved heroes decades after we last saw them, and a lot of those creators chose to show that the later years of our heroes had turned out badly. Blade Runner 2047. Rambo: Last Blood. Twin Peaks. You could argue Logan, closing out the X-Men films. The last Terminator movie that brought back Sarah Connor. Maybe throw in that awful Die Hard sequel set in Russia. Star Trek: Picard, Top Gun: Maverick, Bill and Ted Face the Music and Matrix 4 are coming.

Newsflash, creators: we don’t like seeing that the favorite heroes of our childhood turned into bitter and defeated old men. Yes, these kinds of stories have to acknowledge that time passed, and the story usually requires our hero to not be on top of the world; they have to face some great challenge that drives them to go out on one last adventure. But these trendy “dark reboots” inherently state that the previous story’s victory was either short-lived or inconsequential.

Six months after The Last Jedi, Disney released Solo: A Star Wars Story, which pretty much amounted to “The Young Han Solo Chronicles.” I enjoyed that movie a great deal but apparently I was in the minority. This was the lowest-grossing Star Wars movie and apparently the smaller audience represented some sort of backlash to the previous film — never mind that it was a different screenwriter and director, and a different story about different characters. One of the lessons Disney took from Solo’s disappointing numbers was that Star Wars movies shouldn’t come out so frequently; fans need time to build up their hunger so that each movie feels like an event.

Or maybe Star Wars is actually better suited for a different medium. This fall, Disney unveiled The Mandalorian, the first live-action Star Wars show, which is so far terrific. “This is the way” to tell a great Star Wars story. In fact, one wonders if there’s a little surprise in Disney offices at how much the terse tough guy Mando and the unstoppably cute Baby Yoda stole the spotlight from The Rise of Skywalker this autumn.

Maybe this Star Wars movie, which wraps up “the Skywalker saga,” will disappoint. But we know other films will follow, and Disney Plus will follow The Mandalorian with a series that brings back Ewan Macgregor as Obi Wan Kenobi, and a Rogue One prequel series featuring Rebellion spy Cassian Andor and his delightfully snarky droid partner K2S0. Throw enough darts and, eventually, some creative endeavor will hit the target.

Some people might think, “why is Jim writing about Star Wars in his morning newsletter, which is usually about politics?” First, there’s more to life than politics; in fact, William F. Buckley envisioned National Review as being as much about the state of our culture as the state of our politics. You could argue that nothing in our popular culture is bigger than Star Wars. (Maybe the Marvel movies have the strongest claim to the title.) And despite being dismissed as children’s fairy tales with science-fiction trappings and lots of special effects, Star Wars movies had something to say, even if a lot of it was drawn from mythology and myth and Akira Kurosawa samurai films and the works of Joseph Campbell. Star Wars may have debuted during the Carter years and been created by a dyed-in-the-wool man of the left, but they resonated enormously with the Reagan era, a band of underdogs who believed in freedom standing up to an evil empire. Star Wars emphasized that important people can come from humble and unexpected beginnings. Heck, you could argue one of the most influential philosophers in modern society is Yoda: “Do or do not. There is no try.” “Size matters not.” “Luminous beings are we, not this crude matter.”

ADDENDUM: Over on The Editors, we talk impeachment and the British elections. In the coming days, we’re scheduled to talk about Christmas memories and the year in review.

White House

The Fallout from Trump’s Impeachment

Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi speaks to the media with (from left) House Intelligence Committee Chairman Adam Schiff, House Oversight and Reform Chairwoman Carolyn Maloney, and House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerrold Nadler after voting on two articles of impeachment against President Trump in Washington, D.C., December 18, 2019. (Tom Brenner/Reuters)

Making the click-through worthwhile: wondering whether there was ever an alternative for both parties to rebuke Trump’s conduct with Ukraine; Nancy Pelosi tries to force Mitch McConnell’s hand; the speaker shuts up her caucus with a glare; and a pair of promised podcasts are now available.

In Hindsight, a Censure Vote Could Have Been Bipartisan

Was there ever a chance that the House, instead of impeaching President Trump, could have mustered a broad bipartisan majority for a resolution censuring the president’s actions?

Back in September 2018, the House passed an appropriations bill that included a Department of Defense spending bill providing $250 million in Ukrainian military-assistance funding. The House passed the original bill 359–49; the Senate passed its version 85–7, and the conference bill — the compromise between the House and Senate versions passed the House 361 to 61. President Trump signed it into law on September 28, 2018. Subsequent appropriations bills added funding to the U.S. program to help Ukraine.

At that point, the president still had a few options if he didn’t want to spend the money on the assistance to Ukraine. Under the Impoundment Control Act, the president can say he doesn’t want to spend a particular amount of money on a particular program and notify Congress, explaining why. Congress then can re-vote on that spending; if they enact legislation authorizing the cut, the money must be released as the law originally required. The administration did not use the Impoundment Control Act.

(Nor has the bipartisan support for Ukraine changed much. This September, the House passed a continuing resolution that included language extending funding for the Ukraine Security Assistance Initiative for another year. The vote was 301–123.)

In other words, there are a lot of House Republicans who voted to appropriate the funds that the president and his administration held up. If simply asked whether they believed the president had the authority to withhold Congressionally appropriated funds in secret, it is likely that the vast majority of House Republicans would answer, “no, he does not.”

When we first heard about the president’s conversations with the Ukrainian president, some House Republicans were willing to publicly criticize him.

Republican House Intelligence Committee member Michael Turner of Ohio said, “I’ve read the complaint and I’ve read the transcript of the conversation with the president and the president of Ukraine. Concerning that conversation, I want to say to the president: This is not okay. That conversation is not okay. And I think it’s disappointing to the American public when they read the transcript.”

Will Hurd of Texas said invoking Biden and asking for a favor on the call with Zelensky was “inappropriate, misguided foreign policy, and it certainly is not how an executive currently or in the future should handle such a call.” He also said early on, “There is a lot in the whistleblower complaint that is concerning. We need to fully investigate all of the allegations addressed in the letter.”

Back in November, Representative Jaime Herrera Beutler said, “there should be an investigation into the events and the circumstances surrounding the president’s call to the Ukrainian president. The allegations that President Trump coerced Ukraine to influence the 2020 elections are very serious, and they deserve a full, impartial investigation that is totally transparent to the American people. Unfortunately, that’s not what’s happening right now.”

That same month, representative Mac Thornberry of Texas, the top Republican on the House Armed Services Committee declared, “I believe that it is inappropriate for a president to ask a foreign leader to investigate a political rival. I believe it was inappropriate. I do not believe it was impeachable.”

Very recently, representative Chip Roy of Texas wrote right here at National Review: “It was foreseeable that mentioning a potential political opponent on a call with a foreign head of state would, at a minimum, give the appearance of mixing domestic politics with foreign policy . . .  I also do not believe so much effort should be spent advancing the argument that there was ‘no quid pro quo.’ It’s legally debatable, but it’s difficult to argue there wasn’t a ‘this for that’ desired outcome, based on the totality of the phone call and the testimony.”

In October, representative Don Bacon of Nebraska said to the Associated Press, “it showed poor judgment to make these contacts to Ukraine.” Representative Fred Upton of Michigan said, “There are legitimate questions that have to be asked, and people are going to be required to answer them.” Representative Brian Fitzpatrick of Pennsylvania, a former FBI Agent who worked in Ukraine, also said President Trump demonstrated “poor judgment.”

Then there is Francis Rooney of Florida:

Initially in one-on-one conversations, and then in larger group settings, Rooney cautioned his colleagues that there could be no turning a blind eye to the fact pattern emerging from Trump’s relationship with Ukraine. It seemed possible, if not probable, that congressionally approved military aid to the embattled country — long a cause dear to Democrats and Republicans alike — had been held up contingent on investigations into Trump’s domestic political rivals.

Notice none of those lawmakers voted to impeach the president last night. There may well have been more House Republicans who would have been willing to publicly criticize the president for his decisions and actions, if that was widely understood as being distinct from supporting Trump’s impeachment.

Whether impeachment advocates want to face this fact or not, few if any House Republicans were ever going to be willing to vote for impeachment. Members of Congress are almost never willing to impeach a president of their own party; we saw the same phenomenon at work among House Democrats in 1998. Members of the opposition party will always be more inclined to see high crimes and misdemeanors, and members of the president’s party will always be more inclined to see bad decisions that simply aren’t serious enough to prematurely end a presidency. Your approval or disapproval of how the world works does not change how the world works.

You can argue with House Republicans that they ought to support removing the president until you’re blue in the face, and maybe some Democrats feel like they did just that. When House Democrats ask why all the independent-minded House GOP members have disappeared, they should remember that the House members most likely to defy the White House got wiped out in the 2018 midterms — Republicans like Barbara Comstock, Mia Love, Carlos Curbelo, Peter Roskam, Erik Paulsen. That’s also why you didn’t see many swing-district Republicans sweating the impeachment vote. There just aren’t as many swing-district Republicans around anymore!

What would President Trump find more stinging: last night’s impeachment vote, where only Democrats voted to impeach? Or broader, bipartisan support for a resolution declaring that his actions violated the law and his Constitutional duties? Democrats were never going to get any GOP votes for the former, but they might have gotten some voters for the latter.

Theoretically, they could still go back and go for a resolution of censure or other condemnation, but I suspect most House Republicans would have little interest in revisiting the topic a second time after an impeachment vote. Fairly or not, a censure vote now would be seen as an admission that the impeachment did not have the impact that Democrats expected.

Welcome to Impeachment Limbo

Last night, House speaker Nancy Pelosi surprised some observers by declaring that the House would not name impeachment managers — roughly the equivalent of prosecutors for the Senate trial — until January, in hopes that the delay would  “put pressure on Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to adopt trial procedures they consider bipartisan.” This is a baffling approach that amounts to taking oneself hostage. Few Senate Republicans are itching to deal with the political stink-bomb that is impeachment, and they are in no rush. Remember, nothing else gets done in the Senate during impeachment — no other votes, no other hearings, no other committee meetings. Oh, and are we absolutely certain that Senators Sanders, Warren, Booker, Klobuchar, and Bennet would all join the bloc of senators seeking a longer Senate trial with more witnesses, dragging through January and February?

In some ways, it would be the perfectly ridiculous end to this if the House majority convinced itself it didn’t need to send the articles of impeachment to the Senate for a trial, because Trump’s acquittals would be more harmful to the country than this probably unconstitutional perpetual delay. This would be the equivalent of the prosecutors announcing an indictment and then never getting around to actually holding the trial.

You Don’t Get Good Behavior Points If You Only Clapped a Little

I know we’re all supposed to be impressed that House Speaker Nancy Pelosi shut down the post-vote applause with an angry glare . . . but she already told her caucus not to applaud earlier in the day, and they started to applaud anyway. Some Democratic members either have short memories or little impulse control.

ADDENDUM: Okay, now we have links to the podcasts mentioned yesterday! Here’s my chat with Jonah on The Remnant, and here’s my chat with Scott Mason and Mickey about the state of the Jets and the Steelers — I start off with a lengthy diatribe about why the Steelers organization excels and the Jets organization flounders because of completely different expectations at every level, from the owner to the groundskeepers. As Mickey put it, “we’re Steelers fans. We don’t really do moral victories.” If you’ve ever wanted to hear me lose my mind in front of a microphone, look for my rant about Adam Gase towards the tail end.

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