Politics & Policy

Trump’s Presidential Powers Seem to Be Dwindling

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President Donald Trump speaks to the media before boarding Air Force One as he departs from Bedminster, N.J., August 9, 2020. (Joshua Roberts/Reuters)

On the menu today: Both Donald Trump and Joe Biden take a moment to offer ludicrously unrealistic proposals about Social Security and Medicare, the disappearance of functional congressional majorities, and indicators that large swaths of the world just tune out what the president says on any given day.

Washington’s Jaw-Dropping Denial about Money

Yesterday, during his press briefing at the White House, President Trump again pitched his proposal to “terminate the payroll tax” permanently.

The term “payroll taxes” probably misleads some people, as they are considered separate from your income taxes, despite the fact that half of them comes out of your paycheck. You and your employer each pay 6.2 percent of your income to pay for Social Security and 1.45 percent for Medicare, and an additional 0.9 percent is levied on the highest earners. In fiscal year 2019, Americans paid $1.2 trillion, which was almost 36 percent of all federal revenues.

By 2035, the revenue from payroll taxes going into Social Security will not be enough to cover what is needed to go out to the elderly. The money that goes into Medicare is split into two parts — the Part A trust fund, which pays for hospital and other inpatient care, and Part B, which covers doctors’ and other providers’ fees, and is not covered by payroll taxes. Part B is mostly covered by general non-payroll tax revenues and premiums paid by beneficiaries.

In April, the board of Trustees for Medicare declared that Part A is on pace to run out of money in 2026. But that was before the full scale of the pandemic-driven economic decline became clear, and some analysts think, given the sudden and lingering drop in taxes being paid, Part A will need more money going out than revenue coming in perhaps as early as 2022 or 2023.

Whoever wins in November will have to deal with this. There is not much more road to kick the can down.

Joe Biden wants to lower the age of eligibility to Medicare from 65 to 60. Whether or not you think this is a good idea, adding more beneficiaries to Medicare would increase the expenditures. Some supporters of the idea argue that those from 60 to 64 represent the oldest and often most expensive people covered by private insurance, but would be the youngest and among the healthiest under Medicare, so the cost increase wouldn’t be that high. But there’s no way to add millions of people to a government-financed system of health care and not increase expenditures by a significant amount. And the consequences for everyone else in private insurance might not be so appealing. A RAND study from last year concluded, “contrary to expectations, the authors find that when 50-to-64-year-olds move out of the individual market, premiums for individual market plans increase. When older adults leave the market, insurers are left with a smaller pool of younger, less healthy, and relatively expensive people given their age, leading to higher premiums.”

President Trump said yesterday that if reelected, he would eliminate the payroll tax entirely and have those programs maintained by general tax revenues. The U.S. would eliminate its current way of paying for Social Security and Medicare — again, more than a third of all federal revenue — and just use the remaining “normal” tax revenue to pay for it.

You probably recognized the flaw here. The annual deficit for this year — boosted by huge expenditures to help those out of work because of the pandemic, and much lower tax revenues than expected — is projected to reach at least $3.7 trillion. In the early years of Barack Obama’s presidency, Congressional Republicans and Tea Party activists believed that it was an abhorrent scandal that the United States had an annual deficit above $1 trillion per year. The U.S. came close to that threshold in 2019, will surpass it this year, and is expected to surpass it next year.

Our overall total national debt, as of Tuesday, is $26.5 trillion.

Asked about it yesterday, Trump insisted the country could manage the elimination of more than a third of current tax revenue because the country is “going to have tremendous growth.”

Could Trump Muster a Congressional Majority for Anything These Days?

By any measure, the U.S. president proposing the complete and permanent elimination of all payroll taxes that fund Social Security and Medicare is a surprising proposal — and probably also described in various quarters as “radical,” “shocking,” “profound,” and “insane.”

You will notice that the stock markets did not go nuts, up or down, in response to President Trump’s statement. Few congressional Democrats rushed to the cameras to denounce the proposal, and congressional Republicans did not quickly issue statements touting it. No member of Congress is writing up the legislation or co-sponsoring it. No committee chairman is pledging to hold hearings.

The world didn’t react much to Trump making this proposal from the White House podium because I suspect almost no one in the world thinks this proposal will ever become reality. Only a limited number of people think Trump will win reelection, and even fewer think Trump would have a like-minded majority in the House of Representatives. President Trump and House speaker Nancy Pelosi have not spoken for nearly ten months. There is no indication that Trump can woo or win over any faction of congressional Democrats; only one House Democrat voted against his impeachment. Congressional Republicans rarely openly defy Trump, but increasingly simply ignore him when he makes a proposal they don’t like — including calls to cut payroll taxes. They have less reason to fear him; a presidential endorsement doesn’t determine the winner in GOP House primaries anymore.

Trump wants ever-expanding executive powers, exploring the possibility of unilaterally making changes to the tax code, in part because he has zero ability to get Congress to do what he wants.

A change as sweeping as permanently eliminating the payroll tax would require months of work, and persistent and consistent messaging. Think back to the passage of Obamacare, which took from Obama’s inauguration to March 2010 — and required all kinds of arm-twisting of Congress, byzantine special carve-outs and backroom deals, a completely unified Democratic majority and a willingness to lose seats in the midterms over the legislation. And as the architect of the law Jonathan Gruber reminded us, “lack of transparency is a huge political advantage. And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass.”

Trump and his administration are simply not capable of a sustained effort like that. The president doesn’t have the attention span or the interest. Already this morning, the president — three months away from Election Day — is back to tweeting about “very poor morning TV ratings for MSDNC’s Morning Joe, headed by a complete Psycho named Joe Scarborough and his ditzy airhead wife, Mika.”

Is the President Still Treated As If He’s the Head of State?

Trump is president, but the world does not really respond to him as if he’s president anymore. He’s just some guy who goes out and says things, either from the White House or on Twitter, that have little impact on what the federal government actually does.

He’s kept far away from the White House staff’s negotiations with Congress about economic relief. His own staff reportedly “routinely ignores his orders.” After Trump threatened to use the Insurrection Act to send the U.S. military into cities to control riots, Defense secretary Mark Esper publicly disagreed: “The option to use active-duty forces in a law enforcement role should only be used as a matter of last resort, and only in the most urgent and dire of situations. We are not in one of those situations now.”

Even the Republicans in the Senate now ignore Trump’s veto threats.

Trump calls for schools to reopen, but at least half the country’s public schools will remain online-only this fall. Trump calls for college football to be played this autumn, but most conferences are canceling the seasons or hoping the outlook is better in the spring. The Commission on Presidential Debates is ignoring Trump’s demands for a fourth debate and his list of acceptable moderators. After Trump threatened executive orders to restrict drug prices, the CEO of Pfizer Pharmaceuticals shrugged off the president’s threats as an irrelevant distraction: “I don’t think there is a need right now for White House meetings.

Certainly, foreign leaders feel little pressure to do as Trump says, even after he’s spent years trying to build up a relationship.

Does the president still have a “bully pulpit” when so many people shrug off his statements as if he’s just “Donnie from Queens on the car phone” calling in to a talk-radio station?

Democrats are obsessively consumed with a desire to beat Donald Trump and ensure that he no longer have the powers of the presidency. But looking at the big picture of this administration at this moment . . . how much does Trump have the powers of the presidency now?

ADDENDUM: In case you missed it yesterday, these days are probably as good as it gets for Joe Biden. It all gets harder from here for the former vice president.

Elections

Don’t Count on Kamala Harris

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Former Vice President Joe Biden and Senator Kamala Harris take the stage before the start of the second night of the second 2020 presidential Democratic candidates debate in Detroit, Mich., July 31, 2019. (Lucas Jackson/Reuters)

On the menu today: all about Kamala Harris — why her political instincts never quite lived up to the potential her fans expected, how she turns the “law and order” arguments upside down, and whether her campaign offers some warning signs about her ability to thrive in the executive branch.

What Separates the Potential and the Reality of Kamala Harris

In September 2012, I was covering the Democratic National Convention in Charlotte and was among the limited number of NR correspondents with a pass to get into the arena for the second night — traditionally the least-interesting night. Monday gets the keynote address, Wednesday the speech from the vice-presidential nominee, and Thursday the address from the presidential nominee. Bill Clinton was the headliner, but shortly before him was the then-rising star California attorney general . . . Kamala Harris.

Harris got mixed reviews — “her delivery was low-key and the crowd seemed unsure of when to clap even during her most obvious applause lines” — but at the time I watched her and thought she was a likely successor to Barack Obama. She used a lot of the Barack Obama playbook: making massive government expansion and economic intervention sound like mundane “fairness,” the casual demonization of the free market as cruel, the touting of disputable compromises as grand victories, the rote demonization of Wall Street. (Her husband is a top lawyer in Hollywood with many corporate clients, but I guess that’s different somehow.)

But it wasn’t Harris’s speech that stood out, it was just who she was: daughter of Jamaican and Indian immigrants, progressive enough with her roots in Berkeley and San Francisco, a little time spent living abroad in Montreal, degree from Howard University, but perceived to be tough with her work as a criminal prosecutor. Part of the sales pitch for Obama leading up to 2008 was how varied and unusual his pre-political life story was. Like Obama, Harris’s early life had a little bit of this, a little bit of that, with lots of aspects that various Democratic demographics would hear about and think, “Hey, I experienced something like that. She probably understands the perspective of someone like me.”

There’s a reason people laughed so hard at Maya Rudolph’s portrayal of Harris as a woman who thinks she’s in a TNT legal drama. Harris often speaks like she’s the protagonist of a John Grisham novel — grandiose tributes to the law and justice that just happen to align with whatever she politically needs at any particular moment.

Harris did rise further, winning election to the U.S. Senate. Winning a statewide Democratic primary in California is usually a matter of money, name recognition, and which competitor has the strongest preexisting base of support; Harris had already won statewide races, and Representative Loretta Sanchez had not. But Harris’s arrival in Washington coincided with the arrival of Donald Trump, an event that filled the Democrat Party with an endless rage that they could lose to a man like him. Democrats wanted anger during the Trump era, so Harris repositioned herself as the administration’s toughest foe in the Senate.

You probably noticed that Harris flip-flopped on Medicare for All, independent reviews of police shootings, decriminalizing border crossings, and abolishing ICE. She hit Joe Biden for opposing a federal mandate for busing but later said she herself wouldn’t support a federal mandate. For all her toughness and tributes to principle, she repeatedly demonstrated that she would say whatever was needed to impress the audience in front of her.

There are politicians who seek policy proposals that will make them popular. And there are politicians who seek popularity because they want the political capital to enact policy proposals. A figure like Bernie Sanders is clearly the latter — he thinks abolishing private health insurance entirely would be a popular idea (it’s not), but pretty clearly pursues it because he thinks it’s the best policy, regardless of whether it’s popular. His popularity is oddly tied to his willingness to say and do things that are not that popular.

Harris stepped onto the presidential campaign trail with considerable advantages, but . . . her most memorable moment was coming out of the gate and painting Joe Biden as racially insensitive. Chris Dodd and other Biden allies have every right in the world to hold a grudge over this. When you’re the young upstart and you want to overtake the old loyalist, you can do it without a smear, particularly on the issue of race. You emphasize the need for “new blood” to “address new challenges,” but you always treat him like Joe DiMaggio on Old Timer’s Day at Yankee Stadium in the mid 1990s. Everybody loves him, everybody remembers what he did to help the team win, but nobody wants to start him in center field anymore. You treat Biden’s presidential campaign like a toast at his retirement party, with not-so-subtle reminders of just how long Biden’s been playing at the top level of a political system that most voters see as broken and unresponsive. “None of us will ever forget how, as a senator, you helped Jimmy Carter when he needed help the most, Joe.”

Yesterday was one of the better ones for the Trump campaign this year. An increasing number of independent middle-class suburban voters might be really exasperated with Trump and not all that hostile to Joe Biden . . . but Harris is a reminder of everything they don’t like about the Democratic Party. Higher taxes, a much bigger role for government in health insurance that they’re currently content with, intermittent desire to end immigration law enforcement entirely, the Green New Deal, taxpayer-funded late-term abortion-on-demand, opposition to Catholic judges that steps over the line into bigotry, the use of the law to harass political enemies . . . the prospect of President Kamala Harris taking over sometime after January 20, 2021, is going to bring a bunch of frustrated Republicans back into the Trump camp.

Kamala Is Not a Cop — She Was a Prosecutor Who Made Some Bad Decisions

But there’s one other wrinkle. Late last week, the New York Times wrote a detailed story about how the left-wing takeover of the streets in Seattle was not merely a “block party atmosphere” but was a terrifying devolution into anarchy, threats, looting, and violence. It was a giant — and far too late — correction to the dominant media narrative, and an institution like the Times doesn’t just abandon a key narrative of the Left for no reason. It’s reasonable to wonder if some voices at the Times, no friends to the Trump administration or Republicans, recognized that the “all of this is almost entirely peaceful” narrative was a bridge too far and likely to backfire on the Democratic Party, and/or the cause of criminal-justice reform. Good progressive Democrats are starting to grow uncomfortable with the images coming out of Seattle, Portland, Chicago, and New York, and Jenny Durkan, Ted Wheeler, Lori Lightfoot, and Bill de Blasio appear to be haplessly running their cities into the ground — at the precise moment a pandemic has many residents of big cities wondering if they should move out to the suburbs. This phenomenon by itself might not guarantee a second term for Trump — but it certainly gives Trump a frightening contrast to exploit.

One of the most common attacks on Harris during the primary was “Kamala is a cop.” This is factually untrue; Harris was a prosecutor, and one who can fairly be accused of trying to have it both ways on the issue of criminal-justice reform. If Trump is going to accuse the Democrats of wanting to let criminals take over the streets of America’s cities, who better to refute that accusation than Kamala Harris, the subject of memes of a militarized police overreach? Tying Biden to the “abolish the police” narrative was never going to be easy, and now it looks ridiculous. Trump is instinctively going to try to position himself as the candidate of “LAW AND ORDER!” and Harris can justifiably scoff that Trump is so soft on crime, he won’t even jail the parents of truant children.

Who’s Ready to Manage the Executive Branch?

One other thing to keep in mind if, as it seems, Kamala Harris is now on a glide path to being the 47th president of the United States: Apparently one of the reasons Harris’s campaign never took off was that it was an absolute mess behind the scenes. The New York Times did a huge profile piece shortly before Harris quit the race, speaking to “more than 50 current and former campaign staff members and allies.” The article painting Harris as indecisive, bad at managing staff and holding others accountable, erratically attacking rivals then retreating, and being far too deferential to her sister’s judgment as campaign chair. The campaign had split into warring factions, no one seemed to know who answered to whom, and it appeared that Harris — despite her commanding public image — didn’t really seem to be in charge of her own campaign. A separate Politico article told a similar story, with the unnerving summary from one Harris staffer: “No discipline. No plan. No strategy.”

Presidential campaigns rarely if ever rise or fall based upon the management skills of the vice-presidential nominee. But if Harris becomes a heartbeat away from the presidency — and that heartbeat is in the body of Joe Biden — her ability to manage a large, diverse staff and complicated bureaucracy could have national consequences someday. Every presidential candidate thinks they can handle this part of the job easily until they get in there.

Democrats will respond to all this with, “But Trump!” But Trump’s troubles only illuminate the difficulty of managing the executive branch.

ADDENDUM: As noted yesterday, whatever else you think of Kamala Harris, it’s pretty amazing and awesome that immigrants can come to the U.S., meet, marry, have a child, and their daughter can grow up to be DA, state attorney general, U.S. senator, and on a presidential ticket. There are a few other countries in the world where you can arrive on our shores and your children can rise to the very top, but not many.

Elections

Where’s Biden?

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Democratic presidential candidate and former Vice President Joe Biden arrives to speak about his plan to combat racial inequality at a campaign event in Wilmington, Del., July 28, 2020. (Jonathan Ernst/Reuters)

On the menu today: A long look at Joe Biden, how little he appears in his campaign’s videos, and what we can determine about whether he’s as mentally sharp as he used to be; a new report from NBC News leaves some key facts out; and New York media are asking tougher questions about the accuracy of the death count from the coronavirus in that state’s nursing homes.

Joe Biden, the 2020 Campaign’s Missing Man

If you look at the Joe Biden YouTube page, the first thing you notice is that most of the videos don’t feature Joe Biden very much. He’s not in the livestream of the national grassroots mobilization launch. He doesn’t make a cameo in the Chinese-Americans for Biden video featuring Olympian Michelle Kwan, Yo-Yo Ma, and several members of Congress. He doesn’t appear in the “Out for Biden” video featuring Jill Biden and Chasten Buttigieg. Biden offers a very short voice-over for an “Educators Hero” video featuring Arizona’s 2019 teacher of the year, Kareem Neal. One video features Scranton, Pa., residents talking about Biden. A one-minute video emphasizes “the story of Black America is the story of America” and that “just like our ancestors who stood up to the violent racists of a generation ago, we will stand up to this president and say, ‘no more,’ because America is better than him.” Biden did record a pre-taped brief introduction to the “Todos Con Biden Charla [chat] with actress Aubrey Plaza.” (It turns out that at age 16, Plaza was a representative at the Joe Biden Youth Leadership Conference in Delaware!)

The Biden video that probably got the most attention in the past few days is one of Biden driving his Corvette on what appears to be the long driveway of his home in Delaware. Even this generally lighthearted video has a brief wistful moment — “every time and again I think of my dad and [Biden’s late son] Beau. God, could my dad drive a car!” — and Biden’s remarks are . . . very much what we’ve seen in his other public appearances. “I believe that we can own the 21st Century market again by moving to electric vehicles. And, by the way, they tell me and I’m looking forward if it’s true, to driving one, that they’re making an electric Corvette that can go 200 miles an hour. You think I’m kidding? I’m not kidding. So, I’m excited about it.” (General Motors had no comment about whether they were working on an electric Corvette.)

It’s not a bad video, per se, but . . . these are presumably the best takes.

Biden is not entirely absent from the videos for his campaign. But he’s rarely in them for very long, and his remarks, seldom more than a few minutes, are generally voice overs, with videos or photos of Biden shaking hands and appearing earlier in the campaign.

On paper, the Biden campaign could argue that having so many videos of other people offering testimonials to the importance of electing him is a sign that his campaign is about “we, not he,” or “driven by the people, not an exercise in ego gratification” or something like that. But the sparse servings of the candidate himself aren’t happening in a vacuum.

You notice Biden hasn’t subjected himself to a tough interview with a Chris Wallace or Jonathan Swan type. Then again, Biden’s standard interviews during a virtual convention of the National Association of Black Journalists and the National Association of Hispanic Journalists didn’t run so smoothly.

Biden isn’t going to be giving his convention address in Milwaukee. This suggests that the Biden campaign is not confident in his ability to travel from Delaware to Milwaukee and back without an unacceptable level of risk of catching the coronavirus. It is fair to wonder if Biden will travel anywhere between now and Election Day.

There’s a reason Julian Castro went after Biden’s memory and mental capacities in one of the primary debates, and insisted afterwards that he didn’t regret it. (It didn’t help that Biden called Castro “Cisernos” a month later.)

Rasmussen polling found 59 percent of voters don’t think Biden would complete his first term as president. The Atlantic reported at the end of June that “other focus groups have revealed similar data. The word young voters most associate with Biden is old, followed by good, and then creepyDemocrat, and smart, according to a focus group conducted over the past few weeks for NextGen America, a political organization that focuses on increasing youth turnout. Mixed in are leadergreatniceexperiencedokay, and cool, but also senile and dementia.”

Ted Rall is a very liberal cartoonist who was a strong supporter of Bernie Sanders in this recent Democratic primary. Back in March, Rall offered a blistering assessment of Biden in the Japan Times that was, as far as I can tell, almost entirely ignored here in the United States:

It is perfectly fair to talk about Bernie Sanders’ heart attack as well as Biden’s and Trump’s mental acuity.

Contrary to current ridiculous Democratic talking points, it is not ageist to point this out. One out of seven Americans over the age of 70 suffers from dementia. (Biden is 77.) If it’s ageist to talk about dementia among the elderly, it’s ageist to talk about immaturity among the young.

It is neither necessary nor possible to scientifically determine whether the former vice president has dementia. On the other hand, you don’t need an astronomer to know that the sun rises in the east. If you have encountered dementia, you know Biden has it…

As a citizen, you have no business casting a vote thoughtlessly or less than fully informed. Deliberately casting a vote for someone clearly suffering from dementia, or turning a blind eye to it, or being simply unaware of Biden’s mental state are inexcusable.

I spent the last few years watching my mother’s decline due to dementia caused by Alzheimer’s. She had been brilliant. Years before her death, however, she was having a tough time keeping it together. I would have voted for her as president in 2012 but not 2016. It would have been wrong.

No one who has been close to someone deteriorating from that disease could fail to see the same signs in Biden.

Rall has not budged, now that Biden is the nominee and, if polls are accurate, likely next president. He wrote last month,Joe Biden is mentally unfit for the presidency. He is clearly suffering from dementia, which is why his campaign is hiding him. Now they’re trying to come up with excuses for him not to debate Trump. If the electorate wants to hand over nuclear launch codes to a man who is senile, let them commit this madness without me.”

We’ve all watched Joe Biden on our television screens for years. We know what he was like as vice president. The guy who’s been running for the past year or so . . . has lost at least a step, and maybe more. If these fears were baseless, Biden would be out and about, interacting with reporters and taking questions and socially distant town halls, etc., and we would see for ourselves. The fact that his campaign appears to be minimizing the amount of time that he’s interacting with people and operating without a script is an answer . . . a pretty ominous answer. If Biden’s mind were as sharp as Obama’s in 2008 or 2012, would prominent Democrats be publicly floating the idea of doing away with the presidential debates?

Right about now, Trump fans are jumping up and down and arguing Biden is deteriorating and can’t string two sentences together, and that Democrats are terrified of having him on stage with Donald Trump for 90 minutes. But Biden can string two sentences together, and probably two paragraphs together. The last time we saw Joe Biden on a debate stage, on March 15, he held his own against Sanders for two hours. Clearly, he still has some good nights left in him. But does he have four years’ worth of good nights left in him?

Biden’s age and mental acuity may not matter that much by November. Trump is a walking disaster area; he entered a routine conversation about the economy with GOP megadonor Sheldon Adelson and, with little warning, berated Adelson for not donating enough to his reelection campaign, reportedly offending and alienating the man who is arguably the single most important donor to the Republican Party.

But Democrats know, deep in their guts, they were not supposed to go into the 2020 election with a presidential candidate best kept away from the cameras after more than a few minutes. Democrats like to think of themselves as the young, fresh, eloquent, bold, outsider party — the JFKs, the Bill Clintons, the Barack Obamas. In 2016, by nominating Hillary Clinton, the Democrats tossed away their preferred perception of being the young party, and in fact embodied the establishment and status quo. Biden is not Hillary Clinton — but he’s not completely different, either.

A common theory on the right — and perhaps not just the right — is that much of the Democratic Party sees Joe Biden as a tool; his purpose is to beat Trump and then he will be cast aside, in favor of this presumably more-progressive vice president. One has to wonder just how much Joe Biden himself would truly object to this turn of events. Recall that when Biden’s second presidential bid crashed and burned in January 2008, and before Obama selected him as the elder-statesman security blanket in August, it appeared Biden’s days of influence in the Democratic Party were over. He was going to stick around for a seventh term (!) in the Senate, but no one spent much time asking, “what does Joe Biden think?” Instead, Biden enjoyed one of the most remarkable third acts in American politics.

If elected, Biden’s status in the history of the Democratic Party will be secured. In addition to being a longtime senator and a two-term vice president, he will be the man who beat Donald Trump — who did what Hillary Clinton couldn’t — and who spared the country another term of a president his party detests with a probably unparalleled ferocity. Maybe Biden is fine with that as his epitaph.

NBC News Visits a Wuhan Lab and Declares It’s Clean

NBC News is invited to tour the Wuhan Institute of Virology in China and writes an article contending the institution is being unfairly “scapegoated” as the possible origin point for SARS-CoV-2. Josh Rogin of the Washington Post lays out everything the NBC News report gets wrong, fudges, misleads, misquotes, and fails to mention.

I wonder if the NBC News team in China had a chance to visit their parent company’s largest and most expensive theme park it has ever built, Universal Beijing Resort, or to catch a Universal Pictures film in a Chinese theater while they were there.

New York Is Hiding the Coronavirus Death Toll in Nursing Homes

The popular narrative of “Andrew Cuomo, Pandemic Hero” is an unnerving triumph of spin over facts and a lack of curiosity on the part of the national media. The New York media are covering Cuomo in a much tougher manner:

New York’s coronavirus death toll in nursing homes, already among the highest in the nation, could actually be a significant undercount. Unlike every other state with major outbreaks, New York only counts residents who died on nursing home property and not those who were transported to hospitals and died there.

That statistic that could add thousands to the state’s official care home death toll of just over 6,600. But so far the administration of Democratic Gov. Andrew Cuomo has refused to divulge the number, leading to speculation the state is manipulating the figures to make it appear it is doing a better than other states and to make a tragic situation less dire.

ADDENDUM: Vladimir Putin announces — claims? — Russia has developed a coronavirus vaccine.

There’s an old joke that after the United States put a man on the moon, a Russian scientist met his American counterpart and boldly pledged that his country would out-do the West . . . by landing a man on the sun.

“What, are you crazy?” the American scientist asked. “If you try to land a man on the sun, he’ll burn up!”

The Russian scientist scoffed and tapped his forehead. “What, you think we haven’t thought of that? That’s why we’re going to launch the rocket at night!”

Politics & Policy

America, You’re Doing Okay: A Pep Talk

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A waitress in a face mask passes flags while working at a restaurant in Alexandria, Virginia, as Phase One of reopening begins, May 29, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

On the menu today: Some really intriguing new research on why so many people are asymptomatic with the coronavirus, and a theory that masks are effective in part because they aren’t 100 percent effective; a pep talk for everyone in America who’s trying to get a handle on their anxiety, stress, and gloom right now; and strangely enough, it turns out that the presence of federal agents was not the cause of violence in Portland. Go figure!

Your Immune System and T-Cells Might Be Prepared to Fight Coronavirus Already

Last month in this newsletter, we took a look at the role of T-cells in the immune system and noted a particularly intriguing study that suggested a person’s past experiences with non–SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses might give their immune systems a leg up in fighting off an infection of this particular new virus.

The study in Cell concluded, “Importantly, we detected SARS-CoV-2-reactive CD4+ T cells in ∼40 percent–60 percent of unexposed individuals, suggesting cross-reactive T cell recognition between circulating ‘common cold’ coronaviruses and SARS-CoV-2.”

In other words, 40 to 60 percent of people who hadn’t caught SARS-CoV-2 yet had T-cells that had been “in training” against regular non-SARS-CoV-2 coronaviruses and that were likely to be effective in fighting off SARS-CoV-2. I noted, “Suddenly, asymptomatic cases make a bit more sense. Those folks are probably lucky enough to have immune systems that are top-tier and never let the SARS-CoV-2 virus get enough traction to generate symptoms. Remember, coughs, sneezes, runny noses, and other symptoms of sickness are ways the body is trying to expel the invader.” If your body is easily and effectively fighting off a virus, you never start coughing, sneezing, etc.

Late last month, Dr. Francis Collins, director of the National Institutes of Health, spotlighted a different study going down a related avenue of research, and finding similar results:

SARS-CoV-2 belongs to a large family of coronaviruses, six of which were previously known to infect humans. Four of them are responsible for the common cold. The other two are more dangerous: SARS-CoV-1, the virus responsible for the outbreak of Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS), which ended in 2004; and MERS-CoV, the virus that causes Middle East Respiratory Syndrome (MERS), first identified in Saudi Arabia in 2012.

Finally, [Antonio Bertoletti at the Duke-NUS Medical School in Singapore and his team] looked for such T cells in blood samples from 37 healthy individuals with no history of either COVID-19 or SARS. To their surprise, more than half had T cells that recognize one or more of the SARS-CoV-2 proteins under study here. It’s still not clear if this acquired immunity stems from previous infection with coronaviruses that cause the common cold or perhaps from exposure to other as-yet unknown coronaviruses.

But there’s another key factor in whether your body can fight off an infection: viral load. In the Washington Post this weekend, Ariana Eunjung Cha spotlighted several avenues of research, and perhaps the most surprising one is the possibility that widespread use of masks increases the number of asymptomatic cases in a population:

The numbers on two cruise ships were especially striking. In the Diamond Princess, where masks weren’t used and the virus was likely to have roamed free, 47 percent of those tested were asymptomatic. But in the Antarctic-bound Argentine cruise ship, where an outbreak hit in mid-March and surgical masks were given to all passengers and N95 masks to the crew, 81 percent were asymptomatic.

Similarly high rates of asymptomatic infection were documented at a pediatric dialysis unit in Indiana, a seafood plant in Oregon and a hair salon in Missouri, all of which used masks. Gandhi was also intrigued by countries such as Singapore, Vietnam and the Czech Republic that had population-level masking.

“They got cases,” she noted, “but fewer deaths.”

If this theory pans out, it will mean that in a strange and ironic way, the mask critics had a valid point but completely misunderstood the implications: Masks did not provide 100 percent protection from the virus, and that’s what makes them an effective defense. They don’t protect a wearer from the virus entirely, they protect a wearer from dangerously higher “viral loads” — so the body gets exposed to a tiny amount of the virus, and the immune system encounters it, figures out how to fight it off, and eventually builds up an immunity.

You’re Soldiering On Okay, America

Are you old enough to remember, “For all you do, this Bud’s for you”?

This weekend, Peggy Noonan described America as “the coalition of the worried.” We’re all experiencing enormous amounts of uncertainty right now. A pandemic that we . . . think will be done by early next year with a vaccine? Maybe? Wondering how well our health-care system will hold up under this strain. . . . An economy that got hit harder and faster than ever before, but is climbing back out of a deep hole . . . so far? The end of an era for small businesses, retail, tourism and travel, probably movie theaters. . . . Violence and unrest in our cities? Public schools closed until further notice? Our stress levels are off the charts, and social media are feeding the habit of “doom scrolling” — diving deeper and deeper into bad news.

Traditionally, when human beings are thrown into a crisis, they endure it by coming closer together, in all kinds of rituals, large and small. But church services, funerals, concerts, movies, and theaters — they’ve all been either barred or curtailed.

We don’t exactly have an overflowing supply of appreciation, goodwill, reassurance, and affirmation right now.

Let’s start the week with reminder of all the Buds that are for you, America — although I should note you probably shouldn’t necessarily crack open a Bud this early in the morning.  At some point, have that extra coffee or Danish, or pat yourself on the back, or just recognize what you’ve managed to endure since this whole pandemic started . . .

Are you in one piece? That’s job one. Take care of the caretaker. If you don’t have your health, you’re going to have a really tough time taking care of anyone else. Unplug when you can. Get that extra sleep if you’ve been missing it. If you’ve been putting off that checkup with your doctor, make the appointment — doctor’s offices really know what they’re doing to ensure your visit won’t put you at risk to exposure. A big chunk of the 2020 excess mortality rate is probably people who didn’t go to the doctor or hospital at the first signs of trouble.

Have you managed to keep your job or your business open? Take a bow. This is the Olympics of business challenges. If you’ve made it this far, you’ve got a good chance of making it to the other side of this recession. The world threw just about the biggest curveball imaginable at you, closing down most of society. It took creativity, ingenuity, determination, deep reserves of grit, and maybe a little luck to get this far.

Have your kids learned anything since school was canceled? Great. Some kids didn’t show up for online learning at all. Are they reading? Have they watched anything that might teach them a little something? You’re teaching them a lot about handling adversity just by getting up out of bed every morning and tackling everything that needs to be done.

Have you managed not to kill your spouse, or your kids, or your housemates or roommates since you’ve starting spending enormous amounts of time with them? Loving someone doesn’t mean you automatically get along with them all the time, 24/7, under the same roof. People need space, and they miss their old routines.

Have you gone out and gotten any fresh air? Gone for a walk? The great outdoors is generally still open. Outdoor air currents make exposure to the virus extremely unlikely. Stretch.

You’re stressed; have you “mentally exercised” at all? Read a book? Most libraries are now open in some form, often with precautions or safety measures. If you can’t physically escape what’s troubling you, mentally escape it.

Have you figured out how to cook anything? If you’ve managed to not burn down your house in the process, take another bow.

The pandemic can easily turn into a disappointing, frustrating, monotonous routine — months full of Wednesdays. Try something new in just about any aspect of your life. Eat something you’ve never eaten before. Walk someplace you’ve never walked before. Reach out to that old friend you haven’t talked to in forever. Your mind requires stimulus as much as the economy does.

We cannot control the world we live in; we can only control how we respond to the world we live in.

Hey, I’m Starting to Think the Federal Agents Weren’t the Problem in Portland

The Washington Post, July 31: “Calm returns to Portland as federal agents withdraw”

The Washington Post, August 9: “‘You can’t control people’s anger’: Portland protesters set fire to police union headquarters as tensions rise again”

ADDENDUM: Our Kevin Williamson homes in on an important point in New York attorney general Letitia James’s effort to dissolve the National Rifle Association: “If there is a fraud case or a tax case to be made against Wayne LaPierre or other NRA members, then New York State and the feds should indict them and present such a case as they have in accordance with the high evidentiary standards of a court of criminal justice. But that is not what is happening. LaPierre has been charged with no crime, and there is no indication at this moment that he is on the verge of being charged with a crime.”

If there is evidence of a crime, indict the perpetrators. If there is insufficient evidence to even try getting a conviction, there is insufficient evidence to dissolve the organization entirely.

Politics & Policy

The Misguided Attempt to Dissolve the NRA

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New York State Attorney General, Letitia James, speaks during a news conference to announce a suit to dissolve the National Rifle Association In New York, August 6, 2020. (Brendan McDermid /Reuters )

Closing out the week with some variety: The evidence of mismanagement and wasteful spending at the NRA is real, but New York State attorney general Letitia James is on a vendetta against the organization in just about the worst possible way; an eye-opening question about Susan Rice perhaps having undisclosed financial ties to foreign governments; Joe Biden leaves people cringing after talking about racial minorities again; and a hard truth about our lengthy stretch of empty classrooms.

Letitia James and the NRA: Two Wrongs Don’t Make a Right

Those of us with long memories all the way back to last year will remember that Allen West, former GOP congressman and NRA board member and new chairman of the Texas Republican Party, was among those who denounced “despicable spending of members’ money.” Allen West is not a liberal, a Democrat, or a gun grabber. If he sees scandalous behavior, then there’s probably a real scandal there. Some of these allegations came out during and after the NRA Annual Meeting in Indianapolis last year; you may recall Oliver North unexpectedly declaring he would not seek another term as president, and North and Wayne LaPierre trading accusations and counter-accusations of financial mismanagement, attempts at extortion, and unjustifiable expenditures.

Back in May 2019, I wrote in the New York Post, “We don’t know if [the] New York [State attorney general’s office] investigation will ­uncover a lot of wrongdoing, a little — or none. But it seems like a safe bet that [Letitia] James will make the investigation as extensive, thorough and expensive as possible, right around the time the organization would like to be gearing up for a tough fight in the 2020 election.”

Letitia James is just about the worst person to lead any investigation of the National Rifle Association. Her effort to dissolve the organization illustrates that a knee-jerk partisan state attorney general can undermine a legitimate argument by going about their goals the wrong way.

James’s past characterization of the NRA as a “terrorist organization” and her overt public hostility toward it have given the NRA’s lawyers an easy counterargument that her lawsuit — not an indictment, which we will get to in a moment — is a partisan vendetta and an abuse of the powers of her office.

Which is a shame, because NRA members would be well-served if an impartial but tough outside authority looked at their spending over the past few years. James’s lawsuit lays out what appears to be a lot of ludicrously frivolous and luxurious expenditures on the senior leaders of the organization — chartered private jet flights for family members, gifts, membership fees for a golf club, $1,500-per-night hotels, massive expenditures on vague “consulting contracts.” Maybe it’s all lies or exaggerations, but if it is, James is taking a massive risk putting it all in a court document.

The editors point out that James isn’t indicting NRA officials on criminal charges; she’s attempting to legally dissolve the organization and doing so three months before an election. “If Wayne LaPierre or other NRA executives have committed a crime, then indict them and present the evidence in a criminal court. The attempt to legally dissolve the NRA instead is pure political score-settling, and an assault on the First Amendment, the rule of law, and democracy itself.” That’s just about indisputable.

Just What Other Governments Has Susan Rice Worked For?

Item number two in the “20 Things You Probably Didn’t Know About Susan Rice” article noted, “After leaving the Clinton administration, Rice became managing director at Intellibridge, a strategic-analysis firm in Washington, D.C. One of her clients was Paul Kagame, the president of Rwanda.”

Akbar Shahid Ahmed of the Huffington Post observes . . . we don’t know who her other clients were. Maybe they’re innocuous. Or maybe there’s a client Rice would prefer the world didn’t know about, that would create additional accusations of a conflict of interest.

It’s unclear ― and potentially worrying ― what she would bring from another portion of her career. Rice worked in private consulting in 2001 and 2002 after serving in the White House and State Department under President Bill Clinton. That’s a common line of work for former officials in Washington, but it can involve morally dubious choices, like defending violations of human rights or democratic norms, and create conflicts of interest when these figures return to power and make decisions affecting the same clients who were recently paying them millions of dollars and could do so again in the future.

As a vice presidential candidate, Rice would not be required to disclose work from two decades ago. And though she had foreign clients, she never registered as a foreign agent ― meaning she did not try to shape U.S. policy on their behalf, but eliminating another possible route to learning who she was working for.

Pelton claimed Rice’s sole role with Intellibridge was to arrange business relationships between Intellibridge and some of its future clients.

Transparency would then be a matter of ethics more than law ― and of good politics.

Ben Freeman, a researcher tracking foreign influence in the U.S. at the Center for International Policy think tank, noted that Biden “has come out and said that he would like to ban lobbying on behalf of foreign governments, so how would that mesh, then, with having as his vice president somebody who has at the very least worked on behalf of foreign governments,” though she was not a registered lobbyist.

The Biden campaign almost certainly wants to run on the message that “Donald Trump puts Russia’s interests ahead of ours.” A running mate who literally worked for other countries that wanted to influence U.S. policy would greatly complicate that message.

Joe Biden, Race, and the Passage of History

As if yesterday’s “are you a junkie?” wasn’t enough, Joe Biden served up another cringe-inducing comment in a discussion about race in an interview with members of the National Association of Black Journalists and National Association of Hispanic Journalists. “Unlike the African American community, with notable exceptions, the Latino community is an incredibly diverse community with incredibly different attitudes about different things,” Biden said.

That comment — along with “you ain’t black” and other gaffes — probably won’t hurt Biden that much, although it’s worth noting that Biden’s lead among black voters is slightly smaller than Hillary Clinton’s was. (Biden is ahead by 75 points, and Clinton won this demographic by 79 points.)

The vast majority of men and women who were born in the 1940s and shaped by the culture of the ’40s and ’50s are likely to talk about minorities in a way that is going to grate on modern ears. Biden may be patronizing, clumsy, awkward, presumptuous, and excessively confident in his ability to accurately and sensitively discuss race. But few voters outside of those who already dislike him think he’s outright racist. Throughout the primaries, we saw Joe Biden being powered to victories by older voters, particularly older, African-American voters.

Experience shapes perspective. Voters with longer memories can probably remember many public figures discussing race in ways that make Biden look like the world’s most eloquent and sensitive man.

If you’re Generation X, or older Millennial, you may remember more explicitly racially incendiary comments from Jimmy the Greek or Al Campanis, or David Duke nearly getting elected governor of Louisiana. Virginia governor Ralph Northam and the state’s attorney general, Mark Herring, demonstrated that wearing blackface in the 1980s was not seen as controversial in some circles. On The Tonight Show in 1982, Eddie Murphy joked that the first black president would be constantly dodging attempted assassinations and expanded upon the gag in Raw in 1987. (It’s on YouTube; it’s simultaneously hilarious, tough on Ronald Reagan, and spectacularly profane.)

Older Americans almost certainly concur that what happened to George Floyd was abominable, but may still feel that the police are better at their jobs, and less driven by racial animosity and suspicion than they used to be. (In 1985, the Philadelphia police department literally dropped a bomb on a house full of black radicals, killing six adults and five children and burning a neighborhood to the ground.)

Get old enough and you’re likely to see today’s America as imperfect, but a big step forward — “a more perfect union” — and probably a little more forgiving of its failures to live up to its ideals. But someone younger — younger-end Millennials and Generation Z — is less likely to have tracked any progress. They just got here. They’ve seen Philando Castile and Eric Garner and the guys in polo shirts with Tiki Torches marching through Charlottesville and all of the other high-profile displays of overt racial animosity. And they see Joe Biden describing “blacks” as a monolithic group. They’re not grading Joe Biden on the curve of “better than a generation ago”; they’re grading him on the here and now.

ADDENDA: More and more public schools are announcing there won’t be in-person learning in the fall. What’s more, we still have no real sense of when in-person learning will return. January? March, for a solid year out of classrooms? More than a year?

Yes, many teachers are trying their best, with distance-learning software that would never have been their first choice. Almost all teachers become teachers because they love interacting with the students, and making that connection, the moment a kid’s eyes grow wide as they finally understand long division or the chemical reaction in those vinegar-and-baking-soda volcanoes. Interacting through a computer screen is . . . just not the same, and nowhere near as effective. Maybe with more time to prepare, “distance learning” through the Internet will be better.

James Pethokoukis lays out a hard truth: The more time we keep kids out of classrooms, the more we’re hindering their long-term progress in life: “Keeping kids out of school this year would be a different sort of economic catastrophe, but one every bit as serious as the deep recession from which we are currently recovering. School is not just daycare for younger students so more of us can go to work. Nor is it just a ‘credentialing’ mechanism for older students that allows future employers to find the best workers. One of the strongest and most persistent findings of modern economics is that schooling really does something important to help kids become high-functioning adults, including as workers in an advanced, globalized economy. Those findings are seen to be as true today as when they were first identified in the 1950s.”

My middle-school son is slated to go off to college around the middle of this decade; my elementary school son is slated off to college a few years after that. If you’ve got kids, your children have that limited amount of time before the traditional expectation of adulthood and leaving the nest. The clock’s ticking. And we’re all hoping our children don’t have to suffer the burden of a wasted year.

U.S.

The Unhelpful Red State vs. Blue State COVID Narrative

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People go into a New York City Metropolitan Transit Authority bus by the back door during the coronavirus outbreak in New York City, April 22, 2020. (Eduardo Munoz/Reuters)

On the menu today: If you don’t like what the data about the coronavirus pandemic are telling you, just wait a few weeks, it will tell you something different later. States that were in awful shape in July are looking better, and states that were in good shape a month ago have some ominous trends now — which is why shoehorning it all into a my-party-is-good-and-your-party-is-bad narrative is a fool’s errand.

Ominous New Coronavirus Numbers from the Northeast, Hawaii, and Illinois

Nationwide, the daily number of new cases is starting to decline slowly from what appears to have been a peak in mid- to late July. The daily number of new deaths is now well above 1,000 on most weekdays, which is worse than June, but not as bad as April and late May.

There’s something unusual going on in the northeast, a region that got hammered in the spring and, many lawmakers and health experts believed, endured the worst. New Jersey is seeing an increase in cases, but not hospitalizations or deaths. Doctors in Massachusetts are worried about what they call a “slow consistent creep” in that state’s cases — although hospitalizations and deaths still seem pretty low. Apparently Rhode Island now is making nearby states nervous, as Massachusetts, Connecticut, New York, and New Jersey want Rhode Islanders to self-quarantine for 14 days upon entering the state, without proof of a negative coronavirus test. The Rhode Island Department of Health tweeted yesterday, “There are a few common threads that we are seeing. One is related to travel. In the last week, roughly 12 percent of our positive cases reported recent travel to Florida, travel in the northeast, and to Midwest.” (Twelve percent doesn’t sound like that much! From the data on Worldometer, that’s about 72 out of 596.)

New York City is now having police stop random drivers entering the city, inquiring about their origin and destination. (Great news, everyone who has been marching in the streets, police have now been given new powers to stop motorists for no reason and ask them where they’re from and where they’re going!) The New York City NBC affiliate dryly observes:

The checkpoints are somewhat reminiscent of a measure Rhode Island took back in March, when coronavirus was running rampant through New York. At that time, the state singled out cars with New York license plates at the border and ordered them to be quarantined — a measure Cuomo vehemently opposed and called “unconstitutional” as the threatened to sue. Not unironically, Rhode Island is now on New York’s must-quarantine list. It was added earlier this week.

In the middle of July, I observed that strictly on the basis of the numbers of new cases and deaths, one of the most successful governors in the country was Hawaii’s David Ige, a Democrat. With quarantine restrictions that more or less shut down the state’s tourism industry immediately — sending unemployment past 23 percent — Ige could at least point to really low case numbers.

Eh, up until recently. “At least 172 new cases were reported in Hawaii on Aug. 5. Over the past week, there have been an average of 128 cases per day, an increase of 532 percent from the average two weeks earlier.” Compared to bigger and more populous states, that number of new cases doesn’t look that bad, but the number of coronavirus patients in Hawaii hospitals is increasing rapidly, and the state has its own unique challenges for health infrastructure. If they run out of hospital beds, they can’t easily send patients to hospitals in adjacent states. (Even though Hawaii has Interstate highways.) Hawaiians may feel like they’re getting the worst of both worlds — they crippled their state’s economy to keep the virus away . . . and the pandemic reached their shores anyway.

Back in May, when Illinois was reporting about 3,000 new cases and about 100 deaths per day, residents of that state probably believed they were getting hit pretty hard — and once those numbers started dropping in June, they probably believed they had managed to get through the worst. But much like the northeastern states, Illinois is seeing an unnerving climb in daily new cases. “Over the past week, there have been an average of 1,644 cases per day, an increase of 32 percent from the average two weeks earlier.” More significantly, the number of hospitalizations is climbing again:

“The number of cases statewide is generally trending upward, and positivity rates have increased throughout the state,” Dr. Ngozi Ezike, head of the Illinois Department of Public Health, said at a news conference Wednesday:

It is true they’re not as high as they were in April or May, but they are increasing. And if we don’t take further steps to reduce the spread of the virus, our numbers will continue to go up and we will be right back where we were just a few months ago.

The northeast, Hawaii, Illinois . . . “put a pin in that,” as the jargon-obsessed corporate consultants say.

Over the past month, you have probably read a great deal about the indisputably newsworthy explosion of new cases in places such as Texas, South Carolina, Arizona, and Florida. All of those states endured a particularly hot July — probably sending people indoors to air conditioning. It’s summer, and all of those states have traditionally been vacation destinations, meaning they’re attracting travelers from other states. All of those states have a considerable number of elderly retirees, a demographic that is particularly vulnerable to this virus. And of course, all are considered fairly Republican-leaning and have GOP governors. At its most incendiary, coverage of this pandemic would leave you believing that COVID-19 is a side effect of electing Republican governors.

The wave of new infections hit these Sun Belt states . . . and now it appears to be receding.

Texas: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 8,414 cases per day, a decrease of 16 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

South Carolina: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 1,375 cases per day, a decrease of 25 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Arizona: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 1,981 cases per day, a decrease of 28 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Florida: “Over the past week, there have been an average of 7,331 cases per day, a decrease of 34 percent from the average two weeks earlier.”

Coming back to that pin . . . As July turned to August, some of the red states getting hit hard started to see a slow decline in caseload, and some of the blue states that had been hit pretty mildly in the previous month started to see a slow increase in caseload. This pandemic is not a story of good and wise Democratic governors presiding over good and wise citizens in blue states with “SCIENCE!” and bad and foolish Republican governors conducting “experiments in human sacrifice” on reckless and ignorant citizens in red states — no matter how many people want, or perhaps even need to believe that.

Allow me to offer a theory that doesn’t reassure partisans of any stripe: The virus is spread by human interaction, and human beings who live in red states and blue states and purple states all like to interact with each other, particularly when they’ve been told to stay at home for months at a time.

Young people, in particular, like house parties in Los Angeles and Greenwich, Conn., underground parties in Manhattan, mansion parties in Bergen County, N.J., and delayed-prom parties at the Jersey Shore. They like big parties in Oakland County, Mich., Palm Beach County, Fla., Prince George’s County, Md., Hampton Roads, Va., and wedding receptions near Pittsburgh.

Human beings are social creatures. Any pandemic strategy that required people to avoid other people as much as possible for the better part of a year was destined to fail.

The same pattern occurs in state after state. People believe the virus isn’t that bad or that they themselves are unlikely to catch it. It’s the sort of thing that happens to other people, not them. They go about their lives, with minimal adjustments to the reality of living during a pandemic. The virus spreads and the number of new cases increases. Hospitalization rates increase. Deaths increase. Local and state officials start worrying and enacting mask rules and other steps. People gradually start following the rules and altering their behavior. The virus spreads less, the number of new cases, hospitalizations, and deaths decline.

The belief that the coronavirus won’t reach you at your social gathering isn’t a Republican trait or a Democratic trait, a young trait or an old trait. (This may stun you, but it turns out that elderly people who have lived their lives a particular way for decades are not eager to change their habits.) Single people are still trying to meet that special someone, and married couples are still eager to host those backyard barbecues. I’m sure some members of Congress are still eager to form that special “throuple.” The human desire for connection with others is not attached to a light switch that can be turned on and off.

Are You Interacting Face-to-Face Without Masks? Then You’re at Higher Risk

Jonathan Ellen, the former CEO of Johns Hopkins All Children’s Hospital, offers a useful and succinct summary of the risks on NRO today:

Settings where there is direct face-to-face talking without facial coverings, such as bars or large indoor dinner parties, are at high risk for a super-spreader or outbreak event. Mass transit, museums, theaters, outdoor sporting events, and maybe even beaches don’t inherently create close direct face-to-face contact and thus may not represent high risk for accelerated transmission. However, in any of these settings, if people engage in direct face-to-face contact with people outside their own household without a facial covering, then risk of transmission for an outbreak goes up.

Replacing the Old Intermittently Murderous Religions with a New, More Explicitly Murderous Religion

On a regular basis, I read Kevin Williamson and think, “I wish I had thought of that, and written it so clearly.”

Reading Julia Lovell’s fascinating new Maoism: A Global History is, among other things, a dive into a complex political story that has at its heart not an ideology but a cult. The Maoism Lovell describes is in many ways an identifiably religious phenomenon, complete with devotion to a sacred book, adoration of icons, rites of confession and penance, and a benevolent god–man/prophet. It speaks to the same anxieties and needs as religion. It offers a moral principle — however insane and murderous — around which a life might be organized.

ADDENDUM: Robert P. George, with a brief bite of wisdom that everyone in the political world should heed:

Everyone needs to remember that good and noble causes can be, and have been, sullied and discredited by ideological extremists, fanatics, fundamentalists, authoritarians, hucksters, grifters, etc. who violate people’s rights and assault human dignity in the name of the cause.

A wise man once told me that the difference between a conservative and a right-wing ideologue is that the conservative cares about how he gets what he wants, while the right-wing ideologue only cares that he gets what he wants.

World

A Shattered City

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Men walk at the site of an explosion in Beirut, Lebanon, August 4, 2020. (Mohamed Azakir/Reuters)

On the menu today: Unraveling the mystery behind yesterday’s devastating, jaw-dropping explosion in Beirut; reports suggest that Joe Biden’s vice presidential search isn’t going well — although one report suggests his list is down to two contenders; and yesterday’s primary leaves one less thing to worry about for Kansas Republicans.

In an Instant, a City Is Devastated and Left Forever Changed

Just think, all those years we wondered if someday some major city would be devastated by a suitcase nuke . . . and we should have been worried about massive supplies of ammonium nitrate being stored by the docks.

The videos out of Beirut, Lebanon, yesterday induced gasps; you could be forgiven for initially wondering if that massive shockwave indeed came from something nuclear or attempting to trigger a nuclear explosion. The blast appeared to stem from “more than 2,700 tons of ammonium nitrate, a chemical commonly used in fertilizer and bombs, which had been stored in a warehouse at the port since it was confiscated from a cargo ship in 2014.” For perspective, the Oklahoma City bomb used about two tons of ammonium nitrate. The blast registered a 3.5 on the Richter scale used by seismologists to measure earthquakes.

As of this morning, more than 100 are dead, more than 4,000 are injured, and an estimated 300,000 left homeless as the blast tore apart buildings like they were children’s blocks. The scenes afterwards were downright apocalyptic.

For once, a catastrophic loss of Lebanese life can’t be traced back to Hezbollah, at least not directly. As of this writing, it appears this calamity stems from Lebanese government port managers who could figure out that the vessel that was originally shipping the ammonium nitrate was unsafe, but were not wise enough to realize that storing it all in a warehouse under extreme heat for years presented a separate danger:

According to contemporary reports, the Rhosus was scheduled to transport a cargo of ammonium nitrate from the Georgian port of Batumi to Biera in Mozambique in late 2013. But along the way it fell into technical problems, and failed a safety inspection in Beirut. The ship was later seized after its owner apparently ran out of money.

In 2014, with his crew essentially hostages and running out of provisions, Captain Boris Prokoshev warned of the dangers of his cargo.

“We’ve been here since 3 October 2013,” he told a journalist of the Ukrainian Sailor newspaper. “The cargo in the holds is ammonium nitrate, an explosive substance. We’ve been abandoned, living with no wage on a powder keg for the last 10 months.”

A Russian newspaper that reported on the situation carried a headline that reads especially eerily today: “Crew of the Rhosus cargo ship hostages aboard a floating bomb.”

In October 2015, the ammonium nitrate was transferred to warehouses: “Owing to the risks associated with retaining the Ammonium Nitrate on board the vessel, the port authorities discharged the cargo onto the port’s warehouses. The vessel and cargo remain to date in port awaiting auctioning and/or proper disposal.”

Some Lebanese people believe their country is cursed, and it is hard to disagree with them. After World War II, Beirut earned the nickname “the Paris of the Middle East” — a status that ended with the civil war of the 1970s and resulted in terrorism in the 1980s. The Lebanese lived as a vassal state to Syria for many years. Way back in 2004, I had the chance to irk the Syrian charge d’affaires in Washington with questions about that:

“We do not consider it an occupation,” Mustapha said. “The sovereign government of Lebanon is recognized by the entire world community. Lots of Lebanese are not happy with the Syrian presence, but there are also many who insist that the Syrians remain.”

When I asked how the U.S. “occupation” of Iraq compared to the Syrian “occupation” of Lebanon, he called the comparison “preposterous.” (Yes, it is a preposterous comparison, Mr. Ambassador, just not the way you think it is.) He told me to go ask the Lebanese embassy what they felt about the Syrian presence and talked about positive meetings between Lebanese citizens and Assad.

As luck would have it, a few Lebanese were in the audience, and they said definitively — and anonymously, lest the lurking men from the Syrian embassy identify them — that their home country was occupied by Syria.

Beirut started to enjoy another cultural and economic resurgence in the 2000s — and then lost a lot of that ground again in 2006 with the Israel–Hezbollah War.

Things had started to look up again. Our Carine Hajjar noted in June that in recent protests across Lebanon, “a notoriously sectarian country has united across social and religious lines to condemn the power of the Islamic Republic’s most successful export, Hezbollah.” Late last month, Hajjar detailed the country’s economically devastating hyperinflation, driven by government mismanagement and exacerbated by corruption and electricity shortages.

The Lebanese people deserve better than what they’ve gotten from their government. And now those most common government problems — inertia, inattentiveness, squabbling over who has responsibility for moving a giant supply of dangerous chemicals — have left the city devastated once again.

Just What Is Joe Biden Looking for in a Running Mate?

Over at National Journal — a fine Capitol Hill publication, where I believe the slogan is “Getting Mixed Up with National Review Since 1969” — Josh Kraushaar observes that the fact that Joe Biden is reportedly considering Representative Karen Bass of California to be his running mate suggests he and his team haven’t really figured out what they want in a vice president:

. . . if you’re going to reject [Kamala] Harris for her lack of big-league political successes, it’s bizarre that Bass is seen as an adequate substitute. Representing a heavily Democratic Los Angeles district, Bass has never faced a remotely competitive campaign since being elected to Congress; even the primary for her first campaign in 2010 was anticlimactic. Her biggest leadership test was spending just two years as California’s House speaker before leaving to run for Congress. And her past activism in Fidel Castro’s Cuba, combined with warm condolences to the Cuban dictator upon his death in 2016, would be politically toxic to a Biden ticket, especially in the pivotal swing state of Florida (where Biden is underperforming with Hispanic voters). If the mantra for picking a running mate is “first do no harm,” then choosing Bass makes no sense.

The sudden emergence of Bass on the short list underscored just how convoluted that Biden’s process for selecting a running mate has been. She wasn’t seen as vice presidential material until she quickly became a compromise choice from her allies in the House. Bass doesn’t seem to offer anything to the Biden ticket, given her lack of presidential ambition and relative political anonymity.

Last week, I mentioned that Bass is so little-known, I couldn’t write about her name recognition because I couldn’t find any pollster who had ever asked about her. This morning, Vox writes about a new SurveyUSA/FairVote poll that finds Bass is seen favorably by 37 percent and unfavorably by 15 percent. The survey found 48 percent had no opinion about Bass. The survey found 49 percent had no opinion about Representative Val Demings of Florida.

At some point, you step back and ask . . . why? Why does Biden’s reported short list feature two little-known House members and a mostly forgotten former national-security adviser? Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms got vetted as well. Is the perception that any prominent African-American woman in the Democratic Party who isn’t asked to go through the vetting process is being snubbed somehow? Is it that Biden and his top advisers desperately want an African-American woman not named Kamala Harris or Stacey Abrams?

For what it’s worth, Axios reports that Biden confidants believe his list is down to Susan Rice and Harris. Rice at least makes sense by the “worked with Biden before” criteria, and if Biden wants to run as the restoration of the Obama administration to the throne, he might as well lean into it. Harris? Assuming Biden has already hired a food taster, the California senator is an effective candidate on paper . . . but man, the reality of her presidential bid was not promising. She wowed everyone in the first debate — mostly because of an attack on Biden suggesting he was racist! — and then the air just slowly and steadily leaked from the balloon. Tulsi Gabbard laid out the blueprint on how to tear apart Harris’s record as a prosecutor. The Trump campaign has a steep uphill climb, but either pick would probably energize the Republican grassroots.

ADDENDUM: Yesterday, our Dan McLaughlin succinctly assessed a prominent Kansas Republican in a piece headlined, “Kris Kobach Is an Incompetent Loser Who Loses, and That Is Why Democrats Want Him.” Dan laid out how that Kobach’s rare electoral victories in Kansas have always come in GOP wave years, and with the slightest headwind, he loses to Democrats who cannot beat other Republicans.

Thankfully, Kansas Republicans do not appear to be gluttons for punishment. Roger Marshall won yesterday’s primary with 40 percent, and Kobach received 26.3 percent.

As they sing in the musical Hamilton, “that’s one less thing to worry about.”

Media

A Brutal Assessment of Cable News

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A lone television cameraman serving as a pool representative for all television networks sits alone at the State Department in Washington, D.C., April 7, 2020. (Leah Millis/Reuters)

On the menu today: An MSNBC producer resigns, and metaphorically nails 95 theses to the doors of cable news, spotlighting how the industry has failed in its duties to inform the public; the president has another pyrotechnic explosion of a television interview; unnamed White House staffers whisper that the president is being poorly served by the team around him; and a quick look at the Senate race down in Kentucky.

Ninety-Five Theses, Nailed to the Door of Cable News

I have no idea if the recently resigned MSNBC producer Ariana Pekary thinks of herself as left, right, or center. I do know that when she describes the problems she saw behind the scenes at MSNBC, I see the same thing on this side of the screen — and I suspect I am not alone:

“We are a cancer and there is no cure,” a successful and insightful TV veteran said to me. “But if you could find a cure, it would change the world.”

As it is, this cancer stokes national division, even in the middle of a civil rights crisis. The model blocks diversity of thought and content because the networks have incentive to amplify fringe voices and events, at the expense of others . . . all because it pumps up the ratings.

This cancer risks human lives, even in the middle of a pandemic. The primary focus quickly became what Donald Trump was doing (poorly) to address the crisis, rather than the science itself. As new details have become available about antibodies, a vaccine, or how COVID actually spreads, producers still want to focus on the politics. Important facts or studies get buried.

This cancer risks our democracy, even in the middle of a presidential election. Any discussion about the election usually focuses on Donald Trump, not Joe Biden, a repeat offense from 2016 (Trump smothers out all other coverage). Also important is to ensure citizens can vote by mail this year, but I’ve watched that topic get ignored or “killed” numerous times.

Context and factual data are often considered too cumbersome for the audience. There may be some truth to that (our education system really should improve the critical thinking skills of Americans) — but another hard truth is that it is the job of journalists to teach and inform, which means they might need to figure out a better way to do that. They could contemplate more creative methods for captivating an audience. Just about anything would improve the current process, which can be pretty rudimentary (think basing today’s content on whatever rated well yesterday, or look to see what’s trending online today).

. . . I understand that the journalistic process is largely subjective and any group of individuals may justify a different set of priorities on any given day. Therefore, it’s particularly notable to me, for one, that nearly every rundown at the network basically is the same, hour after hour. And two, they use this subjective nature of the news to justify economically beneficial decisions. I’ve even heard producers deny their role as journalists. A very capable senior producer once said: “Our viewers don’t really consider us the news. They come to us for comfort.”

Bingo. Viewers of Rachel Maddow do not tune in to hear her say, “Actually, the president made the right call today, I have to give him credit” any more than Sean Hannity viewers tune in to hear, “Boy, the president made a terrible mistake, and he’s going to get a lot of deserved flak for this one.” Viewers know what they’re going to get — reassurance that the viewpoint they had before they tuned in is correct, and that everyone who disagrees is, in the words of a former MSNBC host, “the worst person in the world.”

I hope somebody in the cable-news world heeds Pekary’s assessment — which sure looks accurate to me — and is willing to try something different in another time slot, perhaps with Pekary or someone like her calling the shots of how the news ought to be covered. Just try covering the news with depth and nuance and take a shot at leaving viewers knowing more than before they tuned in. Who knows, some people might like it, particularly people who don’t watch cable news right now, because they find it a predictable shout-fest.

Back in May I observed:

Some corners of our media world have done an excellent job covering this [metaphorical invasion of the pandemic]; others, not so much. We’ve seen journalists offer confident early predictions that the coronavirus would be less dangerous than the seasonal flu, journalists insist that the public should not wear masks before insisting that it should, and journalists continue to take Chinese government statements on the pandemic at face value. Even worse, some media have continued to give their audiences the equivalent of the stock numbers — obsessing over whether it was racist to use the label “Wuhan virus,” relentlessly covering reporters’ fights with the president, giving us in-depth coverage, dissection, and criticism of Chris Cuomo’s coronavirus diagnosis and recovery, informing us of the latest virus-related celebrity controversies.

. . . a roundtable of wonky health experts concluding, “This is complicated, state governments are probably going to make mistakes, and a lot of people will be dissatisfied no matter what” does not make for particularly entertaining television — particularly given an audience that’s been conditioned for a few decades to expect every issue to be settled by a Team Red pundit and a Team Blue pundit going at it like a pair of Rock ’Em Sock ’Em Robots.

The President Has His Problems . . . but Is He Being Well Served?

Meanwhile, President Trump sat down for an interview with Jonathan Swan of Axios and it quickly grew combative, with the president insisting “you can’t do that” when Swan pointed out that the U.S. ranks poorly among nations when measuring coronavirus deaths as a proportion of the population. When asked several softballs in a row about how the late John Lewis would be remembered, Trump responded . . .

Jonathan Swan: John Lewis is lying in state in the U.S. Capitol. How do you think history will remember John Lewis?

Trump: I don’t know. I really don’t know. I don’t know. I don’t know John Lewis. He chose not to come to my inauguration. He chose – I don’t – I never met John Lewis, actually, I don’t believe.

Swan: Do you find [John Lewis] impressive?  

Trump: Uh . . I can’t say one way or the other. I find a lot of people impressive. I find many people not impressive. But, no.

Swan: Do you find his story impressive? 

Trump: He didn’t come to my inauguration. He didn’t come to my State of the Union speeches, and that’s okay, that’s his right. And again, nobody has done more for Black Americans than I have. He should have come. I think he made a big mistake.

Swan: But taking your relationship with him out of it, do you find his story impressive? What he’s done, for this country? 

Trump: He was a person that devoted a lot of energy and a lot of heart to civil rights, but there were many others also.

Over in Politico, some White House officials speculate the president isn’t being well served by the new team:

In March, former Rep. Mark Meadows became the president’s new chief of staff and has slowly reconfigured the president’s White House team. The Meadows era has coincided with the president’s steep decline, a fact that some Trump aides are quick to note.

“I don’t think his newest team is serving him well,” said a White House official. “In fact it’s worse than ever. They came in thinking they know best, and they’ve not bothered to understand the president or West Wing.”

This person suggested the Meadows team is shielding Trump from how dire his situation is. “I don’t know if they’re giving him the whole picture,” the official said. “It’s very much Kool-Aid drinkers and he doesn’t want that. He never has.”

Meadows did start the job in March. But another big thing hit America hard in March, too.

ADDENDA: Those of us with long memories will remember how in 2014, Alison Lundergan Grimes was the latest version of the Great Southern Democratic Hope — a role also played by Harold Ford Jr. in Tennessee, Michelle Nunn and Jon Ossoff in Georgia. Stephen Colbert’s sister, Elizabeth Colbert Busch in South Carolina, and most recently, Beto O’Rourke in Texas. Politico wrote of Grimes, “the fresh Democratic face could give the Senate minority leader the fight of his political life.” In 2014, Mitch McConnell won reelection, 56 percent to 40 percent, in what was not the fight of his political life.

Now, Democrats are excited about Amy McGrath, convinced this is the year that McConnell goes down. Don’t celebrate too early, Democrats. “A new survey by independent polling firm Morning Consult shows Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell with a commanding lead in his bid for a seventh term in Kentucky, leading 53 percent to 36 percent over his Democratic challenger Amy McGrath.”

Law & the Courts

Should We ‘Defund the Police’ As Homicides Rise in Major Cities?

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Police stand guard after dismantling the protest zone at City Hall in New York, July 22, 2020. (Carlo Allegri/Reuters)

On the menu today: A new analysis of crime figures illustrates why “defund the police” will never catch on beyond the hardest of the hard-left enclaves; a New York Times column offers a bizarre and near-apocalyptic scenario for the upcoming presidential election; the coronavirus restrictions in New York City make less sense by the day; and a fun, wide-ranging chat.

Defund the Police? In Our Biggest Cities, Homicides Are Up 24 Percent So Far This Year

Ladies and gentlemen, a vivid illustration of why “defund the police” will either never get traction or backfire enormously:

A Wall Street Journal analysis of crime statistics among the nation’s 50 largest cities found that reported homicides were up 24 percent so far this year, to 3,612. Shootings and gun violence also rose, even though many other violent crimes such as robbery fell.

Police, researchers, mayors and community leaders see a confluence of forces at work in the homicide spike. Institutions that keep city communities safe have been destabilized by lockdown and protests against police. Lockdowns and recession also mean tensions are running high and streets have been emptied of eyes and ears on their communities. Some attribute the rise to an increase in gang violence.

Some cities with long-running crime problems saw their numbers rise, including Philadelphia, Detroit and Memphis, Tenn. Chicago, the worst-hit, has tallied more than one of every eight homicides.

Some Texas cities that had low numbers last year seem to be particularly hard hit by this ongoing homicide wave. Homicides in San Antonio are up nearly 34 percent from a year ago (71 total homicides), Fort Worth is up 42 percent (37 total), and Austin is up 64 percent (23 total).

The article notes that certain property crimes such as robbery, burglary, and rape have dropped compared with last year, thankfully. Crimes of opportunity are dropping, in part, because of fewer opportunities.

Police in many departments said robberies, burglaries and rapes are down so far this year because more people stayed home during Covid-19 lockdowns, leaving fewer prospective victims on the streets, in bars or other public places. Burglars weren’t likely to break into homes filled with people under lockdown, they say. Homicides, on the other hand, are up because violent criminals have been emboldened by the sidelining of police, courts, schools, churches and an array of other social institutions by the reckoning with police and the pandemic, say analysts and law-enforcement officials in several cities.

Up in the Pacific Northwest, a majority of the members of Seattle’s city council have pledged to defund the police, although putting that into practice is proving harder than they thought.

Only one council member, Kshama Sawant, proposed immediate and blunt cuts that could slash close to 50 percent of the department’s remaining 2020 budget. The rest offered proposals for this year that would slice 100 full-time equivalent positions — out of 1,428 fully trained, probationary and recruited officers — from the department through layoffs and attrition, while shuffling some police functions into other city departments.

Political activists are always coming up with simple, catchy slogans and ideas that prove just about impossible to implement in practice.

We cannot have a functioning society without policing; the question is what kind of policing do we want to have.

Elsewhere in Seattle, those peaceful protesters have been caught with peaceful explosives, peaceful stun guns, peaceful spike strips, and starting peaceful fires.

Seattle Mayor Jenny Durkan and Police Chief Carmen Best said at a Wednesday news conference that police discovered explosives, smoke bombs and other weapons in a van stationed at the weekend protests.

Best said over the weekend that officers used blast balls, pepper spray and 40mm sponge-tip rounds, while some in the crowd of protesters broke windows and started fires. At one point, she said, someone threw an explosive that blew an 8-inch hole through a wall of the Police Department’s East Precinct.

Seattle Fire Chief Harold Scoggins said Saturday evening that his team responded to multiple fires, including one that destroyed four trailers at a construction site.

Police later impounded the van and, after obtaining a search warrant, discovered firework pyrotechnics, smoke bombs, stun guns, bear and pepper spray, makeshift spike strips and gas masks, Best said.

Hey, remember George Floyd? Didn’t all this start with a broad, bipartisan consensus in support of equal treatment under the law? The 14th Amendment has stated since 1868 that “no State shall make or enforce any law which shall abridge the privileges or immunities of citizens of the United States; nor shall any State deprive any person of life, liberty, or property, without due process of law; nor deny to any person within its jurisdiction the equal protection of the laws.” Didn’t we have a far-reaching agreement among whites, blacks, Latinos, Asians, and everyone of every race, creed, and color that it was time for America to live up to that requirement?

Instead we’ve had Golden Girls reruns pulled from streaming services, changes to the depiction of fantasy races in Dungeons & Dragons, an end to the brands of “Eskimo pies,” “the Dixie Chicks” and “Lady Antebellum,” an all-black Mercedes Formula One car, and slogans on the backs of NBA players. We want a more just society, but instead we get headline-grabbing rebranding efforts.

‘California, Oregon, and Washington Then Threatened to Secede . . .’

The last few paragraphs of Ben Smith’s New York Times column have an intense “say what?” quality. Much of the column is about how it is unlikely we will know the winner of the election on Election Night, because so many ballots will be cast by mail and will be counted slowly. But then Smith suggests that in certain scenarios, campaigns and state governments may refuse to accept the results:

. . . a group of former top government officials called the Transition Integrity Project actually gamed four possible scenarios, including one that doesn’t look that different from 2016: a big popular win for Mr. Biden, and a narrow electoral defeat, presumably reached after weeks of counting the votes in Pennsylvania. For their war game, they cast John Podesta, who was Hillary Clinton’s campaign chairman, in the role of Mr. Biden. They expected him, when the votes came in, to concede, just as Mrs. Clinton had.

But Mr. Podesta, playing Mr. Biden, shocked the organizers by saying he felt his party wouldn’t let him concede. Alleging voter suppression, he persuaded the governors of Wisconsin and Michigan to send pro-Biden electors to the Electoral College.

In that scenario, California, Oregon, and Washington then threatened to secede from the United States if Mr. Trump took office as planned. The House named Mr. Biden president; the Senate and White House stuck with Mr. Trump. At that point in the scenario, the nation stopped looking to the media for cues, and waited to see what the military would do.

Note that governors cannot unilaterally decide to send the electors of the losing candidate to the Electoral College. The Wisconsin Election Commission certifies the vote in that state — and they are split among three Republicans and three Democrats. They can’t simply decide, “Well, we think the vote was suppressed, and we think the second-place finisher was the real winner, and so we will make up some new numbers of what we think the vote should have been and declare those the results and send the electors of the candidate we prefer.” In Michigan, the election is certified by the secretary of state, which is currently Democrat Jocelyn Benson, who has spent this year assuring her state’s residents that the primary and general elections will be “safe, secure, and on schedule.” The only way Smith’s scenario comes to pass is if Benson were to suddenly conclude she and her office had done a terrible job, completely failed in their mission, and that the election had not been safe and secure.

Furthermore, the House and Senate only pick the president if there is a 269–269 tie or no candidate reaches 270 electoral votes, not if there is a dispute over which candidate got the most votes. The House picks the president, but each state delegation gets one vote. The Senate selects the vice president. Under the scenario that Smith describes, the more likely scenario is President Biden and Vice President Pence.

Somewhere in Russia, Vladimir Putin is peeing himself with laughter at the thought of certain American state governments threatening to secede because the candidate they can’t stand won the election.

Bill De Blasio’s New York: Funerals, No; Rave Parties, Yes

Bill de Blasio’s New York: Tough on “the Jewish community” over attending funerals, blasé about massive rave parties being held under bridges in Brooklyn.

Is it really a “secret” rave when you have several hundred people gathering in a public space?

Ah, here are the magic words that make everything okay: “Apparently the event was meant to be a Black Lives Matter protest and it ‘spiraled out of hand.’”

ADDENDUM: Over the weekend I taped a lengthy, fun, and wide-ranging conversation with Chase Thomas, covering everything from whether we will have an NFL season, the state of the Jets, the state of politics and how we got so divided and angry, advice for aspiring young journalists, and more.

Politics & Policy

It’s Time for Conservatives to Take the New Coronavirus Outbreak Seriously

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A waitress takes the temperature of customers as they arrive to eat at a restaurant during Phase 2 of reopening amid the coronavirus outbreak in New York, N.Y., June 27, 2020. (Andrew Kelly/Reuters)

After today, this annus horribilis has just five more months.

My reader who is the director of medical research for a top-ten hospital, who has been weighing in on the pandemic and his assessment of the best ways to respond — see here, here, here, here and here  — is getting frustrated with some of his fellow conservatives. This director didn’t want to be quoted by name, lest his assessments cause headaches for his institution.

“Conservatives, we need to talk,” he begins. “I know you’re tired of masks; tired of the restrictions on going to bars, going to the gym, going to church. We’re all tired of it. You’re worried about whether your business will survive more months of restrictions. And above all, you’re furious at the double standards exhibited by Democratic politicians and their media allies; when they invoke holy ‘Science!’ to take away your liberty and then turn around and say ‘nothing to worry about here’ when crowds of thousands gather in cities protesting and rioting.”

This research director is also irritated with his fellow scientists, “especially the ones who are eager to curry the favor of TV producers and Sunday-show pundits, and of governors and mayors, and so will tailor their conclusions to meet the narrative and talking points of the day.”

But he sees what he characterizes as a growing number of people on the right, even “people associated with establishment organizations and otherwise thoughtful and sensible commentary” who are “reacting to the Left’s effort to turn the pandemic into a political weapon by swinging to the opposite extreme.”

His latest message is so impassioned, clear, and succinct that I’m just going to quote it at length:

I’m talking about people who argue that the lower coronavirus death rates in Florida and Georgia compared to New York and New Jersey prove that this virus is nothing worse than a bad flu year. I’m talking about people who say that we should open up football stadiums in the fall. But most of all, I’m talking about the people who feel that if they wear a mask when they go out shopping or take their kids to the zoo, they’re letting take your pick — CNN, or Nancy Pelosi, or the CDC know-it-alls — win.

Friends, this is the same kind of “Resistance” cosplay that the Left has been preoccupied with since November 2016. And just like pink hats won’t make the Bad Orange Man go away, all this shouting and conspiracy-mongering from the right isn’t going to make the coronavirus go away. We’re stuck with it, it’s not our fault, and we’re going to be stuck with it for months to come (if not years), including the entire rest of the election season. There is not going to be a miracle cure or vaccine that comes in to save the day and bring everything back to normal.

Even though deaths are down (thank heavens!), and there’s no second wave of cases in New York, Philadelphia, and other metro areas where thousands died, we are still in a very serious public-health crisis. I look at the situation in Texas as a pretty decent proxy for the states now facing the brunt of the pandemic. It’s true that we’re not hearing the kinds of stories we heard in the first wave: fear that there won’t be enough ventilators, convention centers being converted to makeshift hospitals, and medical centers running out of masks and sanitizer. But other stuff that makes me and other hospital people very worried is still going on. The number of COVID patients in the hospitals there is climbing. The average age of patients now is lower so they’re less likely to need hospital care, but the surge in the number of cases is more than making up for that.

If we’re not to the point where we’re running out of hospital beds this time, why are we still worried? Because when hospitals and clinics are preoccupied with coronavirus, they can’t deliver routine care. When the pandemic was at its peak here in [a large city], we had to put off important procedures like heart surgery and chemotherapy because we had to save beds for COVID patients, and without a doubt, some people died as a result.

Gripe all you want about Fauci and Cuomo and Whitmer and all the weenies at CNN; I’ll be there with you. But we all need to continue acting responsibly while the coronavirus is still around. Wear a mask (properly!) when you’re at the store or in any other enclosed public space. Wash your hands frequently. Stay home if you feel sick and get tested if you have symptoms. And don’t cheerlead for the radio talkers who are trying to whip up this new Resistance.

Simply be responsible. Don’t do it for the [expletive] governor — do it for your uncle with a heart condition, do it for the sports star who beat cancer, and do it for the nice old ladies at church.

If people on the right turn into paragons of responsibility for the next four weeks, we can flatten the curve again, and that will make people a lot more comfortable about reopening schools and moving away from draconian government-imposed lockdowns. And that, in turn, will be the key to moving on to other issues (like the chaos in Democrat-dominated cities) and winning this election.

It will probably not surprise you that I concur with what this medical-research director says. The only note that I would add is that I suspect many people interpreted the double standard from the media and leadership on the protests — in New York, San Francisco, and Orlando, contact tracers didn’t even ask those testing positive whether they had attended a protest — as a de facto “all clear” sign. I suspect a lot of people watched the crowds and concluded, “If the pandemic were really that bad, elected officials wouldn’t have been afraid to tell George Floyd protesters that they’re doing something reckless and should all go home.” (Come on, people. Never underestimate the cowardice of elected officials!)

Unfortunately, the pandemic is that bad, and the protests may have contributed at least somewhat to the spread of the virus.

We could scream about hypocrisy and people who don’t live up to their own rules. In fact, we have — governors who require masks but don’t wear them or ban large gatherings and then attend them, etc. This phenomenon stretches way beyond the coronavirus: self-described socialists who own three houses, self-described feminists with abuses revealed by #MeToo, left-of-center magazines with nearly entirely white editorial staffs that tear into the Republican Party for insufficient diversity in its ranks, elected officials who fight for a $15/hour wage have unpaid interns — but I think the upshot of all this is that a lot of people see others not living up to their own rules and conclude that the rules are a joke and don’t matter.

But in a pandemic with a contagious virus, the rules matter a lot!

Cooking Rice

Over on the home page, a look at 20 things you probably didn’t know about Susan Rice — and Benghazi isn’t one of them, because you almost certainly already know about that. This is one of those pieces where in a week or so it’s going to look prescient and important . . . or quickly forgotten.

If, as laid out yesterday, Joe Biden instinctively surrounds himself with familiar faces he already knows and trusts, then I think Rice is the most likely selection. She would be an unorthodox pick in many ways. She’s never run for office before. She’s got the baggage of Benghazi and the uglier chapters of Obama’s foreign policy. Her Democratic colleagues have found her brusque and combative to the point of being disrespectful in the past. But she was indisputably loyal to Barack Obama, and I suspect Biden wants someone who will be as loyal to him as he believes he was to Obama. She would make an effective attack dog on the trail and allow Biden to play the role of the sunny, optimistic, uniting figure. If Biden wins, she could easily settle in to playing bad cop to Biden’s good cop. [Insert “Kamala Harris would make the best bad cop” joke here.] And of course, Rice checks the boxes of being an African-American woman with national-security experience.

She would be terrible for the country, but she makes a lot of sense for Biden. And hey, almost all of the polls say he’s up by a country mile, both nationally and in the key swing states. He doesn’t need to worry about flipping a particular state or demographic. He can pick whomever he genuinely thinks is the best pick, and not worry about the political fallout.

ADDENDUM: You can make the case that Henry Olsen — veteran of the right-of-center think-tank world and Washington Post columnist — is one of the president’s most useful defenders. He’s logical and reasoned. He gives Trump the benefit of the doubt, no matter what goes wrong for him or the administration. He opposed impeachment, and later argued that it impeded Trump’s response to the pandemic. He disdains the “Never Trump” faction.

But Olsen is livid over the president’s suggesting, in a tweet, that the November election should be postponed, and is spitting hot fire over it:

President Trump’s tweet Thursday morning suggesting that the November election should be delayed is more than reckless and irresponsible. It is the single most anti-democratic statement any sitting president has ever made. It should be immediately, forcefully and vocally repudiated by every conservative and Republican.

I do not write these words lightly. I have generally supported the Trump administration’s policies. Everyone has disagreements even with leaders of their own party, but I remain what I was before Trump was even a candidate — a conservative Republican with populist leanings. Were this election solely a matter of Trump’s platform vs. former vice president Joe Biden’s, I would enthusiastically back the Trump agenda.

But Trump’s tweet jumps the shark in so many ways that it is impossible to ignore. Such a statement should be unthinkable (in fact, I assumed it was unthinkable, which is why I strongly criticized Biden in April when he claimed without evidence that Trump would try to delay the election).

Ever get the feeling that President Trump’s supporters want him to win in November more than he himself does?

Politics & Policy

Will Kamala Harris Be Biden’s VP Pick?

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Senator Kamala Harris listens to a question from the audience during a forum in Las Vegas, Nev., October 2, 2019. (Steve Marcus/Reuters)

On the menu today: Apparently Joe Biden really is considering picking Kamala Harris as his running mate, a potential move that is freaking out some of his closest allies; the secret 2024 Democratic presidential primary that is going on right under our noses; and teachers’ unions start asking for a non-in-person, non-online option for educating children. Apparently, they want to use telepathy or something.

How Much Would a Kamala Harris Selection Shake Up the 2020 Race?

Wait . . . is Kamala Harris really atop Joe Biden’s list of running mates? According to CNBC, some people close to Biden think this is the case, and want to ensure he picks someone else.

Some of Joe Biden’s allies are waging a campaign behind the scenes to stop Sen. Kamala Harris, D-Calif., from becoming his vice president.

This disgruntled group of at least a dozen Biden backers, including a few of his top donors, initiated the move against Harris close to a month ago, just weeks before a decision is expected, according to people with direct knowledge of the matter. Many who spoke to CNBC declined to be named as these efforts have been made in private.

On the Three Martini Lunch podcast the other day, I noted that there’s a lesson in Biden’s selection of Chris Dodd to co-chair his team working on the vice-presidential search and vetting.

No one else in the Democratic Party was wondering, “What does Chris Dodd think?” Dodd does not have a sterling reputation, even in Democratic circles. Slate labeled him a “sex creep,” for a variety of reasons, from the infamous “waitress sandwich” story to his “good friendship” with Harvey Weinstein. No constituency in the Democratic Party is filled to the brim with fond memories of the longtime Connecticut senator, and he can accurately be described as “a lobbyist and embodiment of the white establishment.” He was nicknamed “the senator from Aetna.” He’s the former head of the Motion Picture Association of America who encouraged members to donate to Republicans as political insurance. He was the beneficiary of a bank’s special mortgage offers for VIPs, and the defender of bonuses for executives at financial firms being bailed out by the government. He was a key conduit for the donations from Johnny Huang in the 1996 Chinese fundraising scandal.

Why on earth would somebody like Chris Dodd be one of the guys helping lead Biden’s selection process? Because Joe Biden likes and trusts him, and that’s all the justification that Biden needs.

The lesson is that Biden prioritizes what he thinks of someone over everything else. You can see this as Biden being loyal to the longtime friends that he trusts, and not caring how the usually panicking Washington news cycle responds. Or you can see this as Biden being the typical Washington insider, oblivious or nonchalant about the flaws of his longtime friends, and who will only listen to the same old voices from the establishment clique.

Sometimes this attitude can work. Longtime NFL head coach Bill Parcells had “his guys” — loyal players and assistant coaches who kept moving with Parcells from team to team. Parcells preferred working with known quantities over someone new — and along the way, he inspired loyalty and generally reciprocated it.

But Washington Redsk–er, “Washington Football Team” owner Dan Snyder was surrounded by a crew of longtime loyalists, too, and we saw how that turned out.

If Biden wants his administration to be filled with familiar and trusted faces, it’s probably bad news for the Democratic figures who are younger, who didn’t work in or with the Obama administration, and whom Biden doesn’t know that well. California representative Karen Bass, Florida representative Val Demings, Atlanta mayor Keisha Lance-Bottoms — thanks for playing, we have some lovely parting gifts for you.

If past experience working with Biden matters most to the nominee . . . Susan Rice stands out, well ahead of the rest of the pack.

“My favorite unannounced visitor was Vice President Joe Biden,” Rice wrote in her book “Tough Love.”

In those casual visits, as well as in daily national security briefings, Biden and Rice forged an easy working relationship, according to people who worked alongside them during their eight years in the Obama administration. It’s that personal relationship, and Biden’s firsthand knowledge of how Rice would operate in close proximity to a president, that are now seen as among her strongest attributes as Biden considers her to be his running mate on the Democratic presidential ticket. . . .

“His entire theory of politics is personal relationships,” Ben Rhodes, who served as Obama’s deputy national security adviser, said of Biden. “The idea of him taking a leap of faith on someone he really doesn’t know because it seems to check a political box seems very unlikely to me.”

“They developed this kind of mutual respect, but also casual nature to their relationship that he didn’t have with everybody,” Rhodes said.

Meanwhile, the arguments in favor of Harris . . . don’t make a ton of sense to me.

Earlier this month, Chris Cillizza wrote of Harris, “She’s a Black and Indian American woman from a massive Democratic state (in terms of votes and campaign dollars) who has been on the national stage these past 18 months.” Yes, Harris is a black woman, but many of the other names on this list are as well. Biden’s not going to need any help to carry California, and if he needs help raising money in a race against Donald Trump, he’s probably doomed. As for Harris on the national stage . . . it didn’t go so well!

On paper, Harris was a compelling presidential candidate, just as on paper, she’s a compelling vice-presidential selection. In practice, Harris rose fast and then sank faster. Fairly or not, she just didn’t fit the mood of the party. The party’s establishment and African Americans were already pretty satisfied with Biden, the harder-left grassroots already had Bernie Sanders, and everybody else was split among the thundering herd of other candidates. Harris flip-flopped, her staff was beset by infighting, and her campaign never really galvanized behind a particular signature issue or proposal. I have my doubts that a one-party state like California really prepares a Democratic officeholder to win in places such as Iowa, New Hampshire, or South Carolina.

The Secret 2024 Democratic Primary, Going On under Our Noses

Also yesterday on the podcast, my co-host Greg Corombus offered an intriguing theory as to why the nation’s highest-profile Democratic governors are being covered the way they are during this pandemic. The media’s celebration of Andrew Cuomo, and to a lesser extent Gretchen Whitmer and Gavin Newsom, is not merely to preserve the reassuring narrative that “blue state governors are wise and good, and red state governors are stupid and bad.” I laid out a month ago that there are other, less-discussed Democratic governors who are doing better jobs than the most-discussed ones, at least based upon the raw numbers.

Greg’s theory is that all the major players in the Democratic Party — and left-leaning reporters, editors, op-ed columnists, and producers are definitely major players — are all operating on the assumption that if elected, Joe Biden is unlikely to be running for another term in 2024. The Democratic Party as a whole may be united behind Biden’s running mate as the successor . . . or maybe not. Democrats may well have a contested primary four years from now — and depending upon how people feel about that running mate, a rising-star governor could successfully beat the veep, be the nominee, and collect the baton from Biden.

(The president’s party has gotten hammered in the midterm elections of 2006, 2010, 2014 and 2018. It’s quite possible that if Biden wins, by 2022 the country grows dissatisfied, elects a bunch of Republicans, and by early 2023, Democrats are contemplating changing course.)

Teachers’ Unions: We Want the Not-In-Person, Not-Online, Not-Teaching Option

Teachers’ unions are living down to their reputation in the New York Times:

Many unions, while concerned about the safety of classrooms, are also fighting to limit the amount of time that teachers are required to be on video over the course of a day. . . .

The [Sacramento City Unified School District] will open in a remote-only mode on Sept. 3, and has proposed that lessons delivered live over video or audio should be recorded for families to access at times that are convenient for them. But the union has objected, arguing that recording lessons could be a violation of privacy for educators, students and families because their likenesses could be posted and viewed without their explicit permission. . . .

The local [Miami] union president, Karla Hernandez-Mats, said her members were willing to follow a more traditional schedule, but many teachers have expressed anxiety about how they and their homes would look on camera during live teaching.

Oh, really? You don’t want to teach in the buildings, and you don’t want to teach online? Just what are you willing to do to keep receiving that paycheck?

ADDENDUM: Meanwhile, out in Ohio, Cleveland’s government takes action against the preeminent problem of the moment: “Cleveland City Council unanimously approved legislation Wednesday that would prohibit restaurants in the city from offering kids’ meals that include sugary drinks as the only beverage. Mayor Frank Jackson signed it into law this afternoon.”

So, uh, everything else in Cleveland is fixed, right?

Politics & Policy

President Trump Keeps Shooting Himself in the Foot

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President Donald Trump departs after speaking about the Paycheck Protection Program (PPP) loans for small businesses affected by the coronavirus outbreak, following an event at the White House in Washington, D.C., April 28, 2020. (Carlos Barria/Reuters)

On the menu today: Even when the president has a point, as with hydroxychloroquine or reopening schools, he tends to undermine his position by retweeting nutty conspiracy theories; Biden’s notes indicate he’s preparing to talk up Kamala Harris, but Politico hears that Susan Rice is among the top contenders to be Biden’s running mate.

The President Shoots Himself in the Foot Until He Runs Out of Ammunition

If you want to make the argument for the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, you can point to the Henry Ford Health System study. You can point to the assessments of Harvey Risch, professor of epidemiology at Yale School of Public Health. You can point to the statements from the Association of American Physicians & Surgeons encouraging its use.

You can point to the fact that a widely-cited study declaring hydroxychloroquine dangerous, published in The Lancet, was retracted after questions about its accuracy and the expertise of those conducting the study.

If you want to make the argument for the effectiveness of hydroxychloroquine, you would probably want to avoid using a term like “cure,” because that’s more or less the terminology of every snake-oil salesman. Hydroxychloroquine is a treatment. There are positive studies that indicate that it could mitigate and minimize the effects of COVID-19 and give patients a much better chance of survival. That would be good enough as is; no one needs to oversell it.

If you wanted to make a really effective argument that reassures people you’re looking at all the data clearly and not just seeing what you want to see, you would probably want to at least acknowledge that some other studies show less encouraging results. One recent study showed no effect compared to a control group, the National Institutes of Health halted one clinical trial, and the U.S. Food and Drug Administration issued a warning. Human beings have different physiologies and their bodies work in different ways. Few drugs are effective in 100 percent of patients. A drug that works as an immunosuppressant might not always be exactly the right treatment for a patient fighting off a virus.

But you probably would not want to cite Steve Bannon as an authoritative source and endorse the contention that “Dr. Fauci has misled the American public on many issues,” as the president recently did on his Twitter feed, and you would probably want to check out Stella Immanuel a little deeper before you cited her as an authoritative source. If a doctor discusses “gynecological issues that are the result of having sex with witches and demons” at length, you’re probably going to want a second opinion.

NBC’s Benjy Sarlin observed, “It’s always fashionable to say Trump is merely an expression or inevitable result of X or Y broader trend, but there’s probably not a single 2016 rival who would plausibly act on a weird viral video with no vetting that contradicted their own administration. That affects things.” Statements from the president of the United States are dependent solely upon what he sees in his Twitter feed and whether he interprets it as praise. The president has done this from the moment he started running, and there is no indication that Donald Trump has the desire or ability to control this habit.

If Trump does not win a second term, his sweeping lack of impulse control and unwillingness to evaluate sources will be big reasons why. Even when he’s got a plausible or defensible argument, he tends to make it in the least effective possible way. The president’s attention is much more likely to be drawn by sweeping statements on Twitter or conspiracy theories about sinister doctors covering up a cure than by lengthy, detailed, and even-handed medical-journal studies. But what is most persuasive and intriguing to the president is not necessarily what will persuade vast swaths of the public.

This is often characterized by the president’s ardent supporters as, “You just don’t like how he Tweets!” No, it’s that he’s such a poor communicator, he undermines his argument, even when he’s right.

We see this in issue after issue. The president wants public schools to be open this fall. There is a lot of evidence that schools in the United States can and should be open, at least partially, in some form or fashion, after precautions are taken to reduce the likelihood of the spread of the coronavirus. No one wants to go to work in a place where they fear they could catch the virus. The argument with reluctant teachers can and ought to be, “Okay, what do you need to see that will make you feel like your workplace is sufficiently safe for you to go about doing what you love, which is teaching children? Masks? Plastic partitions? Social distancing? Frequent breaks to wash hands or use sanitizer? Alternating days to reduce class sizes?”

Not every teachers’ union is being intransigent. Fedrick Ingram, president of the Florida Education Association, said earlier this month, “Schools can open if they have the funding behind them. We are not saying that schools should be closed until we have a vaccine. Listen, it’s going to take a comprehensive plan and there are things that we can do.” Others, including some in my neck of the woods, are taking the “no in-person learning until there is a vaccine” position. (With a vaccine probably not reaching every American until spring 2021, these teachers are proposing that an entire year be effectively lost for many kids.)

The combination of teachers who want to teach (40 percent in my neck of the woods, according to a recent survey), administrators who want to get schools operating again, and parents who want their kids back in the classrooms at least part-time could make an enormously powerful political coalition — particularly if the opposition trots out the insulting, overheated, “You don’t really care about your kids!” rhetoric. All the president has to do is appear to be the adult in the room — the calm, reasonable one who’s focused on finding a solution that works, while the teachers’ unions are being obstinate.

Trump’s approach? Threaten to cut funding for schools that don’t reopen full time, when one of the arguments is that implementing the necessary precautions will take money. The president can only perceive issues as contests of wills.

Atop all of this, the president is now publicly whining in some fashion almost every day, and he clearly sees “illegal” and “unfair” as synonyms, a bad trait for the head of the executive branch in a constitutional republic. Earlier this week, he complained, “So disgusting to watch Twitter’s so-called “Trending”, where sooo many trends are about me, and never a good one. They look for anything they can find, make it as bad as possible, and blow it up, trying to make it trend. Really ridiculous, illegal, and, of course, very unfair!” He complains about Fox News and how it is putting up “phony polls.”

Yesterday, during the coronavirus briefing, Trump complained that Drs. Anthony Fauci and Deborah Birx have high approval ratings but he doesn’t. “And yet, they’re highly thought of — but nobody likes me. It can only be my personality.” He is constantly publicly exhibiting insufferable self-pity when Americans are trying to get through a pandemic. Welcome to the presidency. As Harry Truman may or may not have said, “if you want a friend in Washington, buy a dog.”

Right now, Joe Biden is not beating Donald Trump. Donald Trump is beating Donald Trump.

Are We on the Verge of Kamala Harris’s Big Moment?

Maybe Kamala Harris botching her interview with Joe Biden’s running mate adviser Chris Dodd won’t matter that much after all! The Associated Press reports:

As he took questions from reporters on Tuesday, Biden held notes that were captured by an Associated Press photographer. Harris’ name was scrawled across the top, followed by five talking points. “Do not hold grudges.” “Campaigned with me & Jill.” “Talented.” “Great help to campaign.” “Great respect for her.”

This doesn’t necessarily mean Harris is the pick. But it does indicate that Biden is thinking about her and felt the need to be prepared for questions about her. Then again . . .

Are We on the Verge of Susan Rice’s Big Moment?

. . . if, as Politico reports, the buzz around Susan Rice is serious and growing louder, Joe Biden might want to run as a pretty explicit restoration of the Obama administration.

If Biden picks Rice, I think a whole bunch of Trump-weary Republicans, conservatives, and right-leaning independents will start shifting back towards the president. Trump brings his share of headaches, but Rice will remind those who are right-of-center of everything they couldn’t stand about the Obama years. You will see a lot of anger out there. You could see protests. And if those protests get larger, they might get out of control, and could even lead to violence.

In the unlikely event that does happen, I am certain that Susan Rice will declare, “It began spontaneously as a reaction to a hateful video.”

ADDENDUM: A few bits of wisdom from Twitter this morning…

John Hood: “If you believe complex human problems have simple solutions, you are a history denier.”

Alex Berenson: “From the South Pasadena (CA) Unified School District: schools will be online-only. However, students UP TO 8th GRADE can go to “extended day care” eight hours daily – and attend their online classes while staying together in rooms holding up to 12 students!”

Scott Lincicome revealing why SkyNet or other robots and AI will not take away all of our jobs. A Japanese company “calculates that, even after all its robotic and automation technologies are implemented, productivity increases by about 10 percent . . . mostly because . . . a relatively large number of human workers are still on site to closely monitor the robots, and step in if necessary.”

Politics & Policy

Why Are People Getting Seeds in the Mail from China?

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A hand taking mail from a mailbox. (Image via Getty images)

On the menu today: Americans are receiving unsolicited, mysterious, and potentially dangerous seeds from China; Kamala Harris demonstrates she can’t read people; Google prepares for the long haul of the pandemic; and National Review kicks off a much-needed, dynamic new section.

Usually China Only Sows Metaphorical Seeds of Trouble

Merciful heavens, with someone in China sending unsolicited mysterious seeds to Americans that could well be some sort of invasive species, we really do need a Weed Agency.

State officials and the U.S. Department of Agriculture are investigating reports that hundreds of residents have received seeds in the mail they didn’t order.

Agricultural officials across the U.S. have launched probes after residents received unsolicited packages of seeds that appear to have mostly originated from China. Mike Strain, Louisiana’s commissioner of agriculture and forestry, which is investigating packages received in that state, said the USDA is also investigating the matter.

A USDA spokesperson said the agency’s Animal and Plant Health Inspection Service is aware that “people across the country have received unsolicited packages of seed from China in recent days.” The spokesperson said USDA is working with the U.S. Department of Homeland Security’s Customs and Border Protection and state agriculture departments to prevent the illegal entry of prohibited seeds and protect U.S. agriculture from invasive pests and noxious weeds.

Please be careful, people. This could be Audrey II for all we know, or the red weed from Mars, or Triffids. If it’s from China, you know they’re not sending us something as benevolent and likeable as Groot.

This could be some incompetent shipping clerk, or a different kind of scam: “According to the Better Business Bureau, foreign, third-party sellers use your address and Amazon information to generate a fake sale and positive review to boost their product ratings,” said Phil Wilson, director of the Plant Industry Division. “Seeds are just one of the items used in this scam, however, you could receive other inexpensive items such as rubber bands, plastic toys, or empty bags.”

This government and its economic leaders are not good global citizens. By late April, Chinese companies sent out ten million defective coronavirus tests, masks, and other personal protective equipment. They run concentration camps, suppress churches, make aggressive territorial claims to international waters, strengthen the Iranian regime, lied about the coronavirus when it mattered most, and effectively conquered Hong Kong. The rulers in Beijing are a “rogue state” in every sense of the word.

And yet, quite a few wealthy Americans — some of whom make an affluent living dribbling basketballs — wish to keep the American relationship with China intact, because this arrangement is financially good for them.

What has China ramping up its aggressiveness on so many fronts simultaneously?

It couldn’t be because the rulers in Beijing worried about the massive Three Gorges Dam breaking or collapsing, are they?

Apparently, Kamala Harris Can’t Read People

Imagine for a moment that you’re Kamala Harris. Your presidential bid rose quickly and then crashed like Icarus, but now a lot of people are calling you a strong contender to be Joe Biden’s running mate. Former Connecticut senator Chris “Waitress Sandwich” Dodd, a member of Biden’s vice-presidential search committee, asks you about how you attacked Biden in the first debate. Recall that Harris contended it was “hurtful to hear [Biden] talk about the reputations of two United States senators who built their careers on segregation” and “opposed busing in America” and suggested Biden did not take racial discrimination “seriously.” Biden called her attack “a mischaracterization of my position across the board.” This is a longtime good friend of your party’s nominee, who will be advising said nominee on his running mate selection, asking directly about your straight-to-the-jugular attack.

If you were Harris, how would you respond?

Do you . . .

  1. Pledge you’ll attack Biden’s critics as aggressively as you attacked his record that night?
  2. Say it went too far, and you never should have suggested Biden accepted segregation or didn’t take discrimination seriously?
  3. Laugh it off as nothing out of the ordinary?

Harris chose No. 3.

When former Sen. Chris Dodd, a member of Joe Biden’s vice presidential search committee, recently asked Kamala Harris about her ambush on Biden in the first Democratic debate, Dodd was stunned by her response.

“She laughed and said, ‘that’s politics.’ She had no remorse,” Dodd told a longtime Biden supporter and donor, who relayed the exchange to Politico on condition of anonymity.

[Insert sound of game show buzzer indicating a wrong answer here.]

Karen Tumulty is displeased that this exchange might hurt Harris’s odds of being Biden’s running mate. “This reported anxiety about Harris, however, suggests a different standard for women as running mates. They are apparently supposed to be window-dressing — demure and apologetic.”

Let’s think this through here. What matters at that moment is not what Harris thinks of what she said on that debate that night. If Harris wants to be Biden’s running mate, what matters is what Dodd thinks of what she said at that debate that night. And if Dodd is asking about it, it’s probably not because he thought it was such a terrific moment in the evening. Whether or not Harris thinks she should feel remorse, she apparently didn’t realize or care that Dodd thought she should feel remorse — or at least fake feeling some remorse about what she said.

What do you think Dodd wanted to hear? Either answers 1 or 2, right?

What does it say about Kamala Harris that she either didn’t grasp this, or simply didn’t care about what Dodd thought of her answer?

Google Gets Ready for the Pandemic Long Haul

Yesterday, I noted that this pervasive sense that an alleviation from or a fix for the pandemic is just around the corner has partially exacerbated our problem. If medical experts had declared that a vaccine was years away, that grim news would have forced our society to figure out a way to live and function while the virus was still out there. But no one could reasonably expect Americans to stay home, out of work, out of school, away from family and friends, away from any large gathering of any kind, for years at a time. But if the solution is just a month or two away, leaders feel comfortable telling people who have put their lives on hold for five months just to wait a little longer.

The leaders at Google aren’t counting on life returning to normal in 2020 — or even early 2021. The company “will keep its employees home until at least next July, making the search-engine giant the first major U.S. corporation to formalize such an extended timetable in the face of the coronavirus pandemic.”

Credit Alphabet chief executive Sundar Pichai for recognizing that right now, people are being asked to live in a limbo-like state — where they are expected to make commitments, but the forces that shape their lives can’t make commitments to them. Pichai “was swayed in part by sympathy for employees with families to plan for uncertain school years that may involve at-home instruction, depending on geography. It also frees staff to sign full-year leases elsewhere if they choose to move.”

If the pandemic alleviates or a vaccine gets distributed before July, terrific — Google can adjust its plans. But the company recognizes that preparing for the worst is not akin to hoping for the worst, or operating on the belief that optimism requires us to not take steps to be ready for gloomier scenarios.

ADDENDUM: Statists of all stripes are launching the most dangerous legislative and intellectual attacks on free markets in decades. With every sign that this attack is going to intensify in the years to come and few signs of an effective pushback, National Review is pleased to announce the formation of Capital Matters, a new section on NationalReview.com that will feature articles on business, finance, and economics. This new section will do for business and economic news what Bench Memos has done for coverage of the judiciary.

In the same spirit that led William F. Buckley Jr. to found National Review, National Review Institute is proud to collaborate on this new project to explain, defend, and celebrate capitalism. Through timely commentary from well-known financiers, economists, entrepreneurs, business leaders, and other specialists, coupled with events, webinars, forums, and conference calls, the objective of this initiative is to change the terms of debate over our country’s economic future for the better. At the helm of this initiative is the newest fellow at NRI, Andrew Stuttaford, who had a long career in finance and has also been writing for National Review for decades, and Kevin Hassett, former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers.

Media

Can You Spare a Thought for the Rich New Yorkers Roughing It in Their Second Homes?

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(Shannon Stapleton/Reuters)

On the menu today: Jim’s back, with a little bit of everything; an observation about how the New York Times not-so-secretly loathes a portion of its own readership; decrying the emerging form of “anti-journalism” in news institutions; the Guardian lies about Senator Tom Cotton, a new push for a deal on DACA; a late-summer book-recommendation list, and a huge trade by the New York Jets.

Pity the Wealthy, Enduring the Worst of Times from Their Hamptons Summer Homes

Whatever else you think of the New York Times newspaper, there’s a particular deliciousness to the newspaper’s insanely insular lifestyle coverage of the city’s wealthy, entitled, and self-absorbed. This weekend’s Real Estate section brought a fascinating and inadvertently hilarious in-depth portrait of the struggles of Manhattanites trying to ride out the pandemic from their second homes in the Hamptons, the luxurious communities on the eastern end of Long Island.

While living full-time in places that usually get much less wear and tear, these homeowners share many of the same difficulties as anyone dealing with the coronavirus lockdown — working in communal spaces where their children now are present 24/7, discovering items in their homes that need updating, and then renovating a home while they are living in it. In addition, these homeowners must adjust to living in relatively unfamiliar towns, often far from friends, family, or creature comforts such as a favorite bagel shop or longtime barber.

You may be sick, you may have buried a loved one, you may be laid off or have lost your business, you may have put off hip surgery, you may be facing eviction, your kids haven’t been to school since March and won’t be back anytime soon, and your governor may have killed your elderly relatives in nursing homes through reckless policies, but please, take a moment to think of the publicists and “boutique wealth-management company” executives who haven’t been to their favorite bagel joint in weeks! (The article features a cameo by the “director for cultural engagement at Everytown for Gun Safety.”)

Somewhere out there, the zombified corpse of Spy magazine is rising from the grave, sensing a cadre of ostentatiously wealthy and oblivious elites that desperately need mocking. I would bet quite a bit that just about everyone mentioned in the article can’t stand President Trump, because he’s so arrogant, so lacking in empathy, and so utterly out-of-touch with the problems of ordinary people, such as when your children have to attend school via Zoom “from the butler pantry.”

The people profiled in this piece are not necessarily bad people. (I can see you raising your hands regarding the gun-control activist.) By and large, life has been extremely good to them, and they’re entitled to enjoy their wealth however they like. But I find it pretty fascinating that the New York Times contemplated this as a story idea — how are the Manhattanites who fled the city when the pandemic started coping with life in their second homes? — and five wealthy Hamptons homeowners agreed to interviews and posed for photographs in their sumptuous secondary abodes.

Today, the New York Times is simultaneously the vanguard of the revolution against wealthy, powerful, white, mostly older, mostly heterosexual couples . . . and it is also one of the biggest and most influential cultural journals of wealthy, powerful, white, mostly older, mostly heterosexual couples. The New York Times editorial page fumes about inequality and conspicuous consumption . . . while running on advertising revenue from the top-of-the-line luxury brands. A few days earlier, the paper noted how manicures, movie theaters, exercise classes, and pools were reorganizing themselves to market themselves to the ultra-wealthy for private, invitation-only services. “Bergdorf Goodman is offering socially distanced in-store appointments, as well as same-day delivery to Manhattan and the Hamptons for online orders.” The Times subtly and overtly denounces a chunk of its own readership . . . and many of those readers probably conclude that the paper meant those other wealthy elites, who work for those big bad corporations instead of good old-fashioned “boutique wealth-management companies.”

The New York Times and the modern Democratic Party are intertwined like the helix of DNA, and this contradiction in the self-described paper of record can also be found in the party its editorial board endorses every November. Many Democrats are running on a narrative about the need to depose wealthy elites from the commanding heights of society, while being largely run, and economically fueled, by wealthy elites: “[Hillary] Clinton’s gains [in 2016] were concentrated among the wealthiest voters; she carried precincts where the median income was over $250,000 by a 27-point margin, and improved by 39 points over Mr. Obama’s performance.” These elites don’t like the way American society is run — but refuse to look very hard in the mirror at how they themselves have been running their corners of their society.

All the News That’s Fit to Support the Narrative

Over on the home page, a look at the emerging form of “anti-journalism” — the notion that certain viewpoints must not be expressed, certain factions and narratives must not be questioned, challenged, or opposed, and certain ideas and events are never to be examined, lest they run counter to a preferred narrative — and an appeal to help out National Review when we are needed the most.

In fact, a good example of this phenomenon this morning . . .

I Thought Newspapers Were Supposed to Be Good at Quoting People

Here’s what Senator Tom Cotton said in an interview with the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette: “We have to study the history of slavery and its role and impact on the development of our country because otherwise we can’t understand our country. As the Founding Fathers said, it was the necessary evil upon which the union was built, but the union was built in a way, as Lincoln said, to put slavery on the course to its ultimate extinction,” he said.

Here’s how the British Guardian newspaper described his remarks: “The Arkansas Republican senator Tom Cotton has called the enslavement of millions of African people ‘the necessary evil upon which the union was built.’”

No. Cotton didn’t say that. Cotton said that Lincoln said that, and that Lincoln was describing the view of the Founding Fathers.

If you’re wondering about the specific quote, here is Abraham Lincoln, in the third Lincoln-Douglas debate, September 15, 1858 in Jonesboro, Illinois:

I say, in the way our fathers originally left the slavery question, the institution was in the course of ultimate extinction, and the public mind rested in the belief that it was in the course of ultimate extinction. I say when this Government was first established, it was the policy of its founders to prohibit the spread of slavery into the new Territories of the United States, where it had not existed. But Judge Douglas and his friends have broken up that policy and placed it upon a new basis by which it is to become national and perpetual. All I have asked or desired anywhere is that it should be placed back again upon the basis that the fathers of our Government originally placed it upon. I have no doubt that it would become extinct, for all time to come, if we but readopted the policy of the fathers by restricting it to the limits it has already covered-restricting it from the new Territories.

How hard is it for any reporter writing about Tom Cotton and the teaching of American history and slavery to look up that quote? The Lincoln–Douglas debates were not exactly some obscure, hidden chapter of American history.

Hey, Remember When Trump said, ‘We’re Going to Have a Road to Citizenship’ This Month?

Earlier this month, President Trump, seemingly out of the blue, declared in an interview with Spanish-language TV network Telemundo that he would soon issue an executive order which would involve Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals (DACA), the program that protects hundreds of thousands of immigrants from deportation? Trump said, “I’m going to do a big executive order. . . . And I’m going to make DACA a part of it. We’re going to have a road to citizenship.”

Trump seemed to blindside his own staff, and a White House spokesman insisted this would not be anything like an amnesty.

But some groups that want to see a deal for Dreamers are hoping Trump meant what he said, and that the opportunity for a deal before the election is real. This morning, Americans for Prosperity released a new video featuring AFP President Tim Phillips laying out why Congress should stop kicking the can down the road on this issue.

“Candidly, I had never dug into this issue, so I didn’t understand why folks just didn’t fill out the necessary forms, and get right with the law years ago,” Phillips says in the video. “The truth is these individuals commonly known as ‘Dreamers,’ they cannot simply apply to be residents or citizens for most Dreamers, there’s no viable option in our system that they can use to apply. That’s why Congress needs to act.”

Belated Summer Reading List

My friend Flint Dille’s memoir of working in entertainment in the 1980s, The Gamesmaster, is a remarkable simulation of our evenings when he’s in the Washington area. Flint is a wild storyteller, a fascinating character, and an overflowing fountain of ideas expressed in his own unique, Hollywood-y, snarky, historically-literate idiom — enthralling, often hilarious, occasionally confusing, and never boring. In the span of a decade, Flint worked with Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Frank Miller, Jack Kirby, and Gary Gygax, creator of Dungeons & Dragons — and yes, he’s the namesake of that “Flint” from G.I. Joe. If you watched cartoons in the 1980s, chances are Flint has some fascinating behind-the-scenes story — such as the time he bailed one of his voice actors out of jail.

A good thriller can teach you a lot while giving you plenty of excitement. I picked up one of Brad Taylor’s from a few years back: Ring of Fire, covering the Panama Papers and some of the redacted portions of the 9/11 Commission report. The more I read thrillers, the more I admire the writers who can set the tone, set up the plot, introduce the characters smoothly and easily, and get you started on the ride without it ever feeling forced. Taylor is really good at showing, not telling, and building momentum without ever showing the strings holding it all together.

The Bosch series on Amazon spurred me to pick up Michael Connelly’s more recent gritty novels of Los Angeles homicide detectives. Connelly is just unparalleled — I’d like to think it’s Connelly’s years as a journalist that honed his eye for detail, dialogue, and the true-to-life way the clues just naturally emerge, step by step. In The Night Fire, Harry Bosch is getting up in years, working off-the-books in partnership with a night-shift detective, Renee Ballard. The tough, easily-overlooked loner Ballard is the kind of character who could become insufferable or clichéd in another writer’s hands, but Connelly seems to specialize in breathing life into characters who are disliked by their peers but liked by the reader.

I picked up Dave Itzkoff’s biography of Robin Williams, Robin, and devoured it; it is a delightful stroll down memory lane for fans of the late comedian and actor and concludes with a probably the deepest and most complete explanation of why Williams’s life ended as suddenly and tragically as it did.

No summer reading list would be complete without Brad Thor; my copy of his latest, Near Dark, arrived at home while I was away. Brad’s previous Scot Harvath story, Back Lash, shook up his protagonist’s well-established world of global terrorist-hunting and thrust him into an almost Jack London–style tale of survival in extreme circumstances. It was arguably Brad’s best book yet, and a dramatic shakeup to the status quo of his character.

ADDENDUM: Thanks to Alexandra DeSanctis and Jimmy Quinn for filling in last week . . .

. . . Man, everything dramatic happens when I’m on vacation — even the New York Jets trading their best player, Jamal Adams, to the Seattle Seahawks for a king’s ransom. The team is indeed better situated for the next few years, with five picks in the top 100 next year (our first three, Seattle’s one and three), and at least four picks in the top 100 in 2022 (our first three and Seattle’s one). But those Seattle picks are probably late in the round, as they’re a good team and their defense just got Adams. The Jets get a safety I’m not familiar with who is allegedly a “good enough” replacement, get a deeply disgruntled player out of town, and don’t have to find the salary-cap room for a massive long-term contract for Adams.

But that’s all long-term. In the short term, the Jets are a weaker team without Adams. For the coming year, the Jets are now without their best defensive player, the guy who basically won the Giant game by himself last year. Gregg Williams is a hell of a defensive coordinator, and he’s got more (hopefully healthy) pieces to work with this year, but this is asking even more of him.

Some of the organization’s bad relationship is Adams’s fault, but I’d prefer if the Jets could avoid these kinds of lingering fights and the perception that they don’t take care of even their best players. (I don’t know how much head coach Adam Gase interacts with the defensive players, but clearly Adams walked away from their interactions unimpressed.) Some of this is a pure money issue, but you have to figure some of it related to how Adams felt undervalued by the organization. Adams, Quincy Enunwa, Kelechi Osemele . . . guys keep getting into public spats with the management. Stop telling me how good the culture is. Cultures of teams improve when they win.

Politics & Policy

President Trump Cancels Republican National Convention in Florida

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President Donald Trump takes questions during a coronavirus news briefing at the White House in Washington, D.C., July 23, 2020. (Kevin Lamarque/Reuters)

I’m Jimmy Quinn, one of National Review’s Buckley Fellows, filling in for Jim Geraghty. On the menu today: Trump moves most of the Republican National Convention online, the Labor Department reports a new rise in unemployment claims, and Mike Pompeo takes on the Chinese Communist Party in a landmark address.

Acknowledging Coronavirus Reality, Trump Moves RNC Online

“It’s time to cancel the Jacksonville, Florida, component of the GOP convention,” said President Trump during a press briefing yesterday afternoon. Despite previously downplaying aspects of the coronavirus pandemic, Trump has in recent days pivoted to echoing the recommendations of public-health officials as polls have shown him losing to presumptive Democratic nominee Joe Biden. In addition to endorsing the use of masks on Twitter for the first time this week, he admitted Wednesday, in a reversal from his previous messaging, that the virus will probably “get worse before it gets better.”

The convention was initially supposed to take place in Charlotte, N.C. But that changed when Trump and North Carolina governor Roy Cooper found themselves at loggerheads over whether public-health restrictions would be implemented for the 50,000-person event. While the Jacksonville portion of the convention will now be moved online, a day of previously scheduled official RNC meetings will still take place in Charlotte. Meanwhile, “The 2020 Democratic National Convention is being re-imagined to connect with voters from across America using satellite events from the swing states that are linked to a working convention floor in Milwaukee,” according to a DNC document obtained by the Daily Beast.

Florida has been battered by the coronavirus. NPR has the latest developments from the state:

Florida reported its largest number of deaths in a single day from the coronavirus: 173 on Thursday. The state says 10,249 people tested positive for the virus.

Florida is behind only California and New York in total cases. Other states, including Texas and California, also posted record deaths this week as the nation’s total number of COVID-19 cases topped 4 million.

Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis met with hospital leaders and administrators Thursday at Holmes Regional Medical Center in Melbourne. He said hospitals are stressed statewide, but that there is adequate capacity.

The decision to move most of the convention online puts a fine point on Trump’s shift toward more stringent public-health measures as much of the country begins to face a situation similar to New York in the spring. While the president initially resisted some of the new realities of coronavirus-era life, it seems that he now recognizes the high political cost of not acknowledging this new normal.

New Labor Numbers: Over 30 Million People Collecting Unemployment

The Labor Department came out with new unemployment statistics Thursday, reporting for the first time in 15 weeks a rise in applications for unemployment insurance. In the week ending on July 18, some 1.4 million Americans sought unemployment, joining the more than 30 million people who currently receive benefits. As much of the country grapples with the pandemic, reopening plans have been rolled back, contributing to a surge in joblessness.

The new numbers come as lawmakers negotiate a new unemployment aid package as the $600 federal payment to jobless Americans is set to expire at the end of the month. Politico has more on this:

Republicans were originally opposed to continuing the extra $600-a-week jobless benefit, but are now on board with offering more federal unemployment aid — at a lower amount.

However, it’s already too late to prevent a lapse in benefits for millions of workers. Some states with antiquated systems won’t be able to update their computers in time to prevent a gap.

The rise in jobless claims confirms economists’ fears that despite declines in the unemployment rate in May and June, the economy is still scrambling to recover from the pandemic-induced shock.

The End of Engagement with China?

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo gave a highly anticipated address on U.S.–China relations yesterday. Appearing at the Richard Nixon Presidential Library in California, Pompeo castigated the Chinese Communist Party as an unmatched enemy of freedom around the world, calling for a strong global response to change its behavior. The remarks might not get too much play right now, but it’s the kind of landmark speech that historians will return to as they try to explain this moment in U.S.–China relations.

Although Pompeo did not use the address to unroll any new policy initiatives, he put a fine point on where we are right now, suggesting an official end to the era of no-strings-attached U.S. engagement with China:

What do the American people have to show now 50 years on from engagement with China? Did the theories of our leaders that proposed China’s evolution toward freedom and democracy prove to be true? Is this China’s definition of a win-win situation? And indeed centrally from the Secretary of State perspective, is America safer?

Pompeo’s remarks followed a spate of actions taken by the administration in recent weeks amid a significant downturn in U.S.­–China ties. Earlier in the week, the United States demanded that Beijing close its consulate in Houston, alleging that it is a center of economic espionage that facilitates illicit technology transfers to China. The Chinese consul general in Houston indicated that Beijing will refuse the order, and last night it returned the favor, shuttering the U.S. consulate in Chengdu. In addition, the administration has also taken steps to push back against China’s South China Sea territorial claims and to respond to the CCP’s draconian Hong Kong security law and human-rights abuses in Xinjiang.

Pompeo’s speech was the capstone in a series of speeches on China by other Trump administration officials. National-security adviser Robert O’Brien focused on the ideological dimension of the strategic competition with China, while FBI director Chris Wray discussed Chinese espionage and Attorney General William Barr warned about how Beijing uses its economic heft to influence Americans. Their remarks contrast with the positions of administration officials, such as Treasury secretary Steve Mnuchin, who prefer to prioritize commercial engagement with China. That perspective has lost cachet, though, as the Trump campaign has played up a “tough on China” message and the chances of negotiating Phase Two of a trade deal between the countries have all but evaporated.

Pompeo concluded with a call for “a new alliance of democracies,” arguing that “if the free world doesn’t change, Communist China will surely change us.” His California swing came immediately on the tail of a trip to London, where he met with U.K. prime minister Boris Johnson, British lawmakers, and Hong Kong pro-democracy activist Nathan Law.

ADDENDUM: Europe is also getting tough on China. The U.K.’s recent move to ban Huawei from its 5G networks got a lot of press, and it’s been joined by France and Italy. But Germany remains a notable exception to this shift — I have more on this in a recent Corner post.

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