The Morning Jolt

Politics & Policy

The Misguided Attempt to Dissolve the NRA

New York State Attorney General Letitia James speaks during a news conference 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.

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