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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Trump Barely Even Trying to Avoid Conflicts of Interest Anymore
      •  FEC Rendered Toothless
      •  The Farmers Aren't Happy
      •  Deutsche Bank Clearly Has Trump's Tax Returns
      •  Trump Derides Republican Challengers as "Three Stooges"
      •  Warren May Still Have a "Pocahontas" Problem
      •  Wednesday Q&A

Trump Barely Even Trying to Avoid Conflicts of Interest Anymore

Yesterday, we had an item about how Donald Trump's lying has gotten pretty slovenly. It's as if he has learned he can get away with anything, so he has no particular need to come up with plausible lies. On Tuesday, it was a similar story, except with Trump making virtually no effort to avoid conflicts of interest.

To start, now that the 45th G7 Summit is in the books, it's time to start planning the 46th, which will be hosted by the United States. And Trump has a great idea: Why not have the gathering at Trump National Doral Miami? After all, he points out, there's lots of parking, good weather, and an airport close by. What's not to like? Undoubtedly, the fact that this would steer millions in dollars of revenue toward a Trump property that has been "severely underperforming" since he became president never even crossed his mind. If such an arrangement does not violate the Emoluments Clause, then they might as well excise that portion of the Constitution. Oh, and some helpful advice for Emmanuel Macron, Giuseppe Conte, Justin Trudeau, et al., for their visit next year: Sleep tight, and don't let the bedbugs bite!

That wasn't the only major story of this sort on Tuesday. It may still be summer, but AG William Barr is already planning his Christmas Party, with an expected price tag of $30,000-$45,000, all of it coming out of his pocket. And the venue he plans to use is...the Trump International Hotel, Washington. And you thought getting your boss a membership in the cheese of the month club was a pretty good way to kiss up.

In any event, Trump's lies get a lot of attention, so much so that any politics-watcher knows that the tally is now north of 12,000. His conflicts of interest get less attention, suggesting that the lies are doing their job of creating a distraction. However, the good people at Citizens for Responsibility and Ethics in Washington have done the yeoman's work of counting up every Trumpian conflict of interest, and their tally is 2,310. That's roughly one conflict of interest for every six lies. With so many conflicts, it seems like the Dept. of Justice might want to take a look at the matter. Don't hold your breath while Barr is running the show, though. After all, he's got a five-figure Christmas party to plan. (Z)

FEC Rendered Toothless

FEC commissioner Matthew Petersen announced Monday that he will resign, effective at the end of the week. The body, which is charged with enforcing U.S. election law, is supposed to have six members, with a bare minimum of four required for a quorum. Petersen's departure drops the total number of commissioners to three, which means that it can no longer hold meetings, issue fines, make or enforce rules, or conduct investigations. Essentially, the commission will be able to receive campaign reports and complaints of election violations, and they can go to the media to give an airing to major concerns, but that's about it.

The curious choice made when the FEC was created, namely that there should be an equal number of Republicans and Democrats as commissioners, has led to frequent deadlock as America's parties have become more polarized. Nonetheless, even with two hardcore Republicans as commissioners (of which Petersen was one) and two hardcore Democrats, they still got something done. Given the likelihood of foreign interference in 2020, not to mention all the various shady and corrupt behavior we saw in 2016 and 2018 (e.g., the House election in NC-09), it might be nice to have someone guarding the henhouse from all the foxes. Noted elections expert Rick Hasen, of the University of California, Irvine, certainly sees it that way:

You get three guesses as to who is responsible for this situation, and the first two don't count. Yep, it's Donald Trump and Mitch McConnell. Trump has only nominated one FEC commissioner (Trey Trainor), and that was over two years ago. Trainor still hasn't been confirmed, or even considered, because McConnell—who dislikes clean and honest elections—hasn't allowed any FEC nominee to be considered since 2015. Clearly, the Majority Leader thinks that if he holds on long enough, he can kill the FEC. And it would appear he's right. (Z)

The Farmers Aren't Happy

The New York Times has a lengthy item about how farmers are responding to the President's trade war. In short: not well. Despite the administration's distributing billions in subsidies, farms, families, and future prospects are all being disrupted by the Chinese tariffs, and folks aren't happy, Sec. of Agriculture Sonny Perdue has been on something of a good will tour, trying to smooth things over, and most farmers aren't buying what he's selling. There has even been some booing.

As to how this will impact next year's election, there are too many known unknowns here to be sure. Trump could strike a new trade deal with China, and score the greatest victory of his presidency. Unlikely, but possible. Alternatively, he could cancel a bunch of tariffs and declare victory by fiat, in much the same way that he claims to have already built a bunch of wall, or that he claims to have already replaced NAFTA. That's more possible. The alleged deal with the Japanese to buy what the Chinese are not buying could come to fruition. Also possible. On the other hand, the trade war could deepen, the economy could go into recession, and farm bankruptcies (already up 13% this year) could skyrocket. The only thing that's certain, this far out, is that the President has little margin for error here, and if just 1 in 10 farmers who voted for him in 2016 flip to the Democrats (or just stay home on Election Day), he's in trouble. (Z)

Deutsche Bank Clearly Has Trump's Tax Returns

Deutsche Bank does not want to admit they have Donald Trump's tax returns, because that would betray a client's confidence, and might upset other clients whose secrets they are keeping. The bank does not want to say they do not have the returns, however, because that would be perjury and would lead to sanctions. And so, the bank has been walking a fine line; on Tuesday they conceded that they have returns tied to Trump family businesses, and to "some" individual members of the family.

In other words, of course they have his returns. It's hard to imagine they would give Trump hundreds of millions of dollars in loans without them. It's ten times harder to imagine they would give him those loans, and not ask for his returns, but ask for Ivanka's or Don Jr.'s. This effectively confirms something everyone already believed, namely that there are two distinct legal routes that conclude with the President's taxes ending up in Congress' hands. The merits of Trump's arguments in the two cases, the one involving Deutsche Bank, and the other involving the law that allows Ways and Means Chair Richard Neal (D-MA) to get the returns from the IRS, are so poor that it would take a near-miracle for him to prevail in either of them. For him to prevail in both is just about inconceivable. The only real questions are (1) whether the returns will see the light of day before Nov. 3, 2020, and (2) whether Trump and/or Deutsche Bank will defy a court order to turn them over if so ordered. (Z).

Trump Derides Republican Challengers as "Three Stooges"

Donald Trump has adopted the Republican Party as his own personal fiefdom, and he does not care to hear any complaints from the peasantry. So, he's quite irritated that at least two, and perhaps three, Republicans are daring to challenge him in the primaries: Bill Weld, Joe Walsh, and possibly Mark Sanford. The President took to Twitter on Tuesday to express his disdain:

These fellows are going to do a certain amount of damage to Trump, because their whole campaigns are going to involve going on Fox News and other outlets and blasting him. They have nothing to lose, since they don't expect to win, so there's no reason to hold back. And they've all been Republicans for much longer than he, and at least two of the three are far more conservative than he (Walsh and Sanford), so they have credibility that Democratic critics do not.

There is only one correct strategy for Trump here: ignore them. Every time he punches down, he gives them legitimacy, and attention, and keeps them relevant. When he calls them "three stooges," everyone has a story about them, and everyone wants a comment from them. Of course, turning the other cheek is not Trump's style, even when it is clearly in his best interests. And the trio, especially Walsh, is good at getting under his skin. So, he will undoubtedly spend much time this cycle fighting with them, to his own detriment. (Z)

Warren May Still Have a "Pocahontas" Problem

Sen. Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) has paid her penance, and seems to have reached an armistice with the lefties in her party over her ill-advised claims to Native American heritage. However, Politico's Bill Scher thinks she's not out of the woods yet. While progressives were offended by the identity politics of the situation, moderates are bothered by their impression that she's a bit dishonest or phony. And that, Scher thinks, could come back to haunt her.

Scher believes this would be a general election problem, if Warren were to become the Democrats' nominee. He expects, probably rightly, that Donald Trump would send out so many Pocahontas tweets that his staff might need to create a macro for him. We're not really buying this line of argument, however. If a voter truly cares about honesty, are they really going to say that Warren's shadiness leaves them with no choice but to vote Trump? The man of 12,000 lies? Dubious. On the other hand, we do think this could be a primary election problem. If Warren or Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) are going to break through, they are going to have to steal some support from Joe Biden. And given that Biden's and Sanders' bases are much more similar to one another than they are to Warren's, and that Sanders does not have honesty concerns, it could be that he's in the better position to grab some Biden voters, should the former VP begin to falter. (Z)

Wednesday Q&A

We had to delay the usual Monday entry a couple of days. Going forward the day may depend on other factors, including how much news there is, etc.

For a long time, people have discussed the possibility of Julián Castro as Vice President. Why is he seldom mentioned for Senate? Would his path to Senator be less strong than Beto O'Rourke's? Why not Senator Castro and Vice President O'Rourke? If both were running in 2020, one as a Senator and one as a Vice Presidential candidate, it might help put Texas's electoral votes in play. C.V., Raritan, NJ

The reason that people default to O'Rourke for Senate and Castro for VP is that O'Rourke already ran a fairly successful Senate campaign, while Castro has already served in the executive branch (as HUD Secretary). So, those tracks seem to match their résumés a little better. The other issue is that Castro is a viable VP pairing with nearly all of the frontrunning Democrats. On the other hand, O'Rourke only pairs well with Elizabeth Warren and maybe Sen. Kamala Harris (D-CA), because the Party does not want to run two white men.

With that said, the two men are certainly capable of "switching" roles. It's not likely, especially given O'Rourke's less-than-stellar presidential campaign and poor fit on most of the hypothetical tickets, but it could happen. We've written that, according to the evidence, VPs generally can't deliver their home state for their ticket all by themselves. But a Senate candidate with coattails can, and a senator-VP combo would surely have a little extra oomph.

Do you think Republicans are intentionally creating a national debt crisis so they can scare the public into accepting cuts in Medicare and Social Security? Is that part of their "Starve The Beast" strategy? M.J., New Brunswick, NJ

Although I do not disagree with your conclusions in "Trump Wants to Cut Social Security," I find your answer doesn't fully explain what is going on here. I believe this is much more about traditional Republican values than meets the eyes. It is my opinion that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) is pulling more strings here than Donald Trump realizes, from deficit spending to cuts to Social Security. All of this comports with the "Two Santa Clauses" and "Starve the Beast" economic theories. McConnell knows this very well, and is playing Trump as his fool in order to implement policies he wants implemented. J.A., Shepherdsville, KY

Let's start by defining our terms. "Two Santa Clauses" and "Starve the Beast" are two ideas developed by Republican operatives 40 or so years ago, so that the GOP could advance its priorities (tax cuts) in an affirmative manner. The former idea was the brainchild of conservative economist Jude Wanniski, and was first expounded in 1974. Wanniski's observation was that social programs like welfare and Social Security allowed the Democrats to be "Santa Clauses," handing out checks and other benefits to voters. This put the Republicans in the position of being "Scrooges" whenever they talked about cutting federal spending, since cutting spending means taking goodies away. Note that most Republicans then, and most today, did not/do not care about government spending, per se, they just want less taxes, and cutting spending is the way to make that happen.

In view of all of this, Wanniski proposed that instead of talking about the need for spending cuts, the GOP should talk about how cutting taxes would bring prosperity and would actually allow for greater government spending. That would make people like Ronald Reagan into Santa Clauses, since they would be the ones driving the greater government outlays, while at the same time giving people juicy tax refunds. In order to justify this bit of sophistry—that steep tax cuts mean lots more money for everyone—Wanniski and Arthur Laffer developed the notions of supply-side economics and the Laffer curve, which purported to "prove" their claims. Of course, theoretical analyses and real-world experience have both demonstrated, over and over, that supply-side economics and the Laffer curve don't work.

The Reagan years were the first big experiment with these ideas, and thus the first big failure. Yes, the Gipper goosed the economy some, but at cost of an exploding deficit, greater wealth disparity, and ultimately a severe recession. It was at this point, in the mid-1980s, that David Stockman entered the picture. He observed that even if supply-side economics did not work as advertised, quite a few voters were nonetheless buying into the magic, because it's such a feel-good idea, and because there are some positive economic effects of steep tax cuts (even if they are usually very short term). Stockman's contribution was his assertion that the long-term inefficacy of supply-side economics is actually a feature, not a bug. By exploding deficits and sucking up all available government capital, a supply-side economic program makes it impossible for Democrats to talk seriously about expanding social programs. It also gives the GOP some cover for potential cuts. Instead of arguing for the need for austerity, and sounding Scrooge-like, they can argue that cuts are needed because there is simply no other choice in order to keep the government solvent. In other words, what Stockman argued was that supply side economics has the happy effect of...starving the beast.

This has worked out pretty well for the GOP. The Reagan, Bush Jr., and Trump administrations have all given out tax rebates like drunken sailors, allowing them to be Santa Clauses. And then, the Democrats have come along behind them and been the actual party of fiscal restraint, sometimes playing the role of Scrooge while cleaning up the Republicans' messes. Note also that there has been only one major advancement of social programs since the 1980s, and that was Obamacare, which was basically revenue neutral. So, Republican presidents have been able to push their economic priority (tax cuts) while cutting the Democrats' economic priority (redistribution of wealth) off at the knees. Never mind that things like the GI Bill, Social Security, and Medicare—all of them Democratic-passed wealth-redistribution initiatives—are among the most successful and popular government programs of all time.

There is no question, then, that this is what the current iteration of the GOP is up to, because these ideas have been the bedrock of the Party's strategy for at least 40 years, including the entire political careers of both Mitch McConnell and Donald Trump. The only real questions are: (1) How much is Trump merely acting as McConnell's puppet? and (2) Will the GOP pay a price for this? Our best answers: (1) Probably a little bit, but it's not like Trump is inherently averse to giving tax cuts to rich people or to neglecting the less fortunate (losers!), so McConnell likely doesn't need to do too much manipulation; and (2) Possibly. Republicans have gotten so much more aggressive about these ideas since Reagan's time, the consequences have become more dire when the fall eventually comes (see, for example, the recent disaster in Kansas). And voters do not like those consequences, and have responded badly.

Perhaps for the Democrats in 2016, the problem wasn't the message (reject Trump), it was the messenger (Hillary Clinton). Over the past decade, the GOP's central motivation has been Obama Derangement Syndrome. First they relied on it to regain the House, then the Senate, then the White House, and thus to overturn or sabotage nearly all of Barack Obama's accomplishments. Was the Democratic House victory in 2018 proof that (with the right candidates) Trump Derangement Syndrome could be a winning strategy in 2020 and beyond? H.F., Pittsburgh, PA

You have posted numerous items questioning whether Joe Biden is in fact the most electable Democratic nominee. It seems to me that he is. My reasoning is that, contrary to a statement you made yesterday, defeating Donald Trump is in fact a unifying theme for all Democrats. It might not be priority number one for all of them, but after seeing 3 years of Trump rule, I simply can't believe that any democrat would stay at home because the party's nominee does not support free college or Medicare for All. O.Z.H., Dubai, UAE

The challenge in trying to figure out what will happen in a presidential election is that we have so few exemplars to draw upon. There have only been 58 presidential tilts. One cannot seriously argue that any election before about 1940 has any relevance to today's politics, so that drops our number of meaningful precedents to maybe 15 or 16. And given how much variability there is on an election-by-election basis, there may be only a couple or three elections in that run that bear any real similarity to this one.

Anyhow, it's entirely possible that Joe Biden rides his very high name recognition and the strong anti-Trump sentiment to an easy victory. It's also possible that he is the Democrats' strongest candidate. But it's far from a certainty. Let us make some observations in response to the two questions:

  • It is true that Hillary Clinton was a historically unpopular candidate, with a net favorability in the range of -7% over the course of the campaign. It is also the case that Biden's net favorability jumps all over the place, and while it's +12% right now, it was as low as -10% just six weeks ago, in this Economist/YouGov poll. That was right after the busing mess.

  • It is a long time until the election, which means that the self-admitted gaffe-machine Biden has a lot of time to hurt himself with further gaffes, or with skeletons emerging from his closet, or from giving off the impression that he's not up to the job. If his favorability tanks at the wrong time, as it did in early July, that could be a real problem for him.

  • Also, Clinton's support among Democrats at this point (around 70%) was much higher than Biden's (30%). She could afford to just stay the course more than he can; he simply must pick up some more supporters.

  • Generally speaking, successful non-incumbent candidates run on some sort of very positive change they will bring to voters' lives. This creates enthusiasm, which means not only votes, but donations, and volunteer hours, and the like. Here's a quick list of the recent ones, as we see them:

       • Nixon, 1968: Ending the Vietnam War
       • Carter, 1976: Bringing decency back to Washington
       • Reagan, 1980: Make America Great Again
       • Clinton, 1992: It's the economy, stupid
       • Obama, 2008: Hope
       • Trump, 2016: Make America Great Again, redux

    The two Bushes are the exception, though one of them was basically just a continuation of Reagan. In any event, clearly a candidate can win the White House without an overt, affirmative message, but candidates like that are the exception rather than the rule. And in Biden's case, if that kind of messaging exists, it hasn't really registered. Even the candidate and his wife just keep talking about how "we can beat Trump." That's a negative pitch, not an affirmative one.

  • We agree that Obama derangement syndrome worked pretty well for Republicans for 8 years, but even then, Trump still had an affirmative message as well. Further, Republican voters tend to be more susceptible to fear- or anger-based messaging than Democrats are.

  • It is indeed hard to believe that any Democrats would stay at home on Election Day in 2020. On the other hand, Democratic voters in 2016 had the example of 2000 to learn from, and it was already very clear at that point what kind of person and politician Donald Trump is, and yet millions of Democrats stayed home or voted third party because they did not get "their" candidate. So, you can never be sure.

Again, nobody doubts that Biden is the clear frontrunner right now, regardless of that Monmouth poll from yesterday. But he has also has weaknesses, as any presidential candidate does, and it is not anti-Biden to point those out. Indeed, if he does not have someone trustworthy on his team who is bringing these kinds of issues to his attention, then he's doing himself a disservice.

Many months ago (maybe even a year ago), you suggested that jailing a president would be a black mark or reflect badly upon the U.S. as a whole. I'm curious (1) if you still think that, and (2) if so, why you think that? With much of the rest of the grown-up world taking issue with Trump's lack of accountability, barrage of lies, racism, implementation or modification of policies to the detriment of the country or world, money-making off the presidency, odd ties to dictatorships, dabbling in obstruction, etc., it seems to me that if he was put in prison, it might help the U.S. recover some of the clout it has lost with the rest of the world. On top of that, it would serve as a warning to future presidential candidates that we, as a country, do not accept that kind of behavior in our leader. T.B., Santa Clara, CA

In our view, both things can be true. That is to say, jailing a former president (e.g. Trump) would be hugely divisive, domestically, particularly if it is for some federal crime that he spent years poisoning the well on (like obstruction of justice). It would also have more than just a faint whiff of banana republic politics.

On the other hand, jailing him—if he is indeed proven guilty of crimes—would send an important message to allies, to citizens, to politicians, and to future presidents that nobody is above the law, and that nobody is bigger than the system.

If he is indeed guilty of crimes, then we surely have reached a tipping point where the benefit in punishing those crimes is greater than the cost.

If Trump has told over 12,000 lies so far, then every president in our history would have had to tell an average of one lie a week in order for the total number of lies for all other presidents to equal the number told by Trump. I know that current levels of scrutiny are not available for previous administrations. In your estimation, is it possible that Trump has told more lies than all other American presidents combined? R.F., Eugene, OR

There's no way to put this on an evidentiary basis, of course, but our guess is that Trump has indeed told more lies than all of his predecessors combined. Here are our three reasons for thinking this:

  1. Until the advent of mass media—newspapers, then radio, then TV, then the Internet—presidents did not communicate with the populace all that much. Indeed, it's only been 30 or 40 years that the occupant of the White House made public statements on a near-daily basis. That means that the opportunity to tell a lie per day or per week really wasn't there for well over a century (or more).

  2. For all the jokes about shady politicians, most presidents were basically honest guys. Or, if not, they were dishonest guys who feared recrimination, and so put on an honest face in public.

  3. Until Trump, serious whoppers (or even serious misstatements) tended to get smacked down harshly, and to dominate a week's worth of news cycles or more. Think of the damage done to George H.W. Bush by "Read my lips. No new taxes," or to Barack Obama by "You can keep your doctor," or to Bill Clinton by "I did not have sex with that woman." Politicians feared this kind of blowback, and tended to mind their P's & Q's as much as possible. Only Donald Trump has overwhelmed the feedback loop to the point that whoppers basically do him no harm, leaving him free to fire off lies like he has a lying sub-machine gun.

Anyhow, that's our best guess.

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Aug27 Trump Barely Even Trying to Tell Plausible Lies Anymore
Aug27 Rough Day for Biden
Aug27 Obama Announces Anti-Gerrymandering Initiative
Aug27 Democrats Target State Legislatures
Aug27 Kennedy May Mount Senate Bid
Aug27 Rep. Sean Duffy to Retire
Aug27 Sarah Huckabee Sanders Launches Website
Aug27 No Patriots at the White House
Aug26 Trump Bumbles at the G7 Meeting
Aug26 DNC Votes Down Single-Issue Debates
Aug26 Trump Wants to Cut Social Security and Medicare in His Second Term
Aug26 Trump Could Pocket Millions If Interest Rates Go Down
Aug26 Trump Tries to Block Deutsche Bank from Giving Congress His Financial records
Aug26 Joe Walsh Is Officially Running for the Republican Presidential Nomination
Aug26 Poll: Americans Are as Angry Now as in 2015
Aug26 Senate Democratic Candidates Shun Medicare for All
Aug26 Jobs Number Is Revised Way Down
Aug26 David Koch Is Dead
Aug24 We Are Not Amused
Aug24 McConnell Wants to Keep the Filibuster
Aug24 Ruth Bader Ginsburg Beats Cancer, Again
Aug24 Obama-Trump Voters Prefer Trump to Biden
Aug24 Moulton Is Out
Aug24 Democratic Presidential Candidate Update: Beto O'Rourke
Aug23 Trump Helps Disabled Veterans
Aug23 Today in Conspiracy Theories
Aug23 Three Prominent Republicans Begin Their Next Chapter
Aug23 Hickenlooper Makes it Official
Aug23 Trump Has Western Troubles
Aug23 Bitecofer: Nine Texas House Seats Are in Play
Aug23 Chafee May Run in 2020
Aug23 Friday Q&A
Aug22 Poll: Public Perception of the Economy Is Getting Bearish
Aug22 Promises Made, Promises Kept?
Aug22 Trump Wants to Go After Birthright Citizenship
Aug22 To Find Out What the Democrats Want, Turn off Twitter
Aug22 Republicans Are Starting a Push to Win Back Suburban Women
Aug22 Might Trump Get a Primary Opponent after All?
Aug22 Appeals Court Rules that Presidential Electors Can Vote for Anyone They Want
Aug22 Jay Inslee Is Outslee
Aug22 Charlie Cook: Maine Senate Race Is a Tossup
Aug22 Report: Pompeo Won't Run for the Senate
Aug22 Gina Ortiz Jones Raises $1 Million
Aug22 Mr. Conway Blasts Mrs. Conway
Aug21 Trump Ventures into Anti-Semitic Territory
Aug21 Administration's Messaging on the Economy Is All Over the Place
Aug21 Apparently, Trump Was Serious about Greenland
Aug21 Candidates' Age Is Just a Number?
Aug21 Presidential Polls: Great News for Biden, Bad News for Harris
Aug21 Third Debate Lineup Is Nearly Set