How a Pandemic Could Undermine Our Union
China and Russia Push Disinformation on Virus
Graham Warned Trump He’ll ‘Own’ the Deaths
Biden Mounts Quiet Effort to Win Over Progressives
Bonus Quote of the Day
Trump Suggests He Can Gag Inspector General
• About Trump's Approval Rating...
• White House Continues to Resist Invocation of the DPA
• The 2020 Presidential Election Is a Whole New Ballgame
• Trump Declares That GOP Convention Will Proceed as Scheduled
• Trump Administration Indicts Maduro
• The Times That Try Men's (and Women's) Souls, Part III: The Chesapeake Affair (1807)
Last week, the House was in session and the Senate wasn't. This week, the Senate is in session but the House isn't. Consequently, it was relatively easy, logistically, for the upper chamber to hammer out and vote upon COVID-19 relief bill v3.0. Not so much for the lower chamber, whose members are now hustling back to Washington on short notice, in hopes of getting the bill passed today.
The complication here is, in essence, parliamentary procedure. To be more precise, the House could have passed the bill with a voice vote as long as there were no objections. That would have allowed folks who are faraway to avoid returning to Washington. However, if just one member opposes a voice vote, then it is not only necessary to have a roll call vote, but also to have a quorum (currently 216 people). Apparently, Rep. Tom Massie (R-KY) drove all the way from his home state of Kentucky (roughly 500 miles) just so he could demand a roll call vote. He reportedly wants to make some sort of statement by going on the record as a "nay." There is also one unnamed Democrat who is threatening to demand a roll call vote. Could it be Rep. Dan Lipinski (D-IL), who's already lost a primary and has nothing to lose? Or maybe Rep. Tulsi Gabbard (D-HI), who has announced her retirement and appears to be auditioning for a job on Fox News? Or maybe Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY), who may want to make a point about the bill not doing enough for working people? Nobody is saying, but given the possible flies in the ointment, Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) sent a message to members late Thursday afternoon that their presence in Washington would be required.
Meanwhile, there was an interesting bit of news about what happened in the Senate as the bill moved closer to approval. It turns out that two key provisions demanded by Democrats were somehow left out of the final text of the bill. One of those is the provision that is specifically designed to stop Donald Trump and his family from sticking their hands out for some of that sweet, sweet federal money. The other is a requirement that the Dept. of Treasury publish the names of loan-receiving companies every seven days. The Senate Republican caucus says it was just an "accident" that these provisions were left out. If so, that's quite an interesting coincidence. On the other hand, there was zero chance that the House would have voted without noticing the missing verbiage, so there was little point in trying to pull a fast one. In any event, those provisions are now back in the bill.
Meanwhile, the stock market had its third strong day in a row on Thursday, with the Dow Jones jumping up another 1,300 points, and setting Wall Street up for its best week in nearly a century. On the other hand, in a reminder that the stock market and life in the real world are not especially connected, the U.S. took the lead in terms of the overall number of people diagnosed with COVID-19 (82,000, outdistancing China and Italy). Meanwhile, the number of unemployment claims filed in the last week was larger than anyone expected, with a staggering 3.3 million people making claims. Donald Trump continues to brag about how great he's doing when it comes to combating COVID-19, but it's unlikely we'll be seeing any more tweets about unemployment rates any time soon. (Z)
At the moment, Donald Trump's approval rating is holding steady, and perhaps even inching up a bit. Since there isn't all that much for political pundits to write about right now, there are lots of op-eds about it. CNN, for example, published two of them in the last 24 hours. Chris Cillizza declares: "Here's an indisputable fact: President Donald Trump is as popular today as he has been since his first day in office." Scott Jennings observes: "[Trump's] been lifted, apparently, by his handling of the coronavirus, and perhaps by his opposition's mishandling of it."
Both writers point, in particular, to the latest Gallup poll, which has Trump with a 49% approval rating. Even on its surface, however, this "analysis" is, to be blunt, silly. Here is the President's approval in the last five Gallup polls:
It is true that if you look only at the last two polls, it looks like the President is on the upswing, from being 8 points underwater to 4 points above water. However, if you look at the broader picture, it's actually that early March poll that's the outlier. In fact, his numbers right now are almost exactly the same as they've been all year, moving around within the margin of error, and between his usual very low ceiling and usual very high floor.
In short, we think these pieces (and all the others) are a little sloppy and, if we may be so bold, are a product of the quest to appear "balanced." There is no problem with actually being balanced, but CNN tends to be particularly bad about doing things that are meant to perform "balance" as opposed to actually achieving balance. Cillizza, for his part, often writes analyses that are extremely critical of Trump. Consequently, when he has the chance to write a "positive" piece, he oversells it, so as to project a veneer of fairness. Jennings, meanwhile, is just one of the partisan hacks CNN hired so that they can show "the other side." The outlet does have writers that actually give a thoughtful and nuanced take on things, and how they might be seen from the right side of the political aisle (David Gergen, for example, or S.E. Cupp). However, Jennings is most certainly not one of those people.
Anyhow, that's enough media criticism for now. The real story is Donald Trump's approval rating. We've already remarked, a couple of times, that the interesting thing is not how high it is (or how it's on an upward trend). No, the interesting thing is actually how low it is. To make this point, consider the presidents who have served in the era when Gallup has done regular approval ratings. We've selected, as best we can, the greatest "crisis" of their terms:
|President||Crisis||Before Crisis||During Crisis||End of Presidency|
|Harry S. Truman||U.S. Goes to War in Korea (Jul. 1950)||37%||46%||32%|
|Dwight D. Eisenhower||U-2 Incident (May 1960)||62%||65%||59%|
|John F. Kennedy||Cuban Missile Crisis (Oct. 1962)||61%||74%||58%|
|Lyndon B. Johnson||Assassination of MLK, Jr. (Apr. 1968)||36%||50%||49%|
|Richard Nixon||Yom Kippur War (Oct. 1973)||33%||30%||24%|
|Gerald Ford||Swine Flu Epidemic (Feb. 1976)||46%||48%||53%|
|Jimmy Carter||Iran Takes Hostages (Nov. 1979)||38%||51%||34%|
|Ronald Reagan||Challenger Disaster (Jan. 1986)||63%||64%||63%|
|George H. W. Bush||Persian Gulf War (Aug. 1990)||60%||74%||56%|
|Bill Clinton||Oklahoma City Bombing (Apr. 1995)||44%||51%||66%|
|George W. Bush||9/11 Attacks (Sep. 2001)||51%||90%||34%|
|Barack Obama||Pulse Nightclub Shooting (Jun. 2016)||51%||53%||59%|
|Donald Trump||COVID-19 (Mar. 2020)||44%||49%||N/A|
The first number reflects the president's approval in the last Gallup poll taken before the crisis. The second is their approval in the first poll taken after the crisis had time to unfold (usually 2-3 weeks). And the third is their approval in the final poll taken before they left the White House.
Anyhow, we tried to pick the most notable opportunities for these presidents to show (or not show) their leadership skills during their terms, but avoiding things that could really only have pushed their approval in one direction (for example, the swearing in of LBJ, Watergate, the killing of Osama bin Laden, etc.). And certain themes clearly present themselves:
- A bounce of just a few points is nothing to write home about; more than half these fellows managed to jump 8 points or
- The presidents with the smallest jumps tended to be the ones who were already doing pretty well before the crisis,
and didn't have much room for upward movement. Besides Trump (so far), Gerald Ford is the only one who started with a
mediocre number and then had only a small jump.
- Whatever gains a president makes during a crisis usually recede afterward. Of the 12 presidents whose terms have ended, only three (Ford, Clinton, Obama) improved upon their "crisis" approval rating by the time they left office. In at least two of these three cases (Clinton and Obama), the improvement can be explained by factors other than the crisis.
We're not exactly covering new ground here. The propensity for presidents' support to surge during a crisis, then sink afterwards, is well known to political scientists—it's called the rally 'round the flag effect. And as we point out above, we think the real story of Trump's numbers right now is that there's either no rally going on right now (regardless of what the Chris Cillizzas and Scott Jenningses of the world say), or if there is, how incredibly modest that rally is. (Z)
The Defense Production Act, passed way back during Harry S. Truman's presidency, allows the president to effectively nationalize certain industries in the face of a national emergency. There have been calls from within the administration (Dr. Anthony Fauci) and without (many members of Congress, and over 100 former national security officials) to invoke it. And yet, the White House has resisted, despite Donald Trump saying last week that he would definitely invoke the law.
This is a little hard to understand. Most presidents would have already deployed the DPA. Either they would have concluded outright that it's the correct thing to do, or they would have persuaded themselves with a version of Pascal's wager: better to invoke the DPA and ultimately not need the supplies than it is to ultimately need the supplies and not have them because you didn't invoke the DPA. In Trump's case, this would appear to be an opportunity to project strength, and to look like a "wartime" president. And he loves things like that.
So why has Trump hesitated? Here are four theories, which we will list from least likely (in our view) to most likely:
- Philosophy: There are some presidents who would have at least some compunction about invoking the
DPA, since it was really meant to be used in the case of a war. That said, one has to go back in time quite a bit to find a president
who was legitimately worried about the over-expansion of executive power. And given how...inventive Donald Trump has been in other
areas, when it comes to things like executive orders, and given that he appears to have very little in the way of philosophy or
scruples, it's very hard to believe he's suddenly developed philosophical scruples here.
- Fear: Famously, Trump is the fellow who made "You're fired!" his catchphrase, but is actually intimidated
by firing people (preferring to have a subordinate do it). There are also other examples of him puffing out his chest but then backing
away with his tail between his legs, whether that's Kim Jong-Un, or government shutdowns, or tough talk for the NRA after the Las Vegas
shootings. So, perhaps he lacks the courage to flex his muscles so aggressively. That's the thesis of a John F. Harris
published yesterday in Politico magazine headlined "Trump Is an Authoritarian Weakman."
- Implications: As we all know, Trump has flip-flopped back and forth between "This is a grave
crisis, and man I'm doing great with it!" and "Nothing to see here, everything will be normal by Easter!" He's generally leaned
in the latter direction in the past few days. Invoking the DPA would effectively commit Trump to the position that COVID-19
is a serious and long-term problem.
- Lobbying: Undoubtedly, most major industrial concerns would prefer to do whatever they do, as opposed to being pressed into making COVID-19 supplies, probably at cost. These concerns certainly have ways of making their feelings known within the walls of the White House. And Trump has proven quite susceptible to this pressure.
As is always the case with our lists of theories, it could be some of these, or all of them, or something we've missed entirely. However, we do think the fourth explanation is the one most consistent with Trump saying "yes, absolutely!" last Wednesday, and then shifting to "No way, no how!" 24 hours later. (Z)
Earlier this week, we wrote about the ways in which COVID-19 is likely to shape this year's congressional elections. And yesterday, we wrote about how Joe Biden, who is busily pivoting to the general election, has embraced the issue. Biden most certainly did not make the decision that this is a political issue, but he did decide that it makes sense for him to pick up that gauntlet and run with it. We are inclined to agree with Biden. Strongly, in fact. COVID-19 is surely going to be the dominant issue of the presidential election, and—barring a surprise—Donald Trump is badly exposed in at least three different ways:
- Paving the Road: There is no question that the Trump administration took steps in past
months and years that aggravated this situation. The pandemic experts that Barack Obama added to the National Security
of the White House, and funding for nearly 40 CDC viral "listening posts" was slashed. The NSC's
for coping with infectious diseases was ignored, as were
in January and February that warned trouble was on the horizon.
The problem for Trump is that the evidence of his responsibility (or irresponsibility) is all around us. The folks that he fired (or that he's about to fire, if we're talking Dr. Anthony Fauci) are still around, and are available for interviews (or books). Columnists across the land are already excoriating the president, such as this item from Jennifer Rubin headlined "This is the biggest blunder in presidential history" and this one from Max Boot headlined "This wouldn't have happened if Hillary Clinton had won." It's worth noting that Rubin and Boot, while NeverTrumpers, are also conservatives, and so afford some insight into the mindset of folks who might be harboring doubts about the President right now. In particular, the question "What if Joe Biden had been president, instead?" will be a potent one.
We are not the only ones who think this; Democratic-aligned groups are already running ads attacking Trump for his COVID-19 mistakes. One has to imagine that the footage of Trump bragging about killing off the pandemic response team, which comes from 2018, and which several folks dug up this week, will eventually find its way into those ads.
- Ineffective Response: Obviously, this part of the story is still being written. However,
since COVID-19 actually reared its head in the United States, Trump has flailed around pretty badly, and has spent much
of his time peddling propaganda and demonstrable falsehoods. We make the case above that he's already losing out on an
opportunity to goose his approval numbers (at least for a little while) with strong leadership. And our guess is that
his Baghdad Bob impression will age badly, particularly if this thing gets really bad.
- The Economy: This part of the story is still being written, too. Clearly, the Federal Reserve, the Congress, and the White House are doing everything they can to prevent disaster. However, if you pay careful attention to the verbiage, few people not named Trump seem to believe that the economy will be restored to its former glory anytime this year. They will be happy if they can stave off another Great Depression/Great Recession. And even if the $2 trillion stimulus works out just peachy, the effects of some huge percentage of people being out of work (10%, 15%, 20%?), and of lots of businesses going under, not to mention extremely aggressive and very likely inflationary spending, are going to take quite a while to shake out. It is true that Trump "overcame" a good economy, that should have worked in Hillary Clinton's favor, in order to get elected. However, it is also true that for Trump to overcome the economic turmoil that appears to be headed America's way would be unprecedented.
We shall see what twists and turns fate has in store for the country and the election. If nothing else, keep in mind that a president's approval rarely goes up when a crisis reaches the three-month or the six-month point. And given that Trump is basically treading water now, the Democratic Party has to like what that portends. (Z)
Donald Trump called into Sean Hannity's show for an "interview" on Thursday night, and addressed the question that is on nobody's mind: Will the Republican National Convention proceed as scheduled? The President said that it most certainly would. His exact words: "We are definitely planning—it's toward the end of August. Somebody was asking today, 'Will you cancel your convention?' I said no way I'm going to cancel the convention. We're going to have the convention, it's going to be incredible."
On one hand, such pronouncements are meaningless at this point. Nobody knows what things are going to look like in August; it's possible that COVID-19 will have receded so thoroughly that going forward is an easy call, and it's also possible that COVID-19 remains so prominent that a convention is simply impossible. That said, Trump can barely stand the thought of canceling rallies that play to an audience of 5,000 or 7,000 people. Missing out on his one chance to stage a rally that plays to an audience of millions is basically unthinkable to him. So, the smart money is that he makes this happen, unless things remain so bad that it is truly impossible to do so.
Also relevant here is that the Democratic National Convention is 6 weeks earlier. If the Democrats go for an e-convention and do it as well as they counted the votes in Iowa, Trump may decide that e-conventions are for the birds and just tell all the delegates to buy a plane ticket to Charlotte (CLT). If the Democrats pull it off well and COVID-19 is still rampant, he might be convinced than an e-convention isn't so bad after all. (Z)
There is no love lost between Donald Trump and Venezuelan president Nicolás Maduro. And on Thursday, the administration dramatically upped the ante, indicting Maduro in federal court, and charging him with drug trafficking. There is now a $15-million reward for his capture.
Because of COVID-19, journalists were not allowed to ask AG Bill Barr questions about this turn of events. Obviously, the timing is...curious. One would think the entire focus of the government would be on COVID-19, and the issues it has created. It's not like Maduro's behavior, such as it is, began yesterday. Couldn't an indictment wait a few more weeks or months?
The answer is: Of course it could wait. So, that leads us to the new question: Why didn't it? Again, since Barr did not take questions, all anyone's got is guesses. One possibility is that this is a "wag the dog" situation, and that the administration is trying to create a distraction and change the narrative. Thinking about this thesis, though, we don't love it. If anyone seriously believes that some legal wrangling in a federal court in New York is going to push COVID-19 out of people's minds at a time when store shelves are bare, streets are empty, and the death toll is rising, then they are delusional.
Our guess is that what's really going on here is that Team Trump is trying to set the President up for the 2020 campaign without attracting too much attention while they do so. One possibility is that he turns Maduro into a political football at his rallies, lumping the Venezuelan president, the Democratic Party, and the Democratic presidential nominee into one, big scary ball of socialists, drug-selling gangs, and brown-skinned people. Another possibility is that this is the first step, and that Trump will order a conveniently timed invasion of Venezuela, say around mid-September? It's worth noting that the last time the U.S. issued an indictment like this one, the name on it was "Manuel Noriega." In that case, Noriega was indicted in Feb. 1988, and Panama was invaded in Dec. 1989. It's certainly possible the Trump administration could speed up that timeline a tad. Anyhow, this is a story worth keeping an eye upon. (Z)
Onward and upward with our series of items on the great crises of American history. Recall the ground rules:
- The crisis in question had to unfold over one year or less.
- The crisis had to divide the nation in a truly substantive manner at the time it happened.
- The effects had to be substantial and long-lasting.
And if you care to read (or re-read) previous entries:
And now, the Chesapeake Affair of 1807:
Background: The Chesapeake Affair is the other side of the coin to the previous entry in the series. In 1798, we had anti-French Federalists, including the President, in favor of strong action against the French Navy. And in 1807, we had anti-British Democratic-Republicans, including the President, in favor of strong action against the British Navy. Point is, the politics of the country were the same; all that changed were the dramatis personae.
The other important point, background-wise, is that navies had a rather different character back then than they do now. A modern navy is a professionally trained force, loyal to one country, and closely managed by the government of that country. Not necessarily the case 200 (or 300, or 400) years ago. Quite often, would-be sailors launched their naval careers at a shockingly young age, sometimes 8 or 9 or 10 years old. The most famous U.S. naval officer of the 19th century was probably David Glasgow Farragut (he of "damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!" fame). Farragut began his service at the age of nine in 1810, and retired 60 years later, logging what is still the longest active-duty career in U.S. Navy history. And although he was one of those on the extreme side, most sailors' careers were underway by the time they were 14 or 15. Some of these youngsters were in search of adventure, but many of them were orphans just looking for a way to survive.
Given this...model, there really wasn't "basic training" for sailors, as we understand it today (the U.S. Naval Academy wasn't founded until 1845, in fact, and even then was more like a graduate school for sailors that already had plenty of experience). Instead, sailors learned on the job, with their "education" reinforced by harsh discipline. It's not clear if any navy captain actually said, "The beatings will continue until morale improves," but even if the words are apocryphal, the sentiment is real. Sometimes sailors dealt with this by mutinying, though such rebellion was risky, since being caught in the planning of a mutiny meant a horrible death. More commonly, an unhappy sailor would just jump to the ship of some other captain, or some other navy, in hopes of better treatment and/or more money.
By 1800, the British navy was the world's mightiest fighting force. And its commanders were big fans of the aforementioned harsh discipline. What that meant was a lot of their sailors tended to jump to other navies' ships, and, consequently, that British ships were often undermanned. No matter, though. The Brits would just pull up to a weaker ship, board it, and declare (sometimes truthfully, sometimes not) that they were reclaiming deserters. Then they would help themselves to whatever number of sailors were needed. This, as you may know, was called "impressment."
The Incident: The Brits quite enjoyed targeting American ships when it came to impressment. First, because there were a lot of them. Second, because they generally weren't all that well armed, and so were pretty easy targets. Third, because the sailors on board tended to speak English, which was convenient. Fourth, because some of the sailors on board American ships really were British deserters. Anyhow, the U.S. tended to lose several thousand seamen each year to the British Navy.
The USS Chesapeake was a heavy frigate, and was one of the first six ships built for the U.S. Navy. Its crew included four men who really had fled the British navy, one of them a British citizen named Jenkin Ratford, and three of them naturalized Americans named Daniel Martin, John Strachan and William Ware. It was not terribly hard for the Brits to figure out, in this case, that the four deserters were on board because while the ship was in port in Norfolk, Ratford made a habit of taunting British sailors and bragging about his escape. In retrospect, running his mouth like that was probably not a good idea.
While the Chesapeake was still in port, British naval officers tried to board the ship and retake their deserters, but the American authorities stopped them. Getting poked in the eye like that was a wicked pisser as far as the limeys were concerned, and they determined to have their revenge. And so, an order went out under the signature of British Vice-Admiral Sir George Berkeley to apprehend the Chesapeake as soon as it reached the open seas. And the HMS Leopard, under the command of Captain Salisbury Humphreys—owner of what might well be the most British name ever recorded—did the job on June 22, 1807.
The ease with which the Leopard imposed itself on the Chesapeake was an enormous embarrassment to Americans, as the latter took a broadside full of iron, and managed to respond with a grand total of one shot. That pathetic performance got the Chesapeake's commander, James Barron, court martialed (he was cleared, but was so angry at his judges that he fought a duel with one of them). Anyhow, the Brits boarded the ship, arrested the four deserters they knew to be on board, and departed, allowing the Chesapeake to limp back to port. Ratford, since he was both a British citizen and a deserter, was executed by hanging. The other three sailors, since they were Americans and deserters, were sentenced to 500 lashes. Eventually, the sentence was commuted and they were returned to the United States.
When news of the incident became public, Americans were outraged. "Never since the Battle of Lexington have I seen this country in such a state of exasperation as at present, and even that did not produce such unanimity," observed President Jefferson. In that moment, he could have asked for, and received, a declaration of war. However, as we noted in the previous entry, Jefferson—as vice president—had a ringside seat for the Quasi-War against France and its aftermath. He knew that Federalist support for war against Britain would quickly fade, and he'd get left holding the bag. Further, he realized that while the U.S. Navy could plausibly hold its own against the French navy, taking on the mighty British navy was an entirely different matter. So, instead of asking for a declaration of war, he waved his sword in the direction of the United Kingdom, and demanded an apology and remuneration. The problem is that the British knew just as well as Jefferson did that his threats were empty. So, the President ultimately persuaded Congress to pass the Embargo Act of 1807, which cut off trade with the British, in an effort to punish them.
Aftermath: In the study of history, one generally wants to be careful of making strong connections between events that are years apart from one another. In a textbook, or in the classroom, one can skip from 1807 to 1812 in the blink of an eye. In real time, however, five years is a whole lot of time. In this case, however, the status of the Chesapeake affair as the linchpin in a long and divisive sequence of events is very clear. To start, the ease with which the American ship was defeated made it very clear that a bigger, beefier navy was needed. Construction on new ships was soon underway; those ships would prove quite useful during the War of 1812.
On top of that, most Democratic-Republicans walked away from the incident thinking about when (and not if) the nation would avenge itself against the British. The Federalists, by contrast, quickly lost their enthusiasm for such things, given their pro-British leaning, not to mention the fact that the Brits were key business partners for New England and Mid-Atlantic shipping, manufacturing, and trading concerns. The Embargo Act thus hit Federalist states and towns much harder than it hit Democratic-Republican states and towns, and drove an even bigger wedge between the two political parties. New Englanders also made something of a habit of ignoring the Embargo Act, and smuggling goods to and from Britain.
Eventually, when war with Britain came, under Jefferson's Democratic-Republican successor James Madison, some New Englanders took their resentments to the logical conclusion, as they saw it. Reasoning that the U.S. had become a country led by Democratic-Republican politicians who were only interested in serving Democratic-Republican interests, a group of Federalists held a meeting in Connecticut to discuss the possibility of seceding from the U.S. and forming their own country (or maybe even rejoining Great Britain). The Hartford Convention, as it became known, was met with howls of outrage from across the nation. The loudest criticism came from the South, where Democratic-Republican leaders wondered how anybody could even suggest that it's ok for states to secede from the Union. In the end, this incident had the effect of tarring the Federalists as cowards and as disloyal, and hastened that party's ongoing demise. However, before exiting stage right, those folks in Hartford raised a question that might just have come up again once or twice in the decades thereafter.
Up Next (on Tuesday): Missouri Statehood (1820-21). (Z)
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Mar26 The $2.2 Trillion Relief Bill Is a Christmas Tree--As Usual
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Mar24 ...And So Does Trump
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