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How the Pandemic Changed Biden’s Politics

TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Biden Addresses the Nation
      •  Watchdog Group Wants 13 GOP Representatives Investigated
      •  The Gubernatorial Jockeying Is Well Underway
      •  Donald Who?
      •  Newsmax What?
      •  Sex; Explosions; Meghan, Duchess of Sussex; and the Big Problem with Donald Trump
      •  Why So Many Politicians Are Such A**holes

Biden Addresses the Nation

Joe Biden delivered his first primetime address as president last night, speaking for a little less than half an hour:

As a veteran politician, the President knows a little something about timing. And so, he signed the $1.9 trillion COVID-19 relief bill shortly before delivering the speech. And he chose to speak exactly one year after Donald Trump's primetime COVID-19 address (the rather disastrous one where Trump twiddled his thumbs, did not seem to be looking at the camera, and did seem to be under the influence of Ambien).

Let's start by talking about the things Biden did not focus on in his speech: the COVID-19 relief bill, and Trump. The former got about 90 seconds, and the latter got just one oblique reference ("A year ago we were hit with a virus that was met with silence and spread unchecked, denials for days, weeks, then months"). The President wanted to depoliticize the address as much as was possible, and so he let the timing of the speech do most of the talking on those two subjects, while also emphasizing that he still believes in unity. This weekend, he and his administration will engage with the relief bill much more directly, as they use the Sunday morning news shows and other platforms to sell the bill to the voting public.

What Biden did talk about was the pandemic. In fact, it wouldn't be far off to call it a "state of the pandemic" address. He said that he remains optimistic about schools reopening, given the money they're about to get, as well as the general success the country has had with vaccination so far. He also rattled off a long list of initiatives that will be undertaken to speed up the pace on vaccination even more:

  • Launching a vaccine-finder website that will match people with local vaccination sites
  • Launching an 800 phone number that will do the same for people without Internet access
  • Doubling the number of federally run vaccination sites
  • Expanding the number of vaccine-administering pharmacies to 20,000
  • Deploying 4,000 troops to help with vaccination efforts
  • Making all U.S. adults eligible for vaccination as of May 1
  • Expanding the list of people eligible to administer shots to include dentists, medical students, midwives, optometrists, paramedics, podiatrists and veterinarians. In other words, pretty much everyone whose line of work is medicine or medicine-adjacent. If that's still not enough, then presumably notaries public, justices of the peace, diabetics, and people who are not doctors but who stayed at a Holiday Inn Express last night will be next.

Biden even went so far as to specify when the light at the end of the tunnel might show itself, proposing that on July 4, Americans will "not only mark our independence as a nation, but we begin to mark our independence from this virus." He was careful to explain that he means that small gatherings will be possible by that date, not large-scale parties or church services or fireworks displays.

The President's predictions do seem to be within reason. At the moment, 10% of Americans (or 13.3% of adults) have been fully vaccinated. For Americans above 65, that percentage jumps to 32.2%. Further, 19.3% of all Americans, 25.1% of American adults, and 62.4% of Americans above 65 have gotten at least one shot. After having the worst pandemic numbers in the world, with nearly 20% of worldwide deaths, the U.S. has been far and away the most successful nation when it comes to delivering vaccinations. Nearly one vaccine dose in three that has been administered worldwide has gone into an American arm. The other nations that have had particular success (get ready for a very odd list) are the U.K., Israel, Serbia, the United Arab Emirates, and Chile. Those five, along with the U.S., are the only nations that have achieved a rate of at least 25 vaccine shots per 100 people.

How to make sense of the U.S. going from worst to first? Well, one possibility is the change in leadership on Jan. 20, from "not terribly competent and prone to downplaying the pandemic" to "considerably more competent and inclined to take the pandemic very seriously." This is certainly Biden's preferred explanation; while he said relatively little about Trump, the President gave himself more than one pat on the back. As The New York Times' insta-fact check makes clear, Biden didn't exactly lie, but he did imply that he deserves more credit than is really his due. For example, he suggested that the widespread availability of the vaccine was almost entirely his doing. In truth, the Trump administration got the ball rolling on vaccine acquisition, arranging for the purchase of 800 million doses.

That said, improved leadership is certainly part of the equation. However, so too is American national culture, for lack of a better descriptor. It's a very individualistic and a very capitalist country. The individualism meant that it was rather difficult to pull together in 2020, and to get everyone on the same page in terms of mask-wearing and the like. But in 2021, the capitalism means that the U.S. can afford to outbid all comers when it comes to acquiring supplies and then can afford the necessary infrastructure to distribute them. In addition, one would generally expect that the nation that suffered the most from COVID-19 would be most enthusiastic about acquiring and implementing solutions.

In any case, the current vaccination situation was the main theme of the address. That said, Biden also found time to lambaste the idiots who, angry about the alleged "China virus," have targeted Asian Americans for hate crimes: "At this very moment, so many of them, our fellow Americans, they're on the front lines of this pandemic trying to save lives, and still—still—they are forced to live in fear for their lives, just walking down streets in America. It's wrong, it's un-American and it must stop." It is somewhat unlikely that the individuals responsible for these reprehensible crimes are Biden supporters, or are the type to watch presidential speeches for that matter, but better for Biden to say something than to say nothing. Well, unless that something was "there are very fine people on both sides."

Anyhow, it wasn't a perfect speech, but it was a far sight better than what Donald Trump came up with a year ago. And now, having sent his message of hope, Biden and his team will pivot to the relief bill, explaining it to Americans and making sure they know which political party deserves credit and which one does not (regardless of what Sen. Roger Wicker, R-MS, says). (Z)

Watchdog Group Wants 13 GOP Representatives Investigated

When it comes to this item, there are three facts that are not in dispute:

  1. During the pandemic, the House of Representatives has allowed members to vote by proxy
  2. However, a member must file a statement that they could not be present due to the public health emergency
  3. 13 GOP members filed such statements last week, and then hightailed it to CPAC to deliver speeches

In other words, those 13 folks—including such luminaries as Matt Gaetz (R-FL), Mo Brooks (R-AL), and Lauren Boebert (R-CO)—flouted the rules and, in the process, had their colleagues cast votes that were technically fraudulent. And now, The Campaign for Accountability has requested that the House Committee on Ethics look into the matter.

Again, the representatives' culpability is beyond dispute here. It's easy to prove that they filed statements claiming a health emergency, and it's equally easy to prove they were at CPAC. The question is whether House Democrats want to make an issue of it. On one hand, the political optics could be bad; Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) & Co. would be accused of pettiness and of trying to "censor" conservative speech. On the other hand, these same folks seem to flout the rules over and over, and at some point a line has to be drawn.

If the Ethics Committee and/or the House as a whole decides to hold these 13 folks' feet to the fire, then the next question is: What can they do? One could argue that the 13 violated federal law, specifically 18 U.S. Code 1001, which makes it illegal to give false statements to Congress (see subsection c). The penalties for conviction are a fine and/or up to 5 years in prison.

It's hard to imagine that a criminal prosecution is in the offing, however. And if that is the case, then the remaining options are: (1) a formal reprimand, or (2) a motion of censure and/or the loss of committee memberships, or (3) expulsion. The third seems almost as unlikely as a criminal prosecution, but the second and particularly the first are within the realm of possibility. Meanwhile, stunts like this, not to mention time-wasting abuse of parliamentary rules by folks like Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), send the message that House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) cannot control his caucus. And so, although he's not the one providing false statements or abusing parliamentary procedure, he could be the one who ultimately takes the fall. (Z)

The Gubernatorial Jockeying Is Well Underway

There are three large states that have: (1) governors who are in hot water right now, and (2) gubernatorial elections next year. We wrote earlier this week about some of the maneuvering that's taking place in New York; let's look briefly at some of the maneuvering that's going on in the other two states.

To start, there is California. At the moment, no Democrat has announced a challenge to Gov. Gavin Newsom (D), and it's not likely that any will. The only possible exception would be if he seems to be in danger of being recalled, in which case the blue team would need to put forward a serious candidate for Democratic voters to support as his replacement. On the Republican side of the contest, however, things are heating up, with 10 candidates already having thrown their hats into the ring. Eight of those 10 candidates are unknowns and have no real shot at outpacing the GOP field. The other two, 2018 GOP nominee John Cox and former Mayor San Diego Kevin Faulconer, could plausibly come out on top. So too could former Trump White House official Richard Grenell, who hasn't yet officially declared for the race.

Should all three of the viable Republicans run, then their lanes would be crystal clear. Faulconer is an old-school Republican, and pretty centrist by the standards of the modern incarnation of the party (think: Sen. Mitt Romney, R-UT). Cox was once a NeverTrump Republican, but has shifted in a Trumpy direction since, albeit without fully embracing Trumpism (think: Sen. Marco Rubio, R-FL). And Grenell is a full-on Trumper (think: Sen. Lindsey Graham, R-SC).

With that said, the Republicans' hopes are narrow, and depend on a number of things breaking just right:

  • It is all-but-impossible for a Republican to win in a normal gubernatorial election in California; the GOP would need to be successful in recalling Newsom, and then would need to win the jungle election that would trigger.

  • The Party would have to unite strongly behind one candidate (particularly in a jungle election).

  • Cox got trounced in his first matchup with Newsom, 62% to 38%. The fact that he's grown more Trumpy since is not going to help his numbers. And Grenell is far too Trumpy for The Golden State, which likes its Republican governors to be fairly liberal (even Ronald Reagan was to the left of the modern GOP).

In short, "Faulconer + recall" could possibly add up to a win for the Republicans. Not likely, but possible. Failing that, Newsom will keep his job.

Meanwhile, things will soon get interesting in Texas. Thus far, Gov. Greg Abbott (R) has drawn only unserious competition (like Jeff Foxworthy-style "redneck" comedian Chad Prather). However, some heavy hitters are considering a challenge, including Rep. Dan Crenshaw, former representative Allen West, and Texas AG Ken Paxton, all of them very Trumpy (as is Abbott). Presumably at least one Republican moderate will enter the race, assuming they have any left in the Lone Star State. So, things could get bloody.

On the Democratic side, it looks more and more likely that Beto O'Rourke will take the plunge and challenge Abbott. If he does, he may have to fight off a celebrity opponent. On Thursday, Academy Award-winning actor Matthew McConaughey decreed that he is thinking about jumping in. We do not know Texas politics nearly as well as we know California politics. So, we don't know how a centrist, staunchly Christian Democrat with zero political experience and a history of being arrested for pot smoking and nude bongo drum playing will do in Texas. But since we are in the era of the celebrity-turned-politician, we can't dismiss him out of hand. (Z)

Donald Who?

As we note below, Donald Trump drives traffic to websites and TV channels (even the ones that are highly critical of him). However, they have to have something to cover, and he just doesn't make all that much news these days. He's lost his bully pulpit by losing the election, and his B.S. pulpit by getting banned from Twitter (though he's started issuing press releases that are basically tweets). He's also been in self-imposed exile at Mar-a-Lago, having emerged only to speak at CPAC. And it does not help that he's de facto barred from the ex-presidents club, and so doesn't partake in anything they might do to make news. For example, all of the living non-Trump former presidents and first ladies released pro-vaccine PSAs this weekend. Trump presumably would not have participated if given the choice, since he hates all of his predecessors, but his feelings didn't matter because he wasn't asked.

As a result of the relative lack of Trump news, the amount of coverage of him has fallen way off. This site hasn't yet had the Trump-free day we predicted, but we've come close, and that day will undoubtedly come soon. Other outlets are in the same situation. Here's a chart put together by Axios, where 50 represents an average day for clickthroughs to Trump coverage during his presidency:

Most days are between 30 and 60, though the number 
jumps to the 80s when bad things happen to Trump

As you can see, there was a lot of engagement with Trump stories throughout 2020. And whenever something bad happened to him—he embarrassed himself by giving bad advice, he got sick, he lost the election, he potentially incited an insurrection—the hate-clickthroughs drove things to even greater heights. However, his average day is now down in the teens or twenties, which means that Trump coverage has shrunk by 50-60% since he left office just six weeks ago.

Presumably, the numbers will remain at this level for a good, long time (unless they go lower). As we've pointed out, Trump really only makes two kinds of news these days: (1) "Trump divides the GOP," and (2) "Trump's legal problems worsen." Those stories will eventually be beaten to death, if they haven't been already. The Trump fade is undoubtedly good news for those who are tired after four-plus years of the world's most dangerous reality show. However, it is not great news for media outlets that depend on him to drive traffic (as the next two items illustrate). (Z)

Newsmax What?

Newsmax went all-in on Donald Trump and, as a result, managed to steal away some of Fox News' viewership. Just this week, we thought that Newsmax might even hold on to those gains. Not so much, as it turns out. At the very height of last year's election season, Newsmax was pulling in 25% as many viewers as Fox, which was a huge increase for what had been a dinky outlet buried way down the channel list. Now, it's more like 12% of Fox's audience. And since every channel, including Fox, is down due to politics burnout, that means that Newsmax's viewership has fallen something like 70% in two months.

One big problem for the channel, of course, is that they have hitched their wagon to a fellow who has very much receded into the shadows. It's hard to be all-Trump, all-the-time when there just isn't that much Trump news, and when you won't cover half the news that does exist because it's negative for The Donald. It's also hard to make too much hay out of Joe Biden because he's old, white, cautious, and kind of boring. There isn't nearly as much there to get conservatives' blood boiling as with Barack Obama or Hillary Clinton. Also important is that Newsmax really doesn't have the resources to be a serious player. They can't afford fancy graphics, or the best talent, or even to fill a whole day's schedule with original programming. To take today's schedule as an example, they will air Greg Kelly's show three times, Chris Salcedo's and Sean Spicer's shows twice, and will also fill in gaps with historical documentaries on the Vietnam War and the Nazis.

These problems are not especially fixable and, indeed, create something of a vicious cycle. If you don't have enough money to fill your schedule, you will bleed viewers. And if you don't have enough viewers, you can't sell enough ad inventory to afford more content. So, it would appear that, if we may paraphrase Mark Twain, reports of Newsmax's rise were greatly exaggerated. They're back to being a third-tier news channel, and it's likely that is where they will stay. (Z)

Sex; Explosions; Meghan, Duchess of Sussex; and the Big Problem with Donald Trump

What do those four things have in common? Not much, except that their presence in a headline is likely to attract eyeballs. We point that out as prelude to this very interesting item about the headlines deployed by The New York Times' website. Given the emphasis on clickthroughs, the site sometimes (about 30% of the time) utilizes multiple headlines for a single item, with some users seeing one version and other users seeing a different version. After half an hour or so of "A/B testing," they cut it down to only the most effective headline.

Computer programmer Tom Cleveland has written a few tools to identify and analyze the Times' tinkering. And using his data, let's now do a pop quiz. Here are six pairs of headlines used by the newspaper for the same story; see if you can guess which one got more clickthrough:

1A. SpaceX Launches, Lands, and Explodes Prototype of Its Rocket to Mars
1B. SpaceX Mars Rocket Prototype Explodes, but it Lands First

2A. Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.?
2B. Jumping Jehoshaphat! Have You Seen How Many Israelis Just Visited the U.A.E.?

3A. Meghan Says Life With the U.K. Royals Almost Drove Her to Suicide
3B. Saying her life was less a fairy tale, Meghan Markle described the cruel loss of her freedom and identity

4A. Cuomo Attacked Over His Plan for Review of Sex Harassment Claims
4B. Under Siege Over Sex Harassment Claims, Cuomo Apologizes

5A. Trump Claims Leadership of G.O.P. during CPAC Address
5B. Trump's Republican Hit List at CPAC Is a Warning Shot to His Party

6A. Biden Is the Anti-Trump, and It's Working
6B. Speak Softly and Carry a Big Agenda

Here are the answers, with a possible lesson for each case:

  1. Winner: The second got almost twice the clickthrough of the first. Lesson: A clearer headline gets more clicks.

  2. Winner: The first got 100 times the clickthrough of the second. Lesson: Avoid slang terms that went out of fashion around the same time that porkpie hats and rumble seats did.

  3. Winner: The first got 80 times the clickthrough of the second. Lesson: Don't bury the lede.

  4. Winner: The second got more than 10 times the clickthrough of the first. Lesson: "Politician attacked" is "dog bites man," but "politician apologizes" is "man bites dog."

  5. Winner: The second got nearly 40 times the clickthrough of the first. Lesson: Times readers like hearing about how the Republican Party is in trouble.

  6. Winner: The first got more than 13 times the clickthrough of the second. Lesson: Negative coverage of Donald Trump sells.

The main lesson here, at least from the vantage point of American politics, is that nasty stuff, particularly nasty stuff involving Donald Trump, attracts eyeballs. This, of course, is why he got vastly more coverage than any other politician, including his successor in the White House. It's true that he's getting less attention now (see above), but that's because there is far less to write about. If he were to find a new platform, and were to start popping off about anything and everything, he'd be right back in the headlines because he attracts lots and lots of readers from both sides of the political aisle. (Z)

Why So Many Politicians Are Such A**holes

The item above mentions both Andrew Cuomo and Donald Trump, which is convenient, because those are the two fellows in particular who inspired Politico's John F. Harris to ponder an important question: Why So Many Politicians Are Such A**holes. He puts forward three theses:

  1. Stress: Being a politician, particularly a high-profile one, is a stressful job that tends to attract tightly-wound folks. Those folks tend to take out their stress on those around them.

  2. Modern Culture: The U.S., according to Harris, is now in an era where the "cult of bad-ass, trash-talking that has come to politics." In other words, being a jerk is a feature, not a bug.

  3. Ethics: Some politicians (and Harris gives Hillary Clinton as an example) feel it's disingenuous and dishonest to pretend to be something they aren't.

The article also discusses the recently deceased Vernon Jordan as an example of someone who was a nice guy, and yet had no hope of winning political office, perhaps because he was too nice.

It's an interesting piece, though we would suggest that Harris' list is far from exhaustive. Here are some other factors that help address the a**hole question, in our view:

  1. Age: Many politicians, particularly males, and particularly today, tend to be on the older end of the spectrum. Cuomo, for example, is 63. Trump is 74. They aren't ancient, of course, but they did come of age in an era where Cuomo's sexual harassment and Trump's casual racism were far less problematic. Some people grow and change as they age, and keep up with changes in social morés. Others do not. Many politicians are in the latter group.

  2. Bubble: Like movie stars, many politicians—especially those who rise to high executive positions like governor or president—live in a bubble. They are surrounded with yes-man underlings, and may interact only with supporters on those occasions when they venture out from the White House or the governor's mansion. There are some high-ranking pooh-bahs (Barack Obama is a notable example) who consciously try to fight back against the bubble (he required his staff to give him at least 15 negative letters from voters each week). However, many do not. And it is much harder to grow and improve if nobody is challenging you and calling you out on bad behavior.

  3. Psychopathy: Research suggests that a sizable majority of presidents were psychopaths. If so, there's no reason that the same would not be true of other politicians, as well (especially, say, governors and senators). This does not mean that psychopaths like Theodore Roosevelt, Franklin D. Roosevelt, and John F. Kennedy were likely to pick up a chainsaw and recreate the Texas Chainsaw Massacre. It does mean, however, that they had less shame than most people do when it comes to taking advantage of people, misleading them, or outright lying to them. Anyone who does not have a normal shame response is obviously far more likely to engage in a**hole behavior.

  4. Tactics: There are definitely politicians who have decided that behaving like a jerk is a wise power play that reminds everyone exactly who is, and who is not, the top dog. The notable example here is Lyndon B. Johnson, who often deliberately humiliated those around him, sometimes with verbal tirades, sometimes with cruel pranks, sometimes by extracting his...well, Johnson from his pants and waving it around ("Have you ever seen one that big?," he would ask), and sometimes by forcing underlings to accompany him into the bathroom while he did his business.

Undoubtedly, the list is still not exhaustive, even with our four additions. But at least we got a bit closer to answering the question that Harris posed. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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