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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Biden Faces the Music
      •  Republicans Are Losing the Filibuster Debate
      •  Cheney 1, Trump Jr. 0
      •  Old Presidents Never Die--They Just Fade Away
      •  Pelosi Flexes Her California Muscle
      •  COVID Diaries: The Return
      •  Bye-Bye, Bibi?

To our Jewish readers: Chag Pesach Sameach!

Biden Faces the Music

Joe Biden has done TV interviews, he's informally taken questions from reporters a number of times, and he's sent Press Secretary Jen Psaki out to meet the press corps every workday, without fail. However, before yesterday, he had never held a full, formal press conference on his own since becoming president. Everyone decided this was a Big Deal™, and so Biden finally bowed to the pressure and held a proper presser yesterday morning, fielding questions for 62 minutes. If you would like to read a transcript you can do so here, if you would like to watch it for yourself you can do so here.

The very first thing that the President did, before the press asked a single question, was give a "progress report" on COVID-19. He pointed out that his administration hit the target of 100 million shots administered in his first 100 days, and said that the White House will now up that target to 200 million shots administered in his first 100 days. He also said that it looks like a majority of K-12 schools will be open full-time by the 100-day mark, fulfilling another promise. And finally, Biden reported that 100 million payments of $1,400 have been deposited, and that unemployment is trending downward.

After that, Biden said nary a word, and received nary a question, about the pandemic. There are those (including some in the White House) who feel that the lack of pandemic questions speaks to the press' tendency to prioritize the most controversial issues over the most important issues. In any event, here are the things Biden did talk about:

  • The Border: The President actually had relatively little to say on this front, though he did point the finger at the Trump administration (for cutting aid to Central American countries), and said that the sense there is a "crisis" is media-driven (which is fair), and that the U.S. always sees this kind of surge at this point in the year. Biden did promise that his team is working on the matter, and that heads will roll if progress is not made.

  • Infrastructure: Biden knows this is a winner, politically, and said that a major infrastructure bill is his next big project. He said he will visit Pittsburgh soon to make a major announcement about infrastructure. Maybe he chose that city because baseball season starts next week, and he knows the people of Pittsburgh will be in need of some good news.

  • Gun Control: If infrastructure is Biden's next big project, then that means gun control (which, as we just pointed out, is not a winner, politically) is not his next big project. He was asked about that subject, and reiterated his view that Congress needs to take action. That sound you hear is the buck being passed.

  • Reelection: Biden said it is his "intention" to run for reelection in 2024. Maybe he will, maybe he won't, and maybe he just doesn't know yet. However, he has to be leaning in that direction, at least officially, or else he will become an instant lame duck.

  • The Filibuster: For a fellow who was officially pro-filibuster as recently as...oh, two weeks ago, Biden has become rather outspokenly anti-filibuster. The President observed (correctly) that the number of filibusters has tripled in just a few years, and he also agreed that the filibuster is a "relic of the Jim Crow era" (more on this below).

  • Voting Rights: In a related point, Biden slammed Republican-led bills that would restrict voting rights as "despicable," "sick," and "un-American," and that it "makes Jim Crow look like Jim Eagle" (more on this below, too).

  • Afghanistan: Biden does not expect the U.S. will be able to withdraw completely from Afghanistan this year, but he also said he "can't picture" American troops being there by the end of 2022.

  • China: The President said he wants to work with China, but at the same time said he's not going to let them become the world's leading power on his watch. Those are not necessarily compatible goals.

In terms of tone and style, Biden was mentally sharp and had a clear grasp of the issues. The right-wing narrative that he is in severe cognitive decline, and was trying to avoid the press in order to hide the truth, simply does not stand up to scrutiny. He was also respectful of the press corps, did not dodge their questions, made jokes that people laughed at, and was occasionally self-deprecating. All of those things are a change from his predecessor. He sometimes got a little cranky, and he was long-winded on a few answers, but those are fairly minor criticisms. All in all, it was a perfectly fine, perfectly normal presidential press conference. A solid double, if you like baseball metaphors, or 3½ stars out of 5 if you don't.

Naturally, the pro-Trump media hated it. Here are some sample headlines:

CNN is not pro-Trump, of course, but that op-ed is by Scott Jennings, who used to work for George W. Bush and Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), and who was hired by the network in the name of "balance." There were certainly right-leaning outlets and commentators who wrote assessments of the press conference without feeling the need to turn their articles into screeds (see here, here, and here for examples). However, screeds are the business of the outlets linked above, and so screeds are what their readers are going to get, no matter how well or how poorly Biden performs.

In any case, the first official Biden presidential press conference is in the books. We have no idea when there will be another one, since we honestly do not grasp the difference between answering 3-4 questions every day as compared to answering 15 questions all at once. (Z)

Republicans Are Losing the Filibuster Debate

Readers of this site understand perfectly well what the filibuster is, where it came from, how it's been used and abused, and the stakes involved in keeping it, reforming it, or abolishing it. If you've been with us any amount of time, you would presumably have no problem delivering an impromptu lecture on the subject. To most voters, however, the filibuster is an abstruse concept, one just as hard to grasp as seditious libel, or influence peddling, or cross-cutting cleavages, or any of a hundred other notions that are part of the inside baseball of politics. That means that, as Mitch McConnell & Co. try to save the filibuster, as it currently exists, they have the much harder position to sell. It's basically the opposite of Ukrainepot Dome, where the Republicans could sit back and relax while the Democrats tried (and largely failed) to get the voting public to grasp why Donald Trump's phone call to Volodymyr Zelensky was deeply problematic.

Anyhow, point is, the roles are reversed with the debate over the filibuster. The GOP can try to make a "tyranny of the majority" argument, but Democrats can easily counter that with "then adopt policy positions that allow you to win a majority." McConnell, et al., can also make the case that the filibuster is a distinguished part of Senate tradition, with a glorious and illustrious past, but the Democrats can then point out that is not true, and that if you dug up Henry Clay or Robert Taft or Daniel Webster and brought them back to life, they would barely recognize what the filibuster has become.

Meanwhile, the Democrats have all kinds of strong arguments, and have been making them. The simplest one is "a minority of U.S. senators should not be able to keep the entire federal government stuck in the mud." Perhaps even better, however, is an argument that Joe Biden (see above) and Rev. Al Sharpton both made on Thursday: The filibuster allows for discrimination against non-white voters. That was true in the 1960s, when filibustering really hit the prime time, as white Southern Democrats tried to sink a raft of civil rights bills. And it is true today, when the status of the filibuster will determine whether or not H.R. 1/S. 1 becomes law. Even those Democrats who are filibuster friendly (Joe Manchin, D-WV; Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ; etc.) do not want to be seen as prioritizing parliamentary arcana over the civil rights of American citizens.

There is an even more aggressive version of the above argument, one made by David Litt in an op-ed for The Guardian (UK). He writes that the current iteration of the filibuster isn't just as bad as the 1960s version, it's far worse, since it's blocking all manner of civil rights legislation (voting rights, police reform, etc.) and it is also being used aggressively to undermine democracy in other areas as well.

And then there is the argument made by Sen. Angus King, which we also noted yesterday. By all indications, he is a moderate on the filibuster, and—all other things being equal—would prefer that it remain in place. However, in an op-ed that channels the main theme of Abraham Lincoln's First Inaugural ("In your hands, my dissatisfied fellow-countrymen, and not in mine, is the momentous issue of civil war"), King says that the fate of the filibuster is in Republican hands. If they start reaching across the aisle, it survives. If they don't, it won't. Either way, the responsibility lies with the GOP.

The upshot is that the Overton Window is moving, and quickly, and not in a direction friendly to the Republicans' position. However, rather than heed King's warning (and let's not forget, he's a moderate, unlike the other independent member of the U.S. Senate), the GOP is doubling down. This week, McConnell decreed that the filibuster "has no racial history at all. None. There's no dispute among historians about that." Either he is lying, or he is ignorant; readers can decide for themselves which one they think it is.

Similarly, on Thursday, the Republicans who run the state of Georgia finished ramming through changes to Georgia election laws, establishing strict voter ID requirements, significantly reducing the number of drop boxes for absentee ballots, cutting down on early voting, and giving the state the power to step in and override local election officials. As a purely tactical matter, this strikes us as foolhardy. First, it is the metaphorical equivalent of kicking sand in the face of King, Manchin, Sinema, et al., and daring them to do something about it. Second, it takes a somewhat abstract concern ("the filibuster hurts minority voters") and makes it as concrete as a Brutalist building. Third, it gives both the Congress and the courts oodles of time to act. Why Georgia Republicans would not wait until, say, April of next year, we do not know.

In any event, things appear to be moving rapidly here. When folks like Joe Biden, Joe Manchin, and Angus King are coming out and saying "the filibuster has to change," a tipping point is surely near. (Z)

Cheney 1, Trump Jr. 0

As long as we are on the subject of shady electoral maneuvering that has its roots in white supremacy, let's note this story out of Wyoming. In short, pro-Trump forces led by Donald Jr. attempted to push through a change to state election rules. If adopted, this would have required a runoff in any election where all candidates fell short of 50%. The maneuver failed, but just barely, by a 15-14 vote in the Wyoming state Senate.

The original purpose of this particular rule, as it was pioneered by Southerners in the 19th century, was to guarantee the election of conservative, white supremacist officeholders. In essence, members of the dominant faction (conservative white Southern Democrats) could hold the "real" election in the primaries, and then could unite behind whatever conservative candidate survived. Reform-minded candidates (and/or Black candidates) might eke out a plurality in the primary, and possibly even in the general, but they had little chance of clearing 50%, or of winning once it was a two-candidate ballot.

The purpose here is awfully similar. Wyoming is a pretty Trumpy state, but the Trump movement isn't disciplined enough to be able to elevate a single candidate. Recall all the elections where two or more Trump lovers duked it out (e.g., Kelly Loeffler and Doug Collins, or Roy Moore and Rep. Mo Brooks [R-AL], or Eric Greitens and Missouri state AG Eric Schmitt). Meanwhile, the anti-Trump Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) is solid, and has no serious anti-Trump competition. So, the bill was aimed squarely at her, with the idea of giving the Trumpy Republicans multiple opportunities in each election to knock her off. Trump Jr. was vanquished this time, but he will undoubtedly be back again soon with some other scheme. (Z)

Old Presidents Never Die--They Just Fade Away

As long as we are on the subject of the Trumps, Donald Sr. just hates to be ignored. Better to have bad publicity than no publicity at all, is his view. Making things particularly acute is that he went from having hundreds of millions of people hanging on his every utterance to being basically an afterthought overnight. And so, after several weeks of licking his wounds, he's getting ready for a media blitz, in hopes of regaining some relevance. In other words, get ready for the storm after the quiet.

To start with, if you want to write a book about Trump, and you want an interview with the man himself, now is the time. In the next few weeks, he will sit for 12 different interviews, each for a different book project. His advisers have pointed out that some of these authors (Michael Wolff, Maggie Haberman, Jon Karl) are not going to be producing flattering works. Others have pointed out that if Trump spills all his beans now, he won't have any left if he decides to do his own book project. He doesn't care.

Trump is also commencing a series of interviews with pretty much any outlet that will have him. Well, ok, any right-wing outlet. He'll talk to book authors from across the spectrum, but when it comes to TV face time, he's all about Fox, OAN, and Newsmax. And when he's not calling in, or sitting for remote hits, he's sending them "press releases" that are really just tweets. That will have to do for now, at least until he gets the new social media site that he has promised up and running.

All of this said, relevance is likely to prove more elusive than Trump thinks. The books he's interviewing for will make a few headlines when they are released, and then will quickly fade from view. When was the last time anyone talked about John Bolton's book, or Bob Woodward's, or Michael Cohen's, or the two Trump books that Wolff already wrote? Meanwhile, Trump will be able to connect with his base by going on Fox or OAN or Newsmax, and he'll be able to do the same with his social media platform (if it happens), but that will mean only a fraction of the attention that he was getting as recently as two months ago.

There's another significant problem related to existing solely in a right-wing bubble, and it's one that will be particularly evident if he actually does get his social media platform going. His base wants to see him "own the libs." They want to "own the libs" themselves. But the libs aren't going to sign up for Trumpter, or InstaDon, or whatever it is he comes up with. And without them, there's no party. It will be boring.

Indeed, "boring" may be the very best word to describe Trump these days. Back when he was a reality TV star, the ratings for his show declined every season it was on, because the shtick got old hat. Well, he's got the same problem now. He's been at this for 6 years, and he's said and done just about every outrageous thing under the sun. It got old and tired enough that even Fox stopped covering his rallies. And that was when he was still president, and his statements were the official position of the United States government. These days, his only real power is to toss Molotov cocktails into Republican primary races in red states.

If the former president really wants to reclaim some meaningful portion of the attention he craves, his best move would be to try to make peace with Twitter. That would give him vastly more exposure than his startup venture, and would provide a large supply of libs to own. Plus, when he pushed the rules to their breaking point, "Will he be kicked off Twitter again?" would be a big story. The problem here, besides the fact that Twitter might not go for it, is that Trump is a fellow who holds grudges, even if that means shooting himself in the foot. And so, he has already made clear that he would not return to Twitter even if they begged him, because they had their chance and blew it.

Time will tell what happens, of course, but we are a politics-centered site, and we've had two completely Trump-free days in the last two weeks, and only a handful of items like this one, where he was the star of the story. That does not bode well for his long-term relevance. (Z)

Pelosi Flexes Her California Muscle

On Saturday, we answered a question from E.K. in Brignoles about whether or not the Democrats should put a serious candidate on the ballot in the event that Gov. Gavin Newsom (D-CA) gets recalled. It was our view that they have no choice, because "Newsom or Bust" is too risky a strategy.

It would appear that Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is not a reader of our site, because "Newsom or Bust" is precisely the strategy she is currently pursuing. She has spent this week flexing her considerable political muscle, and warning California Democrats to stay out of the race, so that they don't encourage more voters to vote "yes" for recall.

So, maybe we were wrong. That said, it's worth pointing out three things. The first is that the last time this happened (in 2003), Democrats also dithered on this question. Eventually, the game of chicken became too intense, and they decided they better put then-Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante on the ballot. The second is that Newsom's polling numbers right now are better than Gray Davis' were 18 years ago. If that changes for the worse, Pelosi could start singing a different tune. And the third is that although Pelosi has much power to stop members of the House from throwing their hats into the ring, and one of California's U.S. senators (Alex Padilla) is too new to challenge Newsom, while the other (Dianne Feinstein) is too old, a challenge is actually most likely to come from a current or former mayor (Eric Garcetti? Antonio Villaraigosa? London Breed?) or from a state-level officeholder (Speaker of the California Assembly Anthony Rendon?). And Pelosi has considerably less influence over those folks. (Z)

COVID Diaries: The Return

With the election, the insurrection, and the initial (not always surefooted) steps of the new administration, the COVID Diaries took a break in deference to more pressing political matters. But they're back now.

With the numbers dropping throughout most of the country and vaccine dosages at about 2.5 million per day, it should be easy to feel optimistic. However, COVID-19 is not done with us yet. Here is a summary of where we are:

  1. Cases are dropping, but not everywhere. For example, certainly not in New Jersey.

    Here in the New York City area, things have been getting steadily worse for the last month or so. Is this because people are not being careful, or is it due to the new variants? In spite of having an administration that we hope would actually be interested in the progression of the pandemic, the CDC is still not providing the kind of data I need to answer such basic questions.

  2. The vaccines are "probably" safe and effective. The vaccines clearly lower your risk of infection, hospitalization and death. However, it is logically impossible to talk about the long term side-effects of a vaccine that has only been around a few months. We also do not know how long immunity will last, for the same reason. I have personally received the Pfizer vaccine, but I know smart people who would rather risk getting COVID-19.

  3. COVID-19 remains very dangerous, particularly if you are older than 65. I know that "odds are" you will be fine if you get sick; however, I have a personal friend who spent two months in bed at home, and another who spent two weeks on a ventilator. A local New Jersey-based charity club of 40 older women lost five members to COVID in the last year. I am sure many of us have similar horror stories. There may be some unknown risk to the vaccine but the risk associated with COVID-19 is real and known.

  4. The vaccine is not perfect. You can still catch COVID (though less likely). You can still get sick and die (also less likely). Your metric for going back to "normal" should be the number of active cases in your local area, and not the fact that you are vaccinated. If enough people get vaccinated, R0 will drop below 1.0 and "it will all just go away" (eventually). As long there are significant numbers of people walking around with the virus, everyone is still at risk.

  5. There are currently more people who want to get vaccinated than there is available vaccine. As a result, the people who are not interested in getting vaccinated are not yet an issue. However, that day is not far away. About half of Republican men currently say they will not take the vaccine. This may indicate that there will not be enough people getting the vaccine to drive down R0 below 1.0.

  6. The more active cases there are, the more chance that COVID has to mutate into something worse. As we are probably a year or more away from having the world vaccinated, count on more variants showing up.

  7. The key to stopping COVID-19 is for R0 to drop below 1.0. That can be accomplished by combination of a big percentage of the population getting sick and developing natural immunity, social distancing protocols remaining in place (including some level of lockdowns), a big percentage of the population getting vaccinated, and more infectious variants not emerging. All of the factors affect R0, this is why the estimates for "what percentage of the population needs to be vaccinated to achieve herd immunity?" is a very hard number to estimate.

  8. The Biden administration is not "hitting it out of the park" in the vaccination rollout department. We started a slow rollout back in December. The number of vaccines per day has grown steadily since then. But the rate of growth under the Biden administration is generally slightly lower than it was under Trump. We are currently hovering at around 2.5 million doses a day. I would very much like to see the number double in the next few months, though that would mean an even more ambitious target than the 200 million doses in 100 days that the President set out in his press conference.

The moral of the story is that the COVID-19 pandemic is not over. We may be entering the final act, or COVID may linger into the fall or later. In the meantime: get vaccinated and keep practicing social distancing. I hope to send my son back to high school in the fall and I look forward to seeing concerts by Christmas. But I am going to watch the numbers closely. (PD)

Dr. Paul Dorsey, Ph.D., works in medical software, providing software to support medical practices and hospitals nationwide.

Bye-Bye, Bibi?

The final tallies for the Israeli election are in, and they're not great news for longtime PM Benjamin Netanyahu. The last wave of ballots counted broke against him and the conservatives, with the result that Netanyahu's Likud Party and its allies have 52 seats locked down, while the anti-Netanyahu parties have 57. That leaves 11 seats unaccounted for; seven of those belong to the conservative and nationalist Yamina Party, headed by a former Netanyahu lieutenant who now disdains the PM, while four of them belong to Raam, an Arab Islamist party. Netanyahu would need both Yamina and Raam to join him in order to form a government, a development that does not seem likely.

The great likelihood is that Israel is headed for a fifth election before the end of the year. It is possible that the anti-Netanyahu forces could pull a government together, but their only commonality is that they all dislike the PM. Otherwise, they have rather significant differences of opinion on policy. Imagine former AG Jeff Sessions, Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT), Gov. Phil Scott (R-VT), Hillary Clinton, Kamala Harris, and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) trying to get together to form a governing coalition, and you start to get the picture. It's also possible that the anti-Netanyahu forces could form a government just long enough to pass a bill disqualifying anyone who is under indictment from forming a governing coalition. Coincidentally, Netanyahu happens to be under indictment right now. Alternatively, at a certain point, either the PM or his supporters have to conclude that he just can't win a majority, and that he's got to step aside for the good of the country. Um, right?

The uncertainty means that it's going to be a while before Joe Biden can get to work on his relationship with Israel, and on trying to make progress on the Palestinian problem. He does have a full plate right now, so he can presumably afford to be patient while the Israelis figure things out. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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