Joe Biden said he was going to do something about the United States' ongoing issues with gun violence. Gun-control activists said that his actions would be anemic and unlikely to make a meaningful dent in the problem. We would say that both were right.
What Biden announced on Thursday, against the backdrop of yet another mass shooting, was a series of executive actions. These differ from executive orders in that they are basically advisory. In other words, an op-ed in The Washington Post would carry roughly as much weight. Here are the specific things the President called for:
Undoubtedly, the DoJ will do as Biden asks, but if there is anything on that list that is likely to move the needle on gun violence, even a little bit, we're not seeing it. Probably the most consequential thing Biden did on Thursday, actually, was formally announce his nomination of David Chipman, a gun-control advocate, to lead the Bureau of Alcohol, Tobacco, Firearms and Explosives.
The bottom line, as we pointed out yesterday, is that gun control/regulation is clearly the province of Congress. And, as we pointed out a couple of weeks ago, meaningful action on the part of that body is inconceivable, since most or all of the Republicans have no interest, and for the Democrats, the political costs/benefits would be so asymmetrical. That is to say, the passage of gun-control legislation would not attract all that much additional support, since left-leaning voters ultimately aren't all that motivated by gun control as an issue. At least, not when they go to cast their ballots, they aren't. At the same time, the Democrats would get slaughtered by Republicans, nearly all of whom would run on "We warned you the socialist commie fascist Democrats would come for your guns, and now they have!" Heck, the right-wing media is already saying that, and all Biden did was ask for some thoughts on some suggestions for some guidelines for some rules, maybe.
Another issue, which we briefly alluded to in the item a couple of weeks ago, but which bears repeating, is that Senate Democrats are not in agreement on the need for gun control, which is kind of a problem when you need every vote. There are some blue states that are actually quite gun-friendly, like Oregon and Virginia. There are also some core Democratic constituencies that are actually quite gun-friendly. For example, gun ownership is up 58.2% in just the last year among Black Americans, many of whom feel a need for guns to protect themselves against criminals, or marauding bands of white supremacists, or both.
And as long as we're at it, we'll also reiterate the pragmatic issues involved in gun control. There is, as we noted previously, the Supreme Court, which is very pro-Second Amendment, and is likely to strike down just about any gun control law. In addition, there are close to 300 million guns in America already; reducing that number by a meaningful percentage would be an enormous task. Further, even if some huge percentage of those guns somehow disappears—say 90%—that still leaves 30 million guns out there, most of them presumably in the hands of criminals, militia members, gun fanatics, and other not-so-ideal folks. And as The Guardian's (UK) Mona Chalabi observes, guns last a really, really long time. There are plenty of 19th century Colts and Remingtons and Winchesters still out there that work perfectly well, and they were made using Gilded Age manufacturing tools and materials. Guns made with modern tools and materials? That firearm you buy today could very well be in perfect working order for the 500th birthday of the United States in 2276. Heck, the gun might be more likely to make it to that date than the country.
That is not to say this problem is unresolvable, necessarily. It's merely to say that it would take a tremendous act of will by Americans, something that will not be happening in the current political climate. With Thursday's very modest announcements, Biden has already done more on this issue than any president since, probably, Bill Clinton. But that is likely to be about it; he's just not going to invest serious political capital in shooting at windmills. (Z)
Just over a month ago, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) was all over the Sunday morning news shows, and was happy to answer questions about the filibuster. "The filibuster should be painful, it really should be painful and we've made it more comfortable over the years," he told Fox News. And in case there was any doubt about the meaning of "painful," the Senator went on "Meet the Press" and said: "If you want to make it a little bit more painful, make him stand there and talk..." In other words, Manchin made quite clear that he was open to the notion of restoring the Jimmy Stewart-style filibuster.
This, then, made it something of a surprise when the Senator published an op-ed earlier this week that includes this passage:
The filibuster is a critical tool to protecting [rural and small state] input and our democratic form of government. That is why I have said it before and will say it again to remove any shred of doubt: There is no circumstance in which I will vote to eliminate or weaken the filibuster. The time has come to end these political games, and to usher a new era of bipartisanship where we find common ground on the major policy debates facing our nation.
He also said he's no fan of using reconciliation as an end-run around the filibuster, and that he knows there is bipartisan support for voting reform, which would be a great issue for Democrats and Republicans to work together on, "restoring the American people's faith in Congress and our ability to deliver results for them."
We have no information as to Manchin's thinking here, either in taking two apparently opposite positions on the filibuster in the span of a few weeks, or in saying with a straight face that it's plausible to achieve bipartisan voting reform. It hasn't been possible to achieve bipartisan anything for the last decade or so, much less bipartisan agreement on an issue that the GOP (probably rightly) considers to be existential for them.
Anyhow, in the absence of information (beyond that which is publicly available to everyone), all we can offer are some guesses. Here are half a dozen theories:
Among these theories, we like #3 and #6 the best, but again, we're just guessing. What we do know is that Manchin is not an idiot and he's not a Pollyanna. He knows that wishing upon a star, tapping his ruby slippers together, and sprinkling a little fairy dust around is not magically going to make the 100 U.S. senators reach out, hold hands, and engage in a spontaneous chorus of kumbayah. There's some sort of plan here, and presumably we will eventually learn what it is. (Z)
We got a fair bit of e-mail in response to the three "Whither the Republicans" items we wrote earlier this week, in which we argued that the GOP has some hard choices to make about their current coalition, and whether they want to stick with the populists, the evangelicals, and Fox News (et al.), at the risk of losing, respectively, corporate America, younger voters, and control of the Party. The next day, we added a fourth item to the list, addressing the costs of consorting with xenophobic white men (a choice that also alienates young people, along with minority voters, and those vaunted suburban housewives).
These pieces produced quite a bit of feedback. There were two main themes to the messages we got, and it would be difficult to respond to them properly in the context of the Saturday Q&A or the Sunday mailbag. So, we thought we would write this item.
The first theme is captured pretty well in this message from J.M. in Seattle:
As I was reading your post about the big challenges facing the Republican Party, I started feeling déjà vu. I feel like, for the past 10 years, there have been a number of articles about "The End of the Republican Party" from liberal-leaning people highlighting demographic shifts, in-fighting, etc., etc. Part of me wants to go "Yes! Please!" But another part of me remembers losing the 2016 presidential election and having the 2020 election be so close (with a generally acceptable older white man against a historically unpopular incumbent). And I just wonder—are we just back to seeing what we want to see?
We cannot dictate how readers respond to our items, of course. But for our part, we stay away from projections and from wishful thinking as very best we can. It is useful to note, we think, that in our academic work, we generally start with a premise and then look for evidence to support that premise. That is particularly true for a historian, like (Z). This site, by contrast, works in the opposite direction, in almost all cases. We collect the day's news, and sometimes a unifying theme happens to present itself. So it was on Tuesday (and Wednesday); the news just happened to involve a lot of stuff about potential long-term problems for the GOP coalition. What this means, then, is that there is a lot of hard evidence of trouble in paradise. So much so that, as we pointed out in the first of the Tuesday pieces, quite a few other politics-watchers saw the same pattern.
One other thing we would like to point out in response to J.M. is this: Every single political coalition, in the United States and in the world, has an expiration date. And there are, to a greater or lesser extent, three basic scenarios:
We would propose that any of these three outcomes is, at very least, possible. However, we actually discussed it between ourselves after those pieces ran, and concurred that #2 is the likeliest of the trio. Politicians tend to be short-term thinkers, at least in part because they tend to be older and may not be around for the emergence of a new, improved version of their party. In addition, the modern GOP is just too wedded to the evangelicals, and the xenophobes, and now the Trump-loving populists for us to see a way they can wean themselves.
Moving along, the second theme in the messages we got is pretty well encapsulated in this message from R.H. in Chicago, IL:
You have thoughtfully identified three problems the Republican party now faces: its support among corporate America is waning, the religious right is shrinking, and its propaganda machine depends on resentment but offers little that is constructive. But these need to be balanced by acknowledging its strengths and noting the weaknesses of the Democratic party.
Every political party has its weaknesses and its fissures, and the large and unwieldy organization that is the modern Democratic Party is no exception. So, you raise a fair point.
That said, one should beware of drawing a false equivalency. Yes, all parties have their weaknesses and their challenges, but that does not mean that they are all equally challenged at any given point in time. In fact, that is rarely the case. Almost always, one party is more on the wax, and the other is more on the wane. That is the cyclical nature of partisan politics, particularly in a system where there is only room for two major parties.
To address the Democratic Party specifically, they are in the majority right now, and by a fair margin. This means they are much less likely that the Republicans to be compelled to bow to the demands of a fringe constituency. The biggest current divide in the Democratic Party is surely the one between the moderate and progressive wings. And we've written about that many, many times, particularly during the 2016 election, when Hillary Clinton was the champion of one wing and Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) was the champion of the other, and the two factions did not have a great relationship. Now, however, things are pretty smooth. Progressives are getting an audience for some of their priorities, and Sanders is one of the movers and shakers of the Senate as chair of the Senate Budget Committee. Maybe this is a honeymoon period, and it won't last much beyond the famous "first 100 days" of Joe Biden's presidency. We don't know that; all we can say is that at the moment, there is no indication of a looming disaster.
The Democrats' other big problem is, for lack of a better term, systemic. Because the party's supporters are disproportionately packed into urban centers, and into a fairly small handful of states, the Party doesn't have as much power as its numbers would suggest (and the Republican Party has more power than its numbers would suggest). The blue team is aware of this, and is working on it. Perhaps Joe Biden's rural-friendly policies will help address the issue. Perhaps the shift of the suburbs toward the Democrats will help address the issue. Perhaps something else will, or perhaps nothing will. In any event, this is a dynamic that is keeping the Party from reaching its full potential, and not so much something that threatens their continued viability on the national level.
The notion that the Republicans are in a worse place right now than the Democrats is borne out by the numbers. The latest quarterly Gallup Poll reveals that 49% of American adults identify as Democratic or Democratic-leaning, while only 40% identify as Republican or Republican-leaning. That is the largest gap between Democrats and Republicans in close to a decade. Further, the 25% of American adults who identify as Republican (as opposed to just Republican-leaning) is the second-lowest in the history of the poll (the GOP was at 22% during part of the Harry S. Truman presidency).
Another factor that plays a role here is demographics. The Republicans' strength is among older people. The Democrats' strength is among young people. In 5 or 10 years' time, some of the older current Republican stalwarts will not be participating in elections while some folks who are now 14 or 16 will most definitely be voting. Demography isn't everything, but it doesn't work in the Republicans' favor.
Again, this could play out in many different ways, and could do so quickly or very, very slowly. All we can do right now is look at the information currently available. And that information makes clear that the modern Republican Party is built on a much shakier foundation than the modern Democratic Party. (Z)
Given that Gov. Andrew Cuomo (D-NY) is wounded right now, but might still put his head down and try to power his way to a fourth term, the Republican sharks are circling (the Democratic sharks too, they're just being more quiet about it). This week, two Trump-loving members of the GOP announced (or strongly hinted at) their entry into the race: Rep. Lee Zeldin is definitely in, and son of Rudy/lawyer Andrew Giuliani is either close to declaring or has declared, depending on which source you believe.
Zeldin is far and away the stronger of the two candidates. Young Giuliani has no experience in elective office, and the family brand is rather tarnished these days. The Congressman, by contrast, is a fundraising machine, comes from and represents a portion of populous Long Island, and has some hope of peeling off a portion of the orthodox Jewish vote. In fact, he is currently one of just two Jewish Republicans in Congress. He is now serving his fourth term in the lower chamber.
That said, any Republican is a longshot in New York. The last member of the GOP to win statewide election there is George Pataki back in 2002. Our staff mathematician tells us that was 19 years ago. And Pataki was a moderate. New Yorkers, on the whole, don't much care for far-right candidates, nor do they much care for Trump. The former president collected 38% of the vote there in 2020, and 37% in 2016. In other words, if Zeldin can secure the Donald's endorsement, that should be just enough to ensure...a Barry Goldwater-level beating. (Z)
Ok, those weren't the exact words of Alabama Secretary of State John H. Merrill (R) earlier this week, they were the words of some other Southern politician. What Merrill actually said, when asked about claims that he had cheated on his wife with a legal assistant, was: "People are attempting to use this to either advance the candidacy of other people, or they are doing it primarily to harm me and my family. It's very frustrating and very sad." Then, literally hours after making that no-wiggle-room-left assertion, the Secretary was presented with audio of a phone call between him and his mistress. "It's clear that I had an inappropriate relationship with her, and it is not something that I am proud of or something that is something that—I'm very disappointed in myself," he conceded, before ending his candidacy for the soon-to-be-open Alabama U.S. Senate seat.
What this means, first of all, is that one of the main challengers to Rep. Mo Brooks (R-AL)—who, incidentally, just nailed down Donald Trump's endorsement—is gone. For Democrats to have even a faint chance of putting that seat in play, they really need the controversial and not-all-that-popular Brooks to secure the nomination.
At the same time, Merrill's story is also a fresh, and useful, reminder that politicians are often quite shameless and quite good when it comes to lying about these sorts of things (see the link above for another example). Merrill gave the adulterer's equivalent of the Full Sherman, and was very convincing, right until the walls came tumbling down shortly thereafter. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) is enmeshed in his own sex scandal right now, and his protestations have been far less convincing than Merrill's were. The Representative has also conceded far more of the substance of the charges against him than Merrill did (until Merrill was left with no choice). Nothing has yet been proven against Gaetz, but if you're looking for gambling advice, well, we wouldn't bet on "innocent" if we were you. Incidentally, note that gambling advice is given for entertainment purposes only, and the management assumes no responsibility for any direct, indirect, incidental, special, consequential or other damages arising out of any individual's use of this information.
There was, incidentally, even more bad news for Gaetz on Thursday. His associate, Seminole County, FL, tax collector Joel Greenberg, appears to have turned state's evidence, and to be working with federal prosecutors. Would the sort of fellow who engages in the trafficking of minors for sexual purposes be likely to flip on a "friend" to help save his own skin? Hmmmmm... (Z)
There have been several readers who have written in asking about the negative tone of the (resumed) COVID diaries. After all, vaccinations are on the rise and new case numbers are no longer exploding. So, maybe there is some cause for optimism?
I am basically a numbers guy. I look at the data and try to see what it is saying. And yes, there is some cause for optimism:
However, as I look at the data, I cannot help but notice that there are many worrying signs. And because the various stakeholders (media, politicians, citizens) have a fair bit of motivation to look on the bright side, I am concerned that the bad news may be getting downplayed, at risk of the pandemic lingering. On the negative side:
My overall assessment is that we are not on a clear road to recovery. I am perhaps a bit on the conservative side when it comes to things like this. I would rather miss out on a meal in a nice restaurant if I could help avoid another friend being hospitalized or dying from this disease.
I live in New Jersey, which was the canary in the coal mine at the start of the pandemic. We were hit early and hard. The state was perilously close to having the entire health care system overwhelmed. Every available space in our hospitals was converted into a COVID ward. The morgues were literally overflowing. The rest of the U.S. had a chance to learn from our mistakes. Instead, they followed in our footsteps. Each part of the country was devastated in turn by this terrible disease, while much of the population then (and now) declared it is "just the flu."
As New Jersey seems to be stumbling again on our road to recovery, I imagine (or fear) that New Jersey may again serve as a template for what the rest of the country will see. At the moment, 36% of New Jersey residents have had at least one vaccine dose, and probably a similar percentage has already had COVID. One would think that with that much of the population somewhat protected, one way or the other (or both), the number of new cases should be dropping fast.
Instead, new cases as well as hospitalizations are on the rise (or maybe have just now crested). Deaths, though on a downward trend, are still seven times what they were in October. New Jersey is reopening according to a reasonably conservative plan, but compliance seems to be relaxing faster than the guidelines. And sometimes, it's the guidelines themselves that seem to be relaxing too fast. For example, the local school district in NJ is pleased that the CDC reduced the acceptable distance guideline from 6 feet to 3 feet. This means that we can now resume 5 day/week instruction. But COVID did not become less deadly or infectious (indeed, some of the variants are actually more infectious and deadly). COVID just had to wait until we got tired of fighting.
These dynamics help explain our poor new cases numbers. And, at the moment, it does indeed appear that some other states are following New Jersey's "lead." At the moment, we have five "canaries in the coal mine": In addition to New Jersey, New York, Michigan, Florida, and Pennsylvania combined for more than 196,400 (43%) of the country's 453,360 COVID-19 cases reported in the last week.
I sincerely hope that these will be the only states hit in the (hopefully) final wave. All we have to do is stay safe a little while longer and this could all be over. But right now, we have at least 7 million (and maybe a lot more) people walking around with COVID in the U.S. (that is about 2% of the population). If we interact with those people, many of us will get sick and some of us will die. And until the numbers are way down, we are not safe. I am vaccinated but have not materially changed my behavior, nor will I until the numbers are reduced by 90% from their current levels. If you go to a party, a church, a bar, the gym, or a restaurant, there is a pretty good chance that someone there has COVID and is infectious. If you are unlucky, you can get sick, even if you are fully vaccinated. In the ultimate irony, my front-line doctor friend has personally treated people who caught COVID while waiting in line to get the vaccine.
We are vaccinating about 3 million people a day in the United States. Both China and India are doing even more than that. Once enough people are protected by the vaccine, we will hopefully be able to return to normal, with the rest of the world not far behind. But we're not there yet. Until we are, stay safe. (PD)
Dr. Paul Dorsey, Ph.D., works in medical software, providing software to support medical practices and hospitals nationwide.