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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Right Now, D.C. Is Funkytown
      •  Ghosts of Administrations Past
      •  "U.S." Is a Rather Larger Stage than "S.D."
      •  Hogan for President
      •  Time for Liz and Adam to Step Up?
      •  This Week in Schadenfreude

Right Now, D.C. Is Funkytown

In trying to characterize the song and dance going on in the nation's capital right now, we've already squeezed kabuki theater and ballet dancing for all they're worth. And so, today our metaphor will be disco music, since there was definitely a lot of hot stuff going on yesterday. Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) is stayin' alive, as best she can. Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) advised his colleagues that they've got to give it up when it comes to spending $3.5 trillion in one fell swoop. This caused many Democrats, particularly progressives, to do le freak. Joe Biden remains largely absent, or at least is not taking a visible role in trying to twist arms, leaving his fellow Democrats to wonder where the boss is. And all of this leaves poor Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) just trying to pick up the pieces.

We will start with the federal budget since, at least in the short term, that is the issue that has the greatest impact. The Senate passed a bill to keep the lights on until Dec. 3 by a vote of 65-35. It was rushed over to the House, which gave its seal of approval 254-175. Finally, it landed on Joe Biden's desk with just a few hours to spare and, in his only headline-worthy contribution to the day's events, he applied his signature. On one hand, this was very dramatic, and they might as well have played Vangelis' (non-disco) "Chariots of Fire" while the bill worked its way across town with the clock ticking down. On the other hand, it wasn't dramatic at all, since this sequence of events pretty much always happens at this time of year. At least, it does these days.

Sen. Richard Shelby (R-AL) decreed, once his chamber had passed the bill, that there is now "plenty of time" to work out a full budget for 2021-22. We will see, but we would point out that if 2 months is "plenty of time," the members of Congress have already had ("plenty of time") x (6) to come up with something, and yet once again did the "kick the can at the very last minute" bit. So we shall see if the Senator's confidence proves to be justified. Of course, he's retiring in a year, so he probably doesn't care all that much, one way or the other. Also, as long as we're on this subject, we will note that Politico's story on the stopgap bill says that it will "keep spending levels static for both the military and non-defense programs." Someone—the Military-Industrial Complex, perhaps?—has done a heck of a job putting the notion in people's minds that the federal government pays for two things: (1) the military, and (2) all that other stuff.

Moving along, the second big story yesterday was about something that did not happen. Pelosi and Schumer are working furiously behind the scenes, but the progressive votes aren't yet there in the House to pass the $1 trillion infrastructure bill. It was supposed to get a vote Monday and did not, and it was supposed to get a vote yesterday, and once again it was delayed. The Speaker and the Majority Leader are both trying to get enough of their members on the same page for the bill to be passed, which will require that the progressives have reassurances that they won't be left high and dry on the larger infrastructure bill. In theory, a vote will be held today, but at this point, who knows? Funding for several transportation programs expired last night, so there is some time pressure here to get something done.

And finally, that brings us to the news that generated the largest number of headlines yesterday. The main flies in the ointment, when it comes to the big infrastructure bill (and thus, by extension, when it comes to the smaller infrastructure bill, as well) are, of course, Sens. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) and Joe Manchin. The latter, who really does seem to love being the center of attention, spoke up yesterday and specified what he wants: more time to negotiate, a tax overhaul that includes a repeal of most of the 2017 Republican tax cuts, and an extension of the child tax credit that expires in December. Oh, and he also said he's not willing to support spending any more than $1.5 trillion, because he doesn't want "to change our whole society to an entitlement mentality."

Naturally, a lot of Manchin's fellow Democrats were furious. The progressives led the chorus of boos, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) reminding people of his view that the $3.5 trillion was already a compromise figure (down from $6-$7 trillion), and that Manchin is trying to renegotiate on the fly. Over in the House, Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA), who is leading the progressive opposition to voting on the $1 trillion bill, said that Manchin's statement was going to drive more House Democrats into her camp. Meanwhile, one of the Democratic members of the Senate tweeted this:

15 days and counting. What will Gov do? Capitulate to Rs and hurt education and rx care? Or work with Ds and mod Rs to craft a fair budget?

And this:

Asking big corporations & the rich to pay their fair share is common sense, not class warfare.

The senator who tweeted those things was...Kyrsten Sinema, about 10 years ago, before she was in the Senate. A number of progressive activists dug into her tweet history this week in hopes of finding evidence that her current position is rather inconsistent with her past rhetoric, and they were...pretty damn successful. So much so that the Senator deleted a bunch of old tweets yesterday, including the second one listed here. That was her contribution to yesterday's news cycle, as she was otherwise—and characteristically—mum about what it is that she wants.

So the progressives, in and out of Congress, are irritated with the two senators. But the other Democratic members of the Senate and the House are none too happy either, since Manchin waited until reaching the 5-yard-line before demanding that the price tag be cut to $1.5 trillion. They might have worked with him if he had been clear and consistent on this point from the beginning, but now he's put them in a position where they could spend nearly twice as much as the giant Obama-era infrastructure bill and yet leave voters disappointed because the final total comes in at less than half of what was promised.

Manchin defended himself on this point by saying that this is not the first time he's brought up this figure, and that he put forth a price tag of $1.5 trillion to Schumer over the summer. This may technically be true, but from where we sit, it's very disingenuous. If Manchin's bottom line really is $1.5 trillion, and he's known that for months, he certainly didn't do much to make that clear. Recall, for example, that he wrote an op-ed on the reconciliation bill at the start of this month. And the phrase "$1.5 trillion" appears nowhere within the piece. What the Senator did write, however, was this:

I, for one, won't support a $3.5 trillion bill, or anywhere near that level of additional spending, without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs.

This strongly implies that his support for a $3.5 trillion bill was (is?) available, as long as he gets more information and/or stronger assurances from his colleagues. If he's taken the month to think about it, and has now decided that he's no longer open to $3.5 trillion, then that is certainly his right. But he should not pretend that he's always been on that position, and that he bears no responsibility for throwing a giant, unexpected wrench into the works.

In any event, the Democrats—particularly Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden (if he ever comes off the MIA list)—now have to decide what to do. We see a number of options:

  • Tap the Brakes: For months now, the narrative has been that time is running out to pass the reconciliation bills. That's sort of true, but if you want a real deadline, it's probably the end of December. In any event, it's never fun to allow momentum to dissipate, but when that momentum is pushing your caucus further apart, rather than together in service of a common goal, sacrificing is sometimes what you gotta do. If Democratic leadership decides to give themselves more time, they still have to deal with (1) the transportation funding, and (2) the debt ceiling. However, they could just pass clean bills dealing with both and send them over to the Senate for Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) to do as he sees fit. "We absolutely shut down a big part of the nation's transportation infrastructure and/or we most certainly did crash the nation's economy, because we wanted these things to be done as part of infrastructure bills we don't like and most of us don't plan to vote for" would be a rather tough line for the Minority Leader and his Republican colleagues to sell.

  • Negotiate: Based on what Manchin's fellow Democrats (including Pelosi) said yesterday, and what they've said over the past weeks and months, there is some amount of tolerance for cutting the total cost of the bill. However, there is not tolerance for cutting it by 60%. Given how much he's flipped and flopped, Manchin may well be open to spending more than the $1.5 trillion that he claims is his limit. It's worth noting that while he says he's worried about changing "our whole society to an entitlement mentality," he comes from the state that has the second-largest percentage of its citizens on welfare (behind only New Mexico), and that receives $2.90 back for every $1 it sends to the federal government in taxes, putting it third on that list (behind New Mexico and North Dakota). One must wonder how serious he is about the dangers of an "entitlement mentality."

  • Play Hardball: Thus far, Manchin's fellow Democrats have handled him delicately, like he is a priceless Ming dynasty vase. But they do have leverage here. Consistent with the amount of money West Virginia gets from the federal government in general, and would get from the infrastructure bills in particular, the Senator can't really allow them to fail. As we've pointed out, the House could pass the $1 trillion bill, and then it could sit on the corner of Joe Biden's desk, with the President telling Manchin: "You've got 10 days to work things out with the rest of the Party on the bigger bill, or I don't sign this bill. Good luck!" Alternatively, Democratic leadership could agree to Manchin's lower price tag, but only in exchange for supporting the changes to the filibuster needed to pass one or more of the voting rights bills.

  • Get Out the Chopping Block: We kind of doubt that the progressives will get behind this, but the fact is that $1.5 trillion is better than $0 trillion. In fact, according to the staff mathematician, one could say that $1.5 trillion is infinitely better. So, the blue team could decide what things they really must have, and then could hope to get some more of their stuff in the future, maybe in a reconciliation bill next year.

  • Play Accounting Games: Manchin's (and Sinema's) opposition doesn't seem to be to the things the Democrats want to pay for, or even to the outlay, per se. It seems, particularly in Manchin's case, to be about the fact that $3.5 trillion is a big, scary number that media types and Republican politicians will wield like a hammer. The Democrats could engage in some accounting magick to change the number without actually changing the underlying outlays all that much. Or, they could start presenting the bill as a $350 billion bill that will automatically renew every year for 10 years. Or, they could spend the same amount of money per year, but over 5 years rather than 10, making the price tag $1.75 trillion. If the programs are as popular as the Democrats think they will be, it could be very politically problematic for a Republican Congress/president, if that is who is in power then, to allow them to expire.

  • Find a Defector (or two): Chuck Schumer just needs 50 votes for the $3.5 trillion bill; they don't necessarily need to be Democratic votes. Sen. Lisa Murkowski (R-AK) remains a prime candidate, we would say, for a little apostasy. Alaska's entire annual budget is $10.6 billion, and the state is currently enmeshed in debates over how to make ends meet. Schumer could toss $5 billion/year in her direction, which would basically just be a rounding error. Will vast numbers of Alaskans vote against her for being an alleged RINO after she brings home a boatload (a dog sled?) full of money? Sens. Mitt Romney (R-UT) and Susan Collins (R-ME) are other senators who might be open to voting against their party this one time, and who come from states where a few billion would go a long way. Alternatively, one of the retiring Republican senators might like a big pile of pork to be their farewell gift to their voters—you know, leave on a high note. Sen. Pat Toomey (R-PA) seems particularly ripe for this sort of deal. We could find out how many cheesesteaks $10 billion will buy.

Undoubtedly, for a lot of readers, all of this posturing and counter-posturing is irritating, or disappointing, or even depressing. For those in that group, we pass along this Politico-produced update of the classic "I'm Just a Bill" (originally released in 1974 and voiced by the great Jack Sheldon):

Some sardonic humor always helps.

Anyhow, by the time you read this, we'll be entering the slow part of the news cycle, and the time of the week when most members of Congress prefer to get out of town. That said, this is the last weekend before the debt ceiling issue, in particular, reaches critical mass. Further, while open maneuvering and public pronouncements could take place, it's also possible that Pelosi, Schumer, and Biden spend all of their time on behind-doors maneuvering. So, there could be lots of news on this front this weekend, or there could be very little. If the Democratic pooh-bahs don't figure something out reasonably soon, though, then the U.S. economy and/or the Democrats' hopes of holding the House and/or the Senate could burn, baby burn. And surely nobody wants a disco inferno, right? (Z)

Ghosts of Administrations Past

Well, it's really just one administration we're going to talk about. Donald Trump is out of office, of course, and many of the acolytes he installed in various positions (e.g., Kellyanne Conway) have been shown the door, willingly or no. But it is not possible to completely get rid of his people, for reasons both political and legal. On Thursday, two different specters from the administration of the 45th president reminded us of their continued presence.

First up is Postmaster General Louis DeJoy, who serves at the pleasure of the USPS Board of Governors, and not of Joe Biden. The Board has added a couple of Biden appointees, and so they theoretically could stamp out DeJoy's plans, cancel his continued employment, and deliver him back to the private sector. But they have not chosen to do so, thus far. And so, new standards developed by the PG will take effect today. And by "new" standards, we really mean "lowered" standards. Some first-class mail, particularly that being delivered to rural locations, will now take longer to arrive.

In the short term, that could mean that people's medications spoil, or they don't get their paychecks in time to pay rent, or other significant inconveniences. Eventually, of course, this could affect voting-by-mail in 2022. Is the USPS board in agreement with DeJoy that these changes are necessary to keep things solvent? Or are they waiting for the blowback so they have cover for dismissing him? We may soon find out, particularly as the ultra-high-volume holiday season draws near. After all the USPS was already having trouble getting all those Festivus poles delivered in time for the airing of grievances.

And then there is Special Counsel John Durham. Remember him? He was appointed by then-AG Bill Barr to investigate the FBI's Russia investigation. You know it was totally on the up-and-up because Barr made the promotion in October of 2020, but didn't think to mention it to anyone outside the White House until December 2020, after the presidential election. Durham's task was clearly to find dirt on the deep state, the Democrats, Hillary Clinton, Joe Biden, etc.

Biden may not be able to fire DeJoy, but he could fire Durham. Or, at least, he could tell AG Merrick Garland to do it. However, that could be politically troublesome, as Republicans would say "What are you trying to hide, Mr., Mr. Biden?" So, clearly the current administration has decided to let Durham do his thing, and to hope that his investigation will burn itself out. Thus far, the strategy has paid off, as he's come up empty-handed. Yesterday, however, Durham issued a bunch of additional subpoenas, focusing in particular on a law firm with ties to the Hillary Clinton campaign. He's clearly not giving up without a fight here.

Now maybe, just maybe, Durham comes up with something that is worth some scrutiny. That said, he's had a year and hasn't exactly made progress, and this sure feels like another Hail Mary pass, along the lines of the 65th Benghazi investigation or the 97th Clinton e-mail server investigation. We will see, but either way, both Durham and DeJoy are reminders that Trump may be gone, but he's not forgotten. (Z)

"U.S." Is a Rather Larger Stage than "S.D."

On one hand, Gov. Kristi Noem (R-SD) has been in politics for nearly 15 years and has won statewide election five times. She is about as prominent as it gets in South Dakota politics. On the other hand, the Democratic Party of South Dakota is like the Loch Ness Monster—its existence has been rumored, but never convincingly proven (at least, not since Sen. Tim Johnson retired). Meanwhile, the largest newspaper in the state, the Argus Leader, has a daily circulation of about 20,000. The number of daily visitors to is more than that. The point is that Noem really hasn't been subject to the kind of vetting that a prominent politician in, say, New York or California would have had by this point in their careers.

Given Noem's very obvious national aspirations, she's now under a more powerful microscope. And for that reason (as well as random chance), she's found herself enmeshed in a couple of scandals in the last couple of weeks. First, the AP and other outlets reported that Noem's daughter Kassidy Peters was trying to secure a real estate appraisal license and was about to be denied until the Governor stepped in and flexed her muscles with the bureaucrats. This apparently wasn't illegal, but it also wasn't very ethical, and investigations are underway. The story also reminded people of the charge that Noem was effectively bribed by a wealthy donor to send South Dakota National Guard troops to the border—and not the one with North Dakota.

The second scandal, and the one that's getting oodles of attention because people love the salacious stuff, involves Noem's relationship with fired-for-sexual-harassment-former-Trump-insider Corey Lewandowski. A conservative website, albeit a second-rate one that did not reveal its sources, ran a story that the Governor and the Trumper are engaged in an extramarital affair (both are married, both have numerous kids). Noem initially denied the story in no uncertain terms, and implied that she really doesn't even know Lewandowski. Yesterday, she changed course a bit, and said that he had been working as an unpaid adviser, but that she was cutting all ties.

In our view, if Lewandowski and Noem want to "quote-unquote-run-around," to use the euphemism often deployed by (Z)'s seventh-grade teacher Mrs. Hugh, then that is their business. The problem for Noem is that the voters she's courting don't necessarily agree with us. In particular, she happens to belong to a party where: (1) adultery is often frowned upon, particularly when it's a woman doing the adultering, (2) standards of evidence are...very loose, and folks often go on their "gut feeling." And it is possible that, given her changing story, along with the fact that Lewandowski doesn't usually work for free for anyone (unless there is some other good reason), some would-be Noem supporters will decide her story doesn't pass the smell test and that she's not their cup of tea.

In the end, what we're really saying here is that Noem's transition to the big leagues has gotten off to a rocky start. And even if these two scandals prove to be much ado about nothing, she's certainly made some amateurish errors. Like, she probably should have terminated Lewandowski over the weekend, when the story, and the suspicions it raises, would have been minimized. She also shouldn't have said anything about his compensation package. Obviously, many politicians overcome a poor start to their careers as national figures—Bill Clinton leaps to mind—and Noem could do the same. Some, on the other hand, never really make the adjustment. A couple more stumbles and she is going to be compared to the most recent (and only) female governor to be on a Republican presidential ticket. That might work wonders in Pierre, but maybe not so much elsewhere in the country. Unless, of course, she notes that she can see Canada from her front porch. After all, she is going to have to counter Nikki Haley's foreign policy experience somehow. (Z)

Hogan for President

Gov. Larry Hogan (R-MD) has twice been elected governor of the blue state of Maryland, has very high name recognition, won plaudits for his handling of the pandemic, and has enjoyed sky-high approval ratings (up to the mid-80s). For many years, that was the sort of politician that Republican muckety-mucks drooled over as potential presidential timber. Of course, that was before the Age of Trump (and, really, the Age of Bush II) commenced.

As a throwback to an older era of Republicanism, Hogan has some throwback ideas about the sort of person who would make a good GOP presidential candidate. And he has decided that one very promising possibility for 2024 is...Larry Hogan. So he is increasingly making the sort of noise, and the sort of moves, that lay the groundwork for a presidential campaign. That means that politics-watchers will need to keep an eye on him, at least for now.

That said, we run this item just because we try to keep readers abreast of political developments, particularly those in the realm of presidential politics. We don't think he's an actual contender in 2024, and probably not thereafter. In fact, if he really thinks he could make a run at the White House, our view is that he's delusional. He thinks that while the Trump lane will be full, either with Trump himself, or with a bunch of Trump wannabes, the "normal Republican" lane will be wide open. That does not actually appear to be true, though. In fact, that lane could be just as crowded, as Chris Christie is also signaling a run, while Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY), Sen. Ben Sasse (R-NE), and even Sen. Mitt Romney (R-UT) are clearly considering "I'm a Republican, but I'm not a nut" campaigns. And since the Trump faction is larger, and Republican primaries tend to be winner-take-all, it will be very hard for the folks in the non-Trump lane to collect delegates.

Meanwhile, if Hogan somehow lands the nomination, he'd probably win back some of those suburban voters who have fled Trumpism. But the Trumpers would spend the entire election slurring Hogan as a RINO, and many of them would sit the presidential contest out (or would vote for a third-party candidate).

Now, it is true that we were equally dismissive of an aspiring GOP presidential candidate in 2015, and that we also put his chances in the "when hell freezes over" category. That was Donald Trump, of course, and as we understand it, he actually put together a viable campaign, landed the Republican presidential nomination in 2016, and collected just 3 million votes fewer than his Democratic opponent. So, you never know, which is why we'll continue to monitor Hogan even though we suspect he ate a bad plate of crab cakes. (Z)

Time for Liz and Adam to Step Up?

Yesterday, we had an item addressing several thought pieces, by various authors, that argue the U.S. is currently in the midst of a constitutional crisis, and that few politicians—outside of Reps. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) and Liz Cheney—seem to be all that concerned. The point was that more folks in Congress (and elsewhere), on both sides of the aisle, need to wake up and follow the two Republicans' lead.

Ian Bassin, who writes for the conservative-but-staunchly-anti-Trump The Bulwark, had an interesting item that serves as a complement to those other pieces. He agrees with the authors that we cited yesterday that the U.S. is on the cusp of yielding to authoritarianism, and he suggests—first of all—that the Democrats need to stop squabbling about things and pull together. "When anti-authoritarian coalitions splinter, the authoritarians take over" is both the subhead of the piece, and the point he's making here.

However, Bassin is not just engaging in Democrat-bashing; he also has a call-to-arms for Cheney, Kinzinger, and their fellow non-Trump Republicans (he specifically names Mitt Romney) to join with the Democrats to form an anti-authoritarian governing coalition, modeled on the experience of European countries (e.g., Belgium and Finland) that have resisted authoritarianism and fascism in a similar manner.

It's a short piece, and Bassin does not really delve into specifics as to how his advice might be followed. That said, it's easy enough for us to fill in the blanks. While Cheney and Kinzinger have joined the 1/6 Commission, there are other areas where they (and other non-Trump Republicans) could help out a lot. Perhaps most obvious is working with the Democrats to pass laws that secure elections and that, in particular, follow the advice laid out by Rick Hasen in our piece yesterday to make it impossible for state legislatures to overturn election results by fiat.

The real issue, of course, is not in the chamber where Cheney and Kinzinger serve. For them to give their support to something like the John Lewis Voting Rights Act would be a really nice gesture, and would have serious PR value, but would not be necessary to passage because Nancy Pelosi has a majority and knows how to use it. The problem area is the Senate. And we very much doubt that there are 10 Republicans there willing to go turncoat (even in a limited way), as they would not only fear for their careers, but also for their lives, given how happy Trumpers are to threaten danger against their political enemies.

This being the case, it comes back to the place where these things always seem to come back to—the filibuster. Doing some carve-outs there—like, say, for voting rights bills—would only take one or two Republican votes, not 10. And we think that Bassin is right to think of Romney as a potential ally for the Democrats here. He's not likely to lose reelection in Utah (if he even runs). Further, members of the Church of Latter-Day Saints are not as knee-jerk on the issues as many other Republicans, and they tend to place a fair bit of value on integrity and following one's principles. And Romney would have a real chance here to shape his legacy. He could go down as the mediocre presidential candidate who rarely showed a spine and who constantly put his foot in his mouth. Or he could go down as a man who fought to rescue his party from the lion's mouth, and who bucked the tide to vote for conviction in the Trump impeachment trial, and then to vote for voting rights/election security/money to fight global warming/whatever. In other words, he could be the next John Kerry, or he could be the next Barry Goldwater. We know which one we would choose... (Z)

This Week in Schadenfreude

One of the least pleasant aspects of Donald Trump's character is his propensity to punch down, and to mock those who anger or oppose him. The performance where he mean-spiritedly mimicked reporter Serge Kovaleski's arthrogryposis is the most famous example, but there are dozens—if not hundreds—of others.

This is undoubtedly part of the reason that "Saturday Night Live" chose Alec Baldwin to impersonate Trump. In contrast to the former president, the show is expected to make fun of people, particularly politicians. For most presidents, they are reasonably gentle, just making comic hay out of one or two aspects of the president's personality (Gerald Ford's clumsiness, Jimmy Carter's folksiness, George H.W. Bush's geekiness, Bill Clinton's love of fast food, etc.). Baldwin's Trump, by contrast, is an absolutely scorched-earth, brutal, take-no-prisoners flaying of the man. There is zero gentle good humor to be found at all, even if there is definitely entertainment value in this sort of send-up, which is properly known as Juvenalian satire.

Anyhow, after 41 appearances as the 45th president, the Baldwin impression had run its course, and he bowed out shortly after Trump lost last year's election. This week, the show announced the new cast members it would be adding for the 46th season, which begins in a week. And one of the three new additions is comedian James Austin Johnson, who is famed for his impression of Trump:

It is uncannily accurate; if you closed your eyes, you could absolutely be persuaded that it's Trump talking. And while Johnson's Trump is not an evil but incompetent boob like Baldwin's Trump is, it's arguably even more devastating.

So, the fellow who thinks it's ok to mock and bully those who cannot fight back will continue to be skewered on "Saturday Night Live," but in a new, and arguably more effective way. And since the skewering is richly deserved, that places this news squarely in the schadenfreude category. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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