• A Tale of Two Afghanistans
• And The Grift Goes On
• Donald May Be In, but Melania Is Out
• Some Progressives Find a Soft Spot in the System
• Happy Labor Day!
We don't know if you can actually turn the West Virginia Senator's last name into an adjective in that way, but we just did it and were not struck down by lightning, so it must be OK. In any event, with Congress set to return to work soon, and Afghanistan slowly fading from the headlines, it's time for infrastructure to return to center stage. And in honor of that, Joe Manchin penned an op-ed for The Wall Street Journal late last week expressing his reluctance to support the Democrats' $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill.
The headline on the piece is "Why I Won't Support Spending Another $3.5 Trillion," although that is not an accurate characterization of the contents. Authors don't write their headlines, copy editors usually do, and either the copy editor didn't read the piece carefully (it happens sometimes when on deadline), or they were constrained by the column space available, or they have been encouraged to write click-baity headlines. In any event, what Manchin actually says is that he thinks Afghanistan, the pandemic, hurricane relief, etc. should come now, and that infrastructure should come later. He also says he wants his Democratic colleagues to jump through more hoops in order to please him, and that he won't vote for the bill "without greater clarity about why Congress chooses to ignore the serious effects inflation and debt have on existing government programs."
Manchin learned politics at the knee of his uncle, A. James Manchin, who was a skilled politician, but also a bit sleazy. And this is in a state that has something of a tradition of politicians who are skilled, but also a little sleazy. And so it's hardly a surprise that Manchin's op-ed, while politically savvy, is also a little sleazy. He gives the impression that the $3.5 trillion will be spent all at once, will be put on the nation's credit card, and will inevitably trigger substantial inflation. Those are, in order, definitely untrue, likely untrue, and likely untrue. The trillions will be spread across 10 years, of course, and will represent about 1.2% of GDP (est. $287 trillion from 2022-31), which is actually pretty small relative to all the things that the Democrats are trying to accomplish. As to the funding, that's a work in progress, but the costs will be covered in part or in whole by new revenues either put in place by the bill or produced by the bill. And as to inflation, the experts are divided, but $350 billion this year is probably not enough to have a serious effect, given current (fairly high) unemployment rates.
In short, the Senator is not making a serious economic argument here, and presumably he knows it. That he doesn't actually believe what he's saying is also indicated by the tap dance he's been doing on this issue for the better part of six months. He seems to be for the bill, then he seems to be against, then for, then against. He's the deciding vote and everyone knows it. And so, if he were to go full Sherman, and say "a $3.5 trillion bill will never, ever get my vote," then that would pretty much be it. But, despite the misleading headline, he's not saying that. He knows full well that the Democrats have to pass this, and he also knows that West Virginia wants its share of the bacon that the bill calls for.
So what is going on here? Well, we detect two simultaneous dynamics. First, note where the op-ed was published. It's up there in the first paragraph, but if you don't care to scroll back up, it was The Wall Street Journal. That is not the outlet for reaching the folks at home (that would be The Charleston Gazette-Mail, which Manchin took advantage of back in June, when he wrote an op-ed explaining his opposition to the For the People Act).
The WSJ of course, is for reaching business types. As an old-school politician from one of the nation's poorest states, he doesn't rely on grassroots funding from fancypants websites like ActBlue; he gets much of his money from businesses and corporations. And those folks want to be assured that the Democrats are not going to wreck the economy and, in particular, that they are not going to ratchet tax rates on businesses way up. So, Manchin was offering up some soothing words for his donors. It is instructive that in addition to choosing the Journal as his outlet of choice, the Senator reiterated his views in a speech that same day, delivered to...the West Virginia Chamber of Commerce.
Beyond that, when things are going poorly for the infrastructure bills, Manchin becomes a member of Team Blue, and talks about their importance and his willingness to support them. When things are going well, on the other hand, he puts on his Team Joe uniform and starts expressing reservations. There is zero chance that the Democrats are going to "pause" these discussions until November or December. There's always some background crisis going on, and waiting risks a loss of momentum, as well as entangling the infrastructure bills with the debt ceiling and budget bills, which would be a political nightmare. Manchin understands this, which means he also understands that he has maximum leverage right now. With the bills having achieved "too big to fail" status, and with a vote imminent, he no longer needs to pull for Team Blue. He can pretend to be a potential holdout, and then reap the benefits as Democrats throw some pork his way to "convince" him.
Manchin isn't the only Democratic centrist who has run the numbers and reached this conclusion, by the way; he's just the most prominent. At very nearly the same time his op-ed was going live on the WSJ website, and the Senator was having a friendly chat with his Chamber of Commerce benefactors, Reps. Stephanie Murphy (D-FL) and Henry Cuellar (D-TX) sent Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA) a letter laying out "overarching principles" that the $3.5 trillion infrastructure bill must meet in order to get their votes. Those two were among the 10 centrist Democratic representatives who pitched a fit a couple of weeks ago before reaching an accommodation for voting on the two infrastructure bills.
The upshot is that this process is marching forward and is going to reach its conclusion in the next several weeks, very likely before mid-October. It could still go off the rails; Pelosi and Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) are doing a lot of cat-herding here with relatively little margin for error. However, we seriously doubt it. The centrists are just making clear they want some pork, and that they also need to be able to face their voters and their donors back home, which means that certain choices (like restoring corporate tax rates to a level close to where they were in the Obama years) are not going to fly. But in the end, this is too important for the Democratic Party and its 2022 electoral hopes for the various players not to find a way to thread the needle(s). (Z)
We have written, a number of times, that there really isn't such a thing as an "orderly" emergency evacuation, certainly not in a war zone. This weekend, there was some support for that assertion from someone who knows of what she speaks. That would be Elizabeth Shackelford, who now works for a think tank, and who was part of the Barack Obama-era State Department. In that capacity, she served in a number of...difficult postings. And, in particular, she was the senior American civilian official on the ground when about 1,200 people had to be evacuated from South Sudan unexpectedly in December of 2013.
Shackelford published a Politico op-ed about her experience this weekend. It begins:
Desperate crowds scrambling after planes on the verge of liftoff; sobbing mothers handing their babies over fences to soldiers; and finally, a gruesome terrorist attack that killed nearly 200 people, including 13 U.S. service members. It's no surprise that the public thinks President Joe Biden botched the U.S. evacuation from Afghanistan, even as polling shows Americans still largely approve of the decision to withdraw.
But from my own personal experience running an evacuation in a war zone, I can attest that it was never going to look good. Ultimately, there was little the U.S. government or military could have done in recent weeks to significantly change the outcome on the ground. These evacuations are always ugly. There is no graceful way to flee a country at war.
She also points out that anyone who is being evacuated, and is not a federal government employee, is in the country for a reason. This could be business, or family, or some sort of religious mission, or something else, and applies both to locals and to American citizens who are present. Given these concerns, would-be evacuees are often hesitant to cut and run, and often wait until very late to do so. Sometimes too late to leave safely, and sometimes too late to leave at all.
And that brings us to the latest developments in Afghanistan. There are several airplanes waiting to depart Mazar-i-Sharif International Airport, which is located in the far northern portion of the country, near both Tajikistan and Uzbekistan. The Taliban is not allowing those airplanes to depart. Nobody appears to be disputing these facts.
Everything else about those planes, however, is somewhat less than clear. Most sources say it is four planes, but some say it is six. Exactly who is supposed to be on the planes, whether Afghans, Americans, nationals of some other country, or some combination of the above, is disputed. Why the Taliban is not allowing the planes to leave is also something of an open question.
Given that today's Democratic Party and today's Republican Party basically live in alternate realities, it's no surprise that the ambiguities here have given rise to two pretty different accounts of what is happening. The White House, for its part, says that it is four planes, that the seats are for Afghans and not Americans, and that the administration has now extracted nearly all of the Americans who were in Afghanistan and is in regular contact with the 100 or so who are left to try to make arrangements to rescue them.
On the other hand, Rep. Michael McCaul (R-TX) appeared on Fox to give his party's version of events. He is the ranking member of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, so he could plausibly have insider information, although it's not certain. Anyhow, he says it's six planes and not four, that many of the seats are supposed to be for Americans, and that the U.S. has not rescued a single American since winding down operations in Afghanistan on August 31.
Both sides have motivation to lie here, or at least to engage in some aggressive spin. So, you have to take both versions with a few grains of salt. That said, for what it is worth, Afghan officials support the White House's version of events. Further, while it is possible that the administration is being a little kind to itself with the "only about 100 Americans left" figure, it's hard to imagine that zero Americans have been extracted in the last 5 days. Finally, even if McCaul does have insider information, the White House's information is always going to be more up-to-date. If two planes full of Americans departed on, say, Saturday night, then both sides would be telling the truth, as best they know it, with the White House's truth just being more current.
So, both sides could be telling the truth, or one side could be, or maybe neither of them is. However, as we suggest at the beginning, we suspect that what we are really seeing is the continued construction of a Republican counter-narrative of incompetence, dishonesty, and chicanery. We proposed last week that the conspiracy theories would be coming soon, and we've already been sustained. Tucker Carlson and others have been peddling the story that the Democrats' real agenda here is to add tens of thousands of additional Democratic voters to the rolls, so as to influence the outcomes of future elections.
Presumably we don't need to tell you how silly that is, since even if 150,000 Afghans make it to the U.S. (the number who have already arrived is just 24,000), and even if they all go to the same state, and even if they all register Democratic (once they get citizenship in 2-10 years), and even if they all vote reliably in every election, they aren't going to have much of an impact. Certainly nowhere near the impact that the loss of a disproportionate number of Republican COVID-19 victims will have. Maybe Carlson should re-focus his energies.
In any event, we are definitely into the phase of the Afghanistan pullout where you have to be very careful about trusting what you hear, and you have to double-check your sources. Particularly if those sources involve a certain "news" network whose name conveniently rhymes with "crocks." (Z)
Might as well move on now to a story that is most certainly not going to be covered by certain "news" networks. Here are three statements about Donald Trump that are, we think, uncontroversial: (1) he lacks imagination, (2) he has little fear of getting in trouble for corrupt behavior, and (3) he created his super PACs primarily to benefit himself personally, rather than to advocate for whatever political causes he claims to be advocating for.
These things being the case, it is not the least bit surprising that the former president is converting "PAC money" into "Trump money" in just about the most obvious manner possible. If someone had pulled a gun on you back in January, and given you 10 seconds to predict a way Trump might launder PAC money, what he's doing is probably what you would have come up with. That's right, at a time when most Trump Tower business tenants have moved out or have gone under due to the pandemic, the Make America Great Again PAC is paying $37,541.67 per month for office space on the 15th floor of the building. It has also availed itself of various other "opportunities," such as $3,000 per month to rent a retail kiosk in the tower's lobby. It's hard to guess what a PAC might do with a retail kiosk, since $3,000 worth of MAGA hats is quite a lot of merch to move on a monthly basis. Luckily, that is a problem that does not need to be solved, since the building's lobby is closed due to the pandemic.
Maybe this story doesn't have all that much significance, other than confirming what we already knew, namely that grifters gotta grift. On the other hand, if the PAC "needs" more space in Trump Tower, it won't be a problem finding some, as 12 of the business floors (and some of the residential floors) are now vacant. Meanwhile, the sale and rebranding of Trump International Washington is reportedly imminent. Terms have not been disclosed, but since the Trump Organization couldn't get the high price it wanted for more than 2 years while Trump was president, it figures that they are selling at a "get out while we can" price now. Add it all up, and maybe the financial roosters (and their $400 million in mature promissory notes) are about to come home to roost, and no amount of grift will be enough to stop that. (Z)
One more story on the Trump beat, since the Democrats are primarily occupied right now with infrastructure and Afghanistan, and we've already covered those. Last week, Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH), who has pretty close ties to Donald Trump, confidently predicted that a 2024 run for reelection is not only going to happen, but that an announcement is imminent.
We would not be surprised if Jordan is correct. If you look back at yesterday's mailbag, Trump barely appears. It is, in fact, the first mailbag all year that did not have a dedicated Trump section (usually under the name "TrumpWorld 2021"). Even if we include the mailbag from the week before that, the great majority of the Trumpy letters have been about three things: (1) the use of "The Donald," (2) the grammatical propriety of "Magai," and (3) wax figures of the former president. The point is, he's really not making much news anymore. And if he's not making the news, he's not making money. And, as pointed out above, he needs that money.
So, it makes a lot of sense that Trump would announce a run, since it will put him back in the headlines, semi-permanently. It's one thing when he's just a windbag former president but, like it or not, it's a very different thing when he's official, and thus becomes the presumptive 2024 Republican nominee. He might not actually run, but it behooves him to act as if he is for as long as is possible. Yes, becoming an official candidate comes with certain legal and financial constraints that a non-candidate does not face, but see the point in the item above about his not worrying about consequences.
If and when Trump does run, it would appear that he is not going to have his wife (or is it his "wife"?) along for the ride. She never wanted to be a public figure, hated the tiny bit of campaigning she did do, didn't like being First Lady, and has no interest in doing any of it again. Since leaving the White House, she's become scarce, undertaking no public engagements, getting captured by news photographers just once, and occasionally showing up in the background of other people's photos, generally taken at Bedminster/Mar-a-Lago, just a few times. She's not far off from the full Garbo, and reportedly she and the former president "lead very separate lives."
It's hardly a secret that the Trumps' marriage isn't so much a marriage as it is an arrangement. And only they (and their lawyers) know what's in the pre-nup, and thus how much leverage the former president has over the former first lady. He may have the ability to insist that she make, at very least, a few high-profile appearances. On the other hand, he might not have that leverage, or he might decide that he's better off making use of more enthusiastic female family members, like Lara Trump and Kimberly Guilfoyle. For her part, this might be entree to a separation or a divorce. If the Trump financial empire collapses, or if son Barron is close enough to adulthood (he's 15 right now) that daddy's money is no longer that important, maybe she cuts bait. (Z)
The original Progressive Movement was known for its pragmatism, and for practicing the art of the possible. Their modern descendants have not always had that reputation. However, an interesting piece from Politico discusses how some progressive groups have found a rather efficacious way to change the system, bit-by-bit: focusing on local judges.
At this point, every reader is surely familiar with the story of how Republicans figured out in the early 2000s that Democrats were neglecting state legislatures, a big oversight since legislatures often draw district maps. So, the Republican Party launched an all-out effort to win as many state house seats as is possible. That effort continues to pay dividends; it's map-drawing time, and the Republicans have 23 state trifectas, in addition to control of another seven state houses.
What some progressive groups have noticed is that local, elected judges are another oft-neglected corner of the political system. Many are voted onto the bench on a decidedly un-progressive "tough on crime" platform, and make rulings accordingly. However, a great many voters make their choices knowing little to nothing about the judicial candidates, often from a long list of possibilities. A progressive candidate can carry the day with a relatively small plurality of votes in some localities, or can even claim a majority in others. And so, groups like Straight Ahead have had some success with electing judges whose first impulse is not "lock 'em up and throw away the key."
This is an uphill battle, since "tough on crime" is still favored by the majority of voters nationwide, and since there are only some municipalities where skilled progressive maneuvering can hope to pay dividends. Still, some change is better than none. Also, one cannot help but notice that progressives on the national level, with Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) leading the way, have also shifted their focus to process and to results. Whatever issues they have with the infrastructure bills, they are dealing with them privately, through channels. It's the moderates, like Joe Manchin and Henry Cuellar, who are indulging in not-too-helpful statements to the press and in public airing of dirty laundry. With the original Progressive Movement, the elements were in place for 10-20 years before they really figured out how to get things done, and were identifiable as a distinct and influential political movement (they reached maturity around 1900 or so). Maybe we're seeing the same process play out again. (Z)
Today is Labor Day. Our best wishes to all who are commemorating the holiday, and in particular to those who are, or who have been, union members.
As we sometimes do on holidays, both in honor of the occasion, and because news tends to be slow, we've put together a little quiz for you to try your hand at. You could Google most or all of the answers, but where's the fun in that? We'll let you chew on things for a day, and then all will be revealed tomorrow. For now, here are the 12 questions:
1. The first labor union in American history, founded in the 1790s, was for people involved in the production of...what?
- Metal goods (it was a union for blacksmiths)
- Tobacco products
2. We would not want to let this occasion pass without noting the toil of the millions of folks who could not join labor unions because their time, and their person, was not their own. This passage was excised from a prominent document before its final draft was completed:He has waged cruel war against human nature itself, violating its most sacred rights of life and liberty in the persons of a distant people who never offended him, captivating and carrying them into slavery in another hemisphere or to incur miserable death in their transportation thither.
Who is "He"?
- King George III
- Ramón Ferrer, captain of La Amistad
- Simon Legree, principal antagonist of Uncle Tom's Cabin
- Jefferson Davis
3. What is generally regarded as the first Labor Day celebration took place when 10,000 workers took unpaid time off from work to stage a parade in New York City. The president who was in office on that day is also known for what other "first"?
- First president to hold the White House Easter Egg Roll
- First president to take the oath of office in his own home
- First president to be filmed by a movie camera
- First president to have his voice recorded
- First president to ride in an automobile
4. Meanwhile, the president who was in office when Labor Day became a federal holiday was the only president to...?
- Be awarded a patent
- Serve non-consecutive terms
- Serve on the Supreme Court
- Take the oath of office from someone who was not a judge
- Graduate from Stanford University
5. Who is generally regarded as the inspiration for the American version of Labor Day?
- The Molly Maguires
- Steel tycoon Andrew Carnegie
- Labor leader Samuel Gompers
- Author Henry David Thoreau
- The Canadians
6. The federal law that formally recognized the right of labor to bargain collectively was named for what U.S. senator who sponsored it?
- Justin S. Morrill
- George H. Pendleton
- John T. Sherman
- Robert F. Wagner
- Robert A. Taft
7. It is uncommon to celebrate Labor Day in September, the majority of countries do it on or near May 1, which is International Workers' Day. Roughly how many countries have already had their Labor Day this year?
8. Which of the groups of three below includes countries that will also be celebrating Labor Day today?
- Andorra, Spain, and Turkey
- Argentina, Mexico, and Israel
- Austria, Germany, and Switzerland
- Bermuda, Canada, and Palau
- Brazil, Fiji, and Tuvalu
9. Between Memorial Day and Labor Day, Americans will consume 7 billion...what?
- Hot dogs
- Pounds of watermelon
- Cans of beer
- Gallons of lemonade
- Kilowatt hours of electricity powering their air conditioners
10. What is the relationship between the Oscars and organized labor?
- The Oscars were created by Hollywood's first labor union
- The Oscars were not created by a union, but were founded to create some paid union work during the "slow" season
- The Oscars were not created by a union, but the first three ceremonies were sponsored by a union (the Screen Actors Guild)
- The Oscars were created primarily by Ralph Morgan, who would go on to serve two terms as head of the Screen Actors Guild
- The Oscars were created in an effort to undermine unions
11. Suppose you're going to have a movie night featuring only Best Picture winners about blue-collar laborers. What's the oldest movie you can show?
- "It Happened One Night" (1934)
- "The Life of Emile Zola" (1937)
- "Of Mice and Men" (1939)
- "How Green Was My Valley" (1941)
- "On the Waterfront" (1954)
12. And finally, which of these actors was nominated for an Oscar for playing a blue-collar laborer?
- Marlon Brando (Terry Malloy in "On the Waterfront")
- Sally Field (Norma Rae Webster in "Norma Rae")
- Meryl Streep (Karen Silkwood in "Silkwood")
- Henry Fonda (Tom Joad in "The Grapes of Wrath")
- Paul Newman (Hud Bannon in "Hud")
Again, watch for the answers tomorrow. (Z)
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