The Kyle Rittenhouse story dominated the news for a few days, but it is over now. Many people are unhappy with the verdict, but at least the killings themselves did not have any racial undertones, as a white guy shot three other white guys. Now another trial is taking over the news. Yesterday, a jury of 11 white people and 1 Black person in Georgia convicted three white men of murdering Ahmaud Arbery, an unarmed Black man who had the audacity to go jogging in a white neighborhood.
All the killers faced nine charges related to their attack on Arbery. One of them, Travis McMichael, was found guilty on all nine. His father, Gregory McMichael, was found guilty on eight of them. A neighbor, William Bryan, was found guilty on six of them. All three of them could get life in prison. The three were escorted to jail to await sentencing.
Unlike in the Rittenhouse case, the defense lawyers' attempt to claim self-defense didn't work because after the three men confronted Arbery, he ran away from them, not toward them. To defend themselves, all they had to do was stand still and let him get away. But they wanted to punish him for being in a neighborhood they didn't think he belonged in. So self-defense didn't apply, as video footage made clear. The case is especially controversial because initially prosecutors didn't want to take it up. Eventually publicity about the case forced them to have second thoughts about that, particularly after the video of the killing surfaced.
As soon as the verdict was announced, Joe Biden weighed in and said the case is a "devastating reminder of how far we have to go in the fight for racial justice in this country. The verdict ensures that those who committed this horrible crime will be punished." Due to the finding that the actual murderer was guilty on all nine counts and the others on eight and six counts, respectively, there was a certain amount of cheer in the Black community that at least sometimes justice prevails. If the three men had been acquitted, there might have been unrest all over the country.
We were curious how right-wing media would handle the story. Somewhat uncharacteristically, the Fox website just ran it as a straight news story, giving the basic facts the same way The New York Times and The Washington Post did. Breitbart had a short item on it, just giving the bare facts, although it did note that many people were not expecting guilty verdicts because the jury was 11/12 white. We were a bit surprised that these outlets just treated it as a simple news story about a murder.
But we kept looking and finally struck paydirt. National Review's headline read: "The Reality of Ahmaud Arbery's Murder vs. the Race Obsession of Biden's DOJ." It starts out by admitting that justice was done, but the second paragraph states: "The media-Democrat complex's obsession notwithstanding, the killing of Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was not a case about race. It was a case about tragic mistakes of law, which led to an unjustifiable homicide." Huh? It wasn't about race? Three armed white guys go after an unarmed Black man who was minding his own business and shoot him? A tragic mistake of law? Give us a break.
It has been widely reported that in her summary, defense attorney Laura Hogue said that Arbery had long, dirty toenails, implying that was reason enough to be suspicious of him. She was roundly attacked for that remark. But former prosecutor Mark Eiglarsh said that she knew exactly what she was doing, and that it was no slip of the tongue. Her job was to prevent her client from being convicted, any way she could. That's what defense lawyers are paid to do. If appealing to latent racist stereotypes in the hopes of getting at least one of the 11 white jurors to think that Black people are disgusting, and that killing one of them is no big deal, had worked, she would happily accept that. From her point of view, a hung jury would have been a whole lot better than a conviction. But it didn't work. None of the jurors fell for what shall henceforth be known as the dirty toenail defense. Indeed, there's a decent chance that such obvious pandering pushed any fence-sitters into the "guilty" camp.
Donald Trump didn't have much time to react to the verdict. He was busy meeting with Kyle Rittenhouse at Mar-a-Lago yesterday and praising him as "really a nice young man." Trump said that Rittenhouse should never have been put on trial. He blamed the whole thing on prosecutorial misconduct and said it was the fault of the Democrats. He called Rittenhouse "a big fan." (V)
It looks like Joe Biden is going to have the opportunity to sign the bill that contains the biggest amount of spending on social programs since Lyndon Johnson's Great Society. It may take another month and some more wrangling of Congressional critters, but some kind of reconciliation bill with spending of upwards of $1.5 trillion is increasingly likely now. So, are activists and civil rights leaders cheering him on for putting it together? Nope. They are telling Biden that they are disappointed and it is not enough.
Not only that, but they are also saying that the party's base is not excited and may stay home on Election Day next year, thus ensuring a Republican sweep of Congress, the state legislatures, and the governors' mansions. Most likely the people that the stay-at-home strategy will elect are not going to do things that the nonvoters cheer much about, but we have seen this movie before. Progressive Democrats don't have the numbers to win elections, but they do have the numbers to lose them. And they have used that power before, under the motto: "This will teach the Democrats a lesson. They will have to listen to us next time." History shows that when this happens, the Democrats generally move to the center to attract disgruntled Republicans because they regard the nonvoting Democrats as a noisy, but unreliable, constituency.
The people warning Biden now say that young people and minorities will not be enthusiastic next year. Some activists may grudgingly vote for the Democrats, but won't donate time and money to campaigns. Indivisible co-founder Ezra Levin said: "I don't know how I'm going to explain to Indivisible members across the country who spent five years of their life building this Democratic trifecta, with democracy on their mind, that we just didn't get it done."
Democracy for American CEO Yvette Simpson seconded that. She said that some of the most dedicated activists have "checked out" of politics or have turned their attention to other causes. She said they don't care about roads and bridges. She also said he should have made voting rights his top priority. However, she didn't explain where the 10 Republican votes for cloture would come from. It's easy to complain when you don't show the path to get where you want to go.
Some activists were heartened when Biden said he might like to see the filibuster modified. However, as they may or may not know, it's not his call. The vice president might get to vote on that, but the president has no say in the matter. Those same two Democratic senators who didn't want a $6-trillion reconciliation bill also don't want to change the filibuster rules. Maybe a full court press by the president might change that, but only one of the two senators (Kyrsten Sinema, D-AZ) is subject to pressure, and maybe not very much. And Biden can offer carrots but has no sticks when it comes to the other one, Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). The votes simply aren't there now for an expansive agenda.
Some civil rights leaders understand this. Marc Morial, CEO of the National Urban League, said: "This 2020 win was no overwhelming majority. It's not like in the Obama years. That's a reality check on politics that has nothing to do with will." But he also noted that the Democrats will pay a steep price if they fail to find a way to pass voting-rights legislation. Both of those things are probably true.
Surely these messages are not making Biden happy. He can point to a $1.9-trillion American Rescue Plan, a $1.2-trillion bipartisan infrastructure bill and a $1.5-trillion or so reconciliation bill—a total of $5.6 trillion—and what does he get? People carping that it is not nearly enough. No president since Lyndon Johnson has even come close to this amount of spending and still a lot of Democrats are moaning.
As Morial observes, the votes for even more simply aren't there. In particular, Biden is actually fairly lucky he got what he got—after all, over $5 trillion is not chicken feed— but he has greatly underperformed the unrealistic expectations that many voters had. If Sara Gideon had won her Senate race in Maine and Cal Cunningham had had better zipper management policies in place, things might have been different. But they didn't so it isn't. (V)
The various spending bills may be too little for some Democrats, but it is not all gloom and doom in the White House, and activists ought to take notice. Joe Biden campaigned on a promise to put many women and minorities into positions of real power and he is following up with flying colors. His cabinet is certainly one of the most diverse in history. It has five women, four minorities, and an openly gay man. When he has the power to make good on his promises, he does.
Now Biden has gone even further. The Office of Management and Budget is not well known, but it is one of the most important offices in the government. Its job is to prepare the federal budget. Actually, this is Congress' job, but Congress has long since given up on doing its job. The president can give the director of OMB some general marching orders, but no president has the time to deal with the actual budget, which typically runs over 2,000 pages. Here is the 2021 budget as an example. In recent years, it has been just under $5 trillion per year, and yet some senators think that adding another $100-200 billion a year will break the bank. The budget is enormously detailed and tells which programs live and which die. The director of OMB has the responsibility for deciding what's in it.
Of course, Congress has the power of the purse and could throw the White House proposal directly in the recycling bin when it arrives and write its own budget, but it never does. It just makes marginal changes here and there and then passes it. This gives the director of OMB enormous power. Of course, if Congress is controlled by the opposition party, there are always a lot of fireworks and grandstanding, but in the end, something pretty close to what the director of OMB proposed is approved, possibly with a couple of controversial programs removed and a couple of the opposition's pet projects included.
Biden tried to appoint a woman of color, Neera Tanden, to the job, but the reaction in Congress was so negative that she withdrew. Undeterred, now Biden has nominated another woman of color, Shalanda Young, to the position. And as her deputy, he nominated another woman of color, Nani Coloretti.
Tanden had the problem that she is very close to Hillary Clinton and that was a problem for many senators. Neither of the current nominees is terribly controversial and both are likely to be swiftly confirmed. Young, who is Black, is currently the acting director or OMB and has received much praise for her work. Coloretti, who is an Asian American and Native Hawaiiian, was deputy secretary of HUD in the Obama administration. She was confirmed by the Senate back then by a vote of 68-28. (V)
On Monday, Joe Biden announced that he will nominate Jerome Powell for another term as Fed chair. According to the late William McChesney Martin, Fed chair from 1951 to 1970, the job of the Fed is to "take away the punch bowl just as the party gets going." Now Powell will have to decide if he is going to do that, and sooner rather than later. Surging inflation may force his hand.
Price spikes have reached 30-year highs. Much of that may be due to pandemic-induced dislocations of various kinds, but the voters don't care about causes. If turkeys cost more than last year, they get angry. Some of the inflation is due to people not spending much for a year while they were holed up at home and now spending like drunken sailors, and some is due to kinks in the supply chain, but the result is higher prices now.
The main weapon Powell has for taming inflation, whatever its cause, is to raise interest rates, which are at historic lows. Many banks are paying an interest rate at or very close to zero on savings accounts. The European Central Bank has gone a step further and is forcing the banks to have a negative interest rate—that is, people have to pay the bank to hold their money. If someone has €1,000 in savings, storing it under the mattress at home is an option. For someone with €50,000 in savings, this could lead to a bumpy bed, not to mention the risks of fire and theft.
Another weapon Powell has is ending or slowing the Fed's program of buying bonds, but this is not as big a gun as raising interest rates. If he decides to raise interest rates, even a little bit, it will scare the bond market, the stock market, and slow down the economic recovery, meaning fewer jobs available. Getting it right is really tough. The Fed is expected to both manage inflation and aim for full employment. Unfortunately, making one of them better tends to make the other worse. Powell knows this as well as anyone on the planet, but he can't work miracles. If he gets it wrong, he could mess up the economy and sink the Democrats in 2022. It's not likely he will get it wrong intentionally since no chairman wants to be blamed for a recession or runaway inflation, but it is simply very hard to get it right, especially now when the inflation is probably due to temporary forces that will go away on their own in a year. But people are screaming about the price of this year's turkey, not next year's. (V)
One piece of data Jerome Powell will have to digest is the new report on initial jobless claims published yesterday. Only 199,000 people filed for unemployment last week, the lowest number in 52 years and less than a quarter of the number filing weekly at the start of the year. Here is a chart showing filings for 2021:
Last week the number was 270,000, so it is down 71,000 in a week. The Labor Dept. could not explain the drop. So, while inflation may be running high, employers are desperate for workers. Anyone who has a pulse can probably find a job now. So from a political point of view, the economy is a mixed bag. Inflation is up, but unemployment is not a big threat right now. However, most voters see inflation every time they go to the store or the gas station. The only people who notice the low rate of unemployment and the large number of jobs available are people actively hunting for a job, which is a much smaller number than the number of already-employed people who are not job hunting. Still, if unemployment is very low next year, Democrats will crow "we created millions of jobs." That always has some potency. (V)
Yes, you read that right. We were pretty amazed, too, when we saw a story to that effect in The Washington Post, but it is apparently true. The thing to keep in mind is that while the Taliban are religious fanatics and ISIS (Daesh) are religious fanatics, they are different religious fanatics. To explain this in domestic terms, while Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA) are both right-wing fanatics, they are not interchangeable.
The Taliban is largely an Afghan outfit that wants to run Afghanistan according to its interpretation of Islam and Sharia law. Members are largely ethnic Pashtuns. It is not focused on conquering the world. In contrast, the Islamic State (ISIS) wants to reestablish a worldwide caliphate, as in Mohammed's time. The two groups each think they alone know what Allah wants. So, they are mortal enemies. To put this in European terms, Hitler and Stalin were both brutal dictators, but not only were they not buddies, they went to war against each other. Afghanistan seems to be like that, too.
Specifically, the Taliban, which is now running the show in Afghanistan, has just sent 1,300 fighters to Nanghar province in eastern Afghanistan with orders to kill as many ISIS fighters as it can, or at least drive them over the border into Pakistan. ISIS has been carrying on attacks in that province and the Taliban needs to stop that to show the locals who is in charge. So the Taliban isn't carrying out this action to please the U.S., but for its own domestic reasons. While it is sometimes said that the enemy of my enemy is my friend, that may be going a bit far. At the very least, for the U.S. the enemy of my enemy (ISIS) is at least not my enemy as much anymore. If the Taliban is going to try to wipe out ISIS, the U.S. is certainly not going to discourage the project.
One of the techniques the Taliban is using comes straight from Dracula—well, the real-life Romanian Prince known as Vlad the Impaler who was the inspiration for the fictional Dracula. Vlad had his army capture enemy soldiers. He ordered the soldiers not to shoot the enemy troops captured, but instead to impale them on high sharp spikes placed along the border. When an enemy army crossed the border and saw a vast field of impaled soldiers, some dead, some alive writhing in agony, and some in between, desertion rates tended to go up. The Taliban is stringing up ISIS soldiers in visible places as a warning to ISIS and people thinking of joining ISIS as to what could await them.
It is estimated that the Taliban's "army" (which it really isn't) numbers about 70,000 fighters. ISIS has between 2,000 to 3,500 people in Afghanistan. This could give the Taliban an advantage. However, ISIS knows the mountainous territory better. Many civilians are caught in the crossfire, not sure which side they should join and not sure who is going to come out on top. But as long as the Taliban doesn't attack America and is content to try to destroy ISIS in Afghanistan, the U.S. is going to leave it alone.
In fact, this could work to the Democrats' advantage. If the Republicans capture the House and begin holding hearings on "Who lost Afghanistan?," many Democrats could say: "We didn't lose it at all. We helped install a regime that is furiously trying to wipe out our real enemy: ISIS. If they can do that without risking any American lives, what's so bad about that?" Something like that could really change the picture and neuter that line of attack. (V)
It is no secret that Pete Buttigieg would like to be president. Heck, he filed for the job and actually ran a campaign in 2020. He didn't make it very far, but he still envisions himself as a future president and everyone in the White House is well aware of his ultimate goal.
Buttigieg is basically already campaigning. Of course he denies this, but he has a good cover story. He is traveling around the country pitching the new bipartisan infrastructure law to anyone who will listen. This is legitimate because much of it is about roads, bridges, airports, harbors, railways, and other things that fall within the scope of the Department of Transportation, of which he is secretary. Joe Biden understands what is going on, but Buttigieg is a good salesman, so Biden is happy to have him spreading the word about how important the law is and what a great president Biden is for getting it enacted. Meanwhile, Buttigieg is getting to know important Democratic politicians all over the country—and they are getting the chance to size him up. If they come away with the impression that he is a loyal team player, is doing his best to help Biden, and is a savvy politician, that could pay dividends down the road.
For example, Buttigieg was just out in Arizona, a key swing state, talking to Phoenix Mayor Kate Gallego (D, and the ex of Rep. Ruben Gallego, D-AZ). She made a joke saying that she was the second most famous mayor in her graduating class—and the other one wasn't even a mayor anymore (she and Buttigieg were in the same class at Harvard). Buttigieg told her how excited he was thinking about attending all the groundbreakings next year and the ribbon cuttings a few years later. But even more exciting to him were the meet-and-greets with local officials who might be impressed by him and could potentially endorse him in 2024 or 2028. He also loves to give interviews to local media, especially those that rarely get a cabinet secretary to sit for an interview—and a high-profile secretary bringing millions of dollars, to boot.
Buttigieg is quite good at buttering up people. At an event at Mesa Community College in Arizona, he sat between Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ). He praised both of them for the great work they did in getting the infrastructure bill passed. He no doubt genuinely meant it, since it is giving him the opportunity to travel around the country like this. Probably the only cabinet officer logging more miles is Secretary of State Antony Blinken, and all he gets to meet are foreign leaders, none of whom matter much in Democratic primaries.
Some people in the White House see him as the next JFK: a young, charismatic fellow with a Harvard degree, but there are other people in the administration who don't like this development at all. These are staffers of color who see him as very presumptuous. They see Kamala Harris as Biden's rightful successor and don't like Buttigieg butting in one bit. They are fond of pointing out how badly he did in 2020 with one of the Democratic Party's most important constituencies: Black voters.
If Biden decides not to run in 2024—although insiders say he is going to run—then the order of the nominating contests will be critical. If Iowa manages to hang on and go first and New Hampshire goes second, Buttigieg has a decent chance of beating Harris in these two nearly all-white states. That could make him the front runner, although there are likely to be a dozen or more candidates if Biden opts out. If Buttigieg can do well in the two white states, he could probably survive a devastating loss in South Carolina, where more than half the Democrats are Black and Harris will likely do very well. Buttigieg is very political but a very smooth operator. Keep an eye on him. (V)
The end is drawing near. Here are the six entries that have run so far:
And now, Nos. 20-11:
And tomorrow it's the Top 10. In case you're trying to guess what they might be, the years for them (in chronological order) are: 1942, 1968, 1972, 1975, 1977, 1980, 1981, 1987, and 1994 (x2). Interestingly, only three of the ten directors of those films have already made the list. For the other seven, it will be their first appearance. (V & Z)