We continue to search for fresh metaphors to characterize the various budget fights going on in Washington right now. It occurs to us that the various players are twisting themselves into increasingly unnatural positions, just like a practitioner of yoga, where such positions are known as asanas. And nobody is doing more twisting than Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who—in addition to his existing sobriquet "the turtle"—should also probably be known as "the pretzel."
To commence this week's yoga session, McConnell sent a letter to Joe Biden that includes the following:
For many years, our working relationship has been defined not only by our strong disagreements, but also by mutual transparency and respectful candor. I write in that spirit to express concern that our nation is sleepwalking toward significant and avoidable danger because of confusion and inaction from the Speaker of the House and the Senate Democratic Leader concerning basic governing duties.
Since mid-July, Republicans have clearly stated that Democrats will need to raise the debt limit on their own. All year, your party has chosen to pursue staggering, "transformational" spending through unprecedented use of the party-line reconciliation process. Democrats inherited bipartisan trends from COVID relief to appropriations but have chosen to govern alone. Even now, with Americans already facing painful inflation, Democrats are preparing another staggering taxing and spending spree without any Republican input or support.
Bipartisanship is not a light switch that Speaker Pelosi and Leader Schumer may flip on to borrow money and flip off to spend it. Republicans' position is simple. We have no list of demands. For two and a half months, we have simply warned that since your party wishes to govern alone, it must handle the debt limit alone as well.
As you and I know from shared Senate experience, this is not unusual. The debt limit is often a partisan vote during times of unified government. In 2003, 2004, and 2006, Mr. President, you joined Senate Democrats in opposing debt limit increases and made Republicans do it ourselves. You explained on the Senate floor that your 'no' votes did not mean you wanted the majority to let the country default, but rather that the President's party had to take responsibility for a policy agenda which you opposed. Your view then is our view now....
Your Democratic majorities have no plan of their own to avoid default. On Thursday, we narrowly avoided a shutdown by a few hours because Senate Democrats wasted weeks on theatrics before accepting reality. The American people cannot afford the same rudderless drift toward danger with respect to the full faith and credit of our nation.
Mr. President, I respectfully submit that it is time for you to engage directly with congressional Democrats on this matter. Your lieutenants in Congress must understand that you do not want your unified Democratic government to sleepwalk toward an avoidable catastrophe when they have had nearly three months' notice to do their job.
As with nearly anything that comes out of McConnell's mouth, there is some amount of truth here, and a lot of dishonesty. It's probably useful to take a close-up look at his approach to the current situation, as well as the various political and rhetorical tricks he likes to use. So, let's do a list of 10 ways in which he is being less than forthright here, presented in the order that the dishonest and/or disingenuous statements appear in the letter above:
Oops, we miscounted. Well, you get a bonus item on the list of "10" for no additional charge. Anyhow, Biden promptly responded to the letter in remarks delivered from the White House:
Not only are Republicans refusing to do their job, but they're threatening to use their power to prevent us from doing our job—saving the economy from a catastrophic event. I think quite frankly it's hypocritical, dangerous and disgraceful. Republicans say they will not do their part to avoid this needless calamity. So be it. But they need to stop playing Russian roulette with the US economy.
If we said we know how this ends, we'd be McConnelling. Er, we mean, we'd be lying. But we don't do that, because we're not giant asanas. We will point out, though, that someone who is confident in his position, and confident that his spin will carry the day, does not need to post "letters of concern" to his website every day. We will also point out that the Democrats can respond to McConnell's entire shtick by saying two things, both of them truthful: (1) We have passed a bill to raise the debt ceiling, and as soon as the Minority Leader stops filibustering it, it can become law and the crisis will pass, and (2) the Minority Leader points out that the reconciliation bill is a big deal—and it is—and things like that can't always be rushed, even if he thinks they should be.
We do think it is unlikely that the Democrats will abandon their grand plans just to achieve a procedural goal. We also think it is unlikely, at this late date, that they can pull together the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill in time. And so, we can currently see the following potential outcomes:
Meanwhile, there has been relatively little forward movement on the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill. That's not surprising, since we're coming out of the weekend, and many members weren't really available for discussions. After all, sometimes a senator has to see their podiatrist, or attend a fundraiser, and those things just can't wait.
That said, the blue team is back at it now. And although last week is roundly being described as a "disaster" for Democrats, Slate's Jim Newell has an interesting piece that argues otherwise. His argument is that the various factions in the Democratic Party have spoken in public about their plans, but that before last week, nobody submitted their vision for the necessary sausage-making. This kind of ugly clash was bound to happen once the Party got down to brass tacks, and now it has. Having navigated those rapids, they can now get down to business, operating in the realm of the possible. And that refers to both sides, as neither Joe Manchin nor Rep. Pramila Jayapal (D-WA) is going to get everything they want. If Newell is right, then the Democrats may now be in a position to make some real progress. (Z)
There were two big news stories yesterday about executive branch rules introduced during the Trump era. To start, the White House reversed an addition to Title X that prohibited federally funded healthcare providers from offering abortion referrals. This is an obvious response to Texas' new abortion law, as the administration searches for ways to push back against that.
What is not clear to us—and nobody else seems to have an explanation—is why the rule was allowed to remain in place for this long, given the pro-choice posture of both the Democratic Party and the Biden administration. There were a bunch of court challenges to the rule that presumably won't take place now; maybe the administration was hoping to let those cases play out and to have such rules struck down for all time, but decided that the matter just couldn't wait anymore. It's the best guess we've got.
Even more of a mystery is the continued existence of Trump-era Title 42, which must have come straight from the desk of Stephen Miller, and which allows the federal government to ban people from entering the country during a health crisis. The Biden administration has made liberal use of the rule, no pun intended, including in its handling of the Haitian refugees that made headlines last week. Yesterday, State Department lawyer Harold Koh—a prominent and well-respected fellow in that corner of the bureaucracy—decided he'd seen enough and quit his post. In a scorching memo that's been read by everyone in Washington at this point, he decreed that the continued utilization of Title 42 is "illegal," "inhumane" and "not worthy of this Administration that I so strongly support."
We operate under the assumption that the Biden administration, unlike the Trump administration, is not overtly hostile to immigrants. And we know for certain that the Democratic Party depends on the votes of people who are immigrants, and people who like and support immigration. Exactly why this White House—and the Obama White House, for that matter—have resorted to draconian measures at the southern border is not at all clear to us. We're hardly experts on border policy, but Koh is, and he decreed in his memo that when it comes to Title 42, "lawful, more humane alternatives plainly exist."
Is the well so poisoned against immigrants that even a Democratic administration has to adopt a basically xenophobic posture? Is the institutional culture of the U.S. Border Patrol such that it cannot be changed? Is DHS Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas not too competent? Infrastructure and the debt ceiling are keeping immigration policy out of the headlines for now, but this could turn into a real black eye for the White House if they don't find a better, non-MAGA way to maintain border security. (Z)
This item includes a bit of speculation, but we think it's well-founded speculation. To start with, in the last week or so, Donald Trump has made quite clear that he's going to be running for president in 2024. He hasn't announced, of course, but he engaged in a wang-waving contest with Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL), decreeing that the Governor would likely drop out of the 2024 presidential race if Trump entered, and that DeSantis would lose if he did stay in. The wang-waving was in one direction, as DeSantis did not respond, but the message was clear enough: This is my party, and 2024 belongs to me, if I want it.
Meanwhile, the former president also filed yet another lawsuit last week. This one asks a judge to force Twitter to give his account back. It's basically a First Amendment claim, one that argues that Twitter isn't really a private entity, and is instead a state actor that cannot prohibit free speech. Good luck persuading a judge of that, while also getting that same judge to overlook the fact that even state actors are allowed to prohibit all sorts of speech, including the sort of libelous and/or damaging-to-public-health stuff that Trump eventually got banned for.
That said, the lawsuit may not be entirely irrational. Yes, it allows a bit of "help me fight Twitter" grift. However, Twitter might well like to have Trump back because he drives so much traffic to the site. So, the lawsuit could give them cover to "surrender" and give his account back to him. Probably a longshot, but you miss 100% of the shots you don't take, as Wayne Gretzky observed.
Anyhow, the Twitter thing is a real problem for Trump's future political aspirations. Not too long ago, he pooh-poohed the social media platform, saying that people were abandoning it because it is "very boring." We are reminded of the Yogi Berra quote about a popular restaurant in St. Louis: "Nobody goes there anymore. It's too crowded." (Note: Others made the same joke before Berra, but Berra definitely said it.) Anyhow, El Donaldo has clearly figured out that Twitter was key to his political career, and that there's really no substitute. He can go on Fox, or sign up for Parler, or post stuff to his website, but none of that really allows him to reach, or own, the "libs" in any meaningful way. And driving liberals into a lather is a huge part of his appeal with the MAGA crowd.
So, we're guessing that the switch in Trump's head flipped from "maybe running" or "probably running" to "definitely running" sometime in the last week or so. We're even willing to hazard a guess as to what pushed him over the edge. The latest Selzer poll of Iowa reveals that 53% of residents there have a favorable opinion of Trump. That's his highest number ever, and it comes a week after Joe Biden pulled a 31% approval there, his lowest number ever. This is exactly the sort of thing that Trump, who isn't terribly sophisticated about these sort of things, would see and say "Hey! I can beat him this time!" Never mind that it's more than 3 years to the next election, or that Trump twice won Iowa by roughly 10 points, making it a not-that-great test case.
If we are right, and Trump is in, then why hasn't he announced? That's where we can stop the speculation. The official explanation is that as long as he's unofficial, he can take a freer hand with fundraising and things like that. But when has he cared about trifles like the FEC and campaign finance law? Certainly not for the first 6 years of his political career.
And that leads us to the real explanation: Aides have convinced Trump that if he officially declares, then the 2022 election will become a referendum on him, to the detriment of both the candidates who support him and the Trump 2024 campaign. In other words, Trump's underlings have told him that he is simply too toxic, and he's shown the self-awareness to accept that diagnosis. Of course, that will also be a problem in 2024, if and when he gets on the ballot. Also, just because he's keeping it zipped now doesn't mean he'll be able to do so for another 13 months. In fact, even if Trump knows his aides are 100% right, it would not be a surprise for Democrats to goad him into declaring his plans. But even if he shows uncharacteristic discipline, and doesn't say it openly, he's definitely in. (Z)
Yesterday, most of Facebook was offline for at least 6 hours. That hit their stock price hard, and cost CEO Mark Zuckerberg $7 billion. At this rate, he may be forced to take advantage of that new dollar menu at Burger King. Times are tough, and with yesterday's setback, he's dangerously close to dropping below $120 billion in net worth.
Ultimately, the outage, and the big hit in stock price, are just bumps in the road. Of far greater consequence is all the recent news making clear that Facebook is, for lack of a better term, wildly corrupt.
It began, a couple of weeks ago, with the story that Zuckerberg and his fellow robber baron, Jared Kushner, struck a deal during a dinner at the White House. Zuckerberg reportedly agreed not to fact-check Donald Trump's Facebook posts if the Trump administration agreed not to pursue regulations on Facebook. If that story is true, Zuckerberg is not the businessman he claims to be, since the Trump administration was terribly ineffective at implementing policy, and likely could not have slapped more regulations on Facebook even if had been their fondest desire. Recall how much border "wall" was built, for example, or how well they did at overturning Obamacare.
Zuckerberg denied this story, of course, but a whistleblower came forward and confirmed what a toxic waste dump Facebook is when it comes to moderating content (including Trump content). Her name is Frances Haugen, and she worked on ranking algorithms for Facebook and other media companies. According to the complaints she's filed, and the interview she did with 60 Minutes, Facebook is much less capable than other platforms when it comes to content moderation. Worse, they really don't care, because Zuckerberg, et al. realized long ago that they get more traffic and more clips when they allow the bulls**t to flow unfettered. According to her number-crunching, only 3-5% of hateful content is acted upon. Maybe Jared Kushner didn't need to make any deals either, since it's pretty clear that anything goes with Facebook. Well, 95%-97% of anything, which is good enough for government work.
Haugen's not the only one who has done some number crunching, either. The MIT Technology Review published a study that found that troll farms run by foreign actors absolutely dominated content on Facebook in the weeks leading up to the 2020 election, reaching 140 million Americans per month. The most popular page for American Christians, "Be Happy Enjoy Life," with 18 times the readership of any other, is run by a troll farm. And can you guess how many of the top 20 pages for American Christians on Facebook are run by troll farms? We'll get back to that.
For now, we'll say that it wasn't just American Christians that the troll farms targeted. They also ran popular pages for Black Americans, Native Americans, and women. "My Baby Daddy Aint S**t," the #1 page for Black Facebook users, was run by a troll farm. So were "Native Americans" and "Native Americans Cherokee," two of the five most popular Native American pages. Oh, and of the 20 most popular Christian pages, the number run by trolls? That would be 19.
Facebook has defended itself, in the past, by characterizing itself as a "town square," and arguing that sometimes in a town square, unpopular people express unpopular ideas. Yevgeny Simkin, writing for The Bulwark, offers an on-point critique of that formulation that ends thus:
What's another real-world concept where a private unregulated enterprise gets to make a fortune running psychological experiments on the population of the world, which leads to a slow collapse of civil and civic order and drives everyone insane? I'm actually drawing a blank—but it sure as hell isn't a "town square."
The bottom line is that Facebook was going to get strongly regulated sooner or later. Even if the U.S. Congress can't get its act together, the Europeans will. And thanks to all the dirty laundry that came to light in the past few weeks, "sooner" just took the lead over "later." (Z)
Just in time for the release of his new book, Andrew Yang announced yesterday that he has officially left the Democratic Party for third-party politics. "Breaking up with the Democratic Party feels like the right thing to do because I believe I can have a greater impact this way," he explained in a statement posted to his website.
Everyone had an item about this yesterday, and so we're writing one too, but we assume that this will be the last time he ever gets attention from us. To start, exactly how many third-party politicians are actually relevant in America today? There's Sens. Angus King (I-ME) and Bernie Sanders (I-VT), and possibly former representative Justin Amash (L-MI). If you want to argue that the Pauls are really Libertarians at heart, then you can toss Sen. Rand Paul (R-KY) and former representative Ron Paul in there, too. In any event, it's a very short list.
Of course, what those fellows all have in common is that they've all won elections. Yang hasn't. In his presidential run, he earned zero delegates, placing him behind Mike Bloomberg, former representative Tulsi Gabbard, and others. In his subsequent New York mayoral run, he finished a distant fourth. He wasn't an impactful politician even within the two-party structure; he's surely not going to be able to overcome that by taking the much more difficult third-party route.
Acknowledging that, Yang says that he's not really interested in winning office; he's interested in "change." But that's the other big issue with him—he talks a big game, but there's little substance. In his pre-political career, he spent gobs of money to "create jobs," and then created virtually no jobs. In his presidential run, he ran on a universal basic income platform, but could not articulate how such a program might plausibly be implemented (in a country where even a $3.5 trillion outlay that will—nominally—be finished in 10 years is seen by many as a surrender to Karl Marx). In his mayoral run, his ideas were even murkier, and seemed to be "whatever someone said to me last."
There are obviously very successful activists who may be able to effect change outside the political realm—David Hogg, Sonita Alizadeh, Melati and Isabel Wijsen, Stacey Abrams, Malala Yousafzai, Greta Thunberg, Kailash Satyarthi, etc., but Yang has shown none of the skills needed to do what those folks do. It's probably not a coincidence that his Twitter feed on Monday was a bunch of messages between him and others who seem to talk much, but achieve little—the Libertarian Party, Marianne Williamson, etc.
Yang will probably still get headlines, and will still have media hits, because he's a "name." But that seems reflexive and ill-considered to us; we see nothing he's done that justifies the attention that he gets. Hence our presumption that this item, about the beginning of his third-party career, is the end of our coverage of him. (Z)