Yesterday the Senate voted on bringing the "Freedom to Vote Act"—a watered-down version of H.R. 1 written by Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV)—to the floor for debate. The bill sets national standards for early voting and vote-by-mail, makes Election Day a federal holiday, requires dark-money groups to disclose more information, requires voter ID (but allows utility bills as proof) and has some other things taken from H.R. 1, but by no means all of them. Initially, All 50 Democrats and independents voted for it and all 50 Republicans voted against it. Then, at the last minute, Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) switched to a "no" vote, which will let him bring the bill up again later. The vote was 10 shy of the 60 needed to invoke cloture. Unless the Democrats do something about the filibuster, the bill is dead.
Now all eyes are on Manchin. He is not against protecting voting rights—he wrote the bill after all—but he wants to do it in a bipartisan way. Now the onus will be on him to find 10 Republicans to support the bill. It is already perfectly clear that he won't even be able to find one Republican, let alone 10. So what will he do now? Thus far, he has not commented about his plans. (V)
As the infrastructure sausage-making continues, progressives are increasingly angry with Joe Manchin over his opposition to anything that would hurt the West Virginia coal industry. They are even threatening to torpedo the entire reconciliation bill, though Manchin doesn't believe them for a second, since they want the bill much more than he does. He's clearly getting annoyed by the pressure. He said: "The more I talk, the more everyone gets pissed off. So I'm going to quit talking."
The reality is that nothing will change Manchin's mind. If he were to give in and kill off coal, he would be toast in 2024 and he knows that. This reality is slowly sinking in with the other Democrats, so they are beginning to look at other ways to slow down climate change that don't involve coal and which Manchin could support. Tax credits for environmentally friendly projects are fine with him as well as a Civilian Climate Corps, in which young people would work on projects that help the environment. Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI) reflected the new reality when she said: "I'm disappointed he's not agreeing to the biggest game-changer for climate change. But there are about $300 billion in other provisions." But then she added: "I think he will support some of the other provisions, maybe not to the extent that his Democratic colleagues want." She is beginning to get the message that Plan A (a $6-trillion reconciliation bill) and Plan B (a $3.5-trillion bill) are not going to happen, so it is on to Plan C. Majority Whip Dick Durbin (D-IL) is also beginning to understand. He said: "I hope that there are areas—I think there are areas—where we can find some agreement."
One thing that Manchin is a big fan of is technology. In Plan C, the government could spend a lot of money to develop new technology to reduce emissions, including carbon sequestration. Manchin has no problem with that kind of research.
Another thing that Manchin likes, and most Democrats do not like, is means testing all the items in the reconciliation bill, including the child tax credit, family leave, and care for the elderly. Limiting all these programs to only poor people would greatly reduce their cost. Democrats don't want this because (1) their popular support will then drop as middle-income people don't see why they should pay taxes to help poor people and (2) Republicans will call the programs "welfare," which is unpopular. The most popular programs the Democrats have cooked up over the decades are not means-tested, like Social Security and Medicare. People like them because they know they will some day benefit from them, no matter what their income is. Another danger with means-tested programs is that the next time Republicans take change, they will lower the threshold a little bit each year until almost no one is poor enough to qualify. Would Medicare survive if it were available only to people whose total income was under $10,000/year?
Means testing also has a political side. House Democrats who represent suburban districts where incomes are high, but the cost of living is also very high, are unhappy with means testing. They say that making the child tax credit, child care benefits, and free college available to only poor people will drastically reduce their support in their districts. Rep. Mondaire Jones (D-NY) said: "Many of my constituents would be considered high-income in West Virginia but still struggle in Westchester and Rockland counties to afford high-quality child care and higher education." He doesn't want the programs to be limited to people in poverty. If Manchin gets his way and many of the programs are means tested, Democrats will be whacked in suburbia next year, where these programs are popular, but only if everyone is eligible.
The real problem is expectations. A lot of Democrats thought that with 50 votes in the Senate they could carry out progressive policies. What they forgot is that there aren't 50 progressive Democratic senators. If Joe Biden had proposed a $2-trillion plan in the beginning and got that through, everyone would have been overjoyed. But because many Democrats thought they could get much more, even though the votes were never there, they are now very disappointed. Manchin himself made that abundantly clear when he told the progressives that if they wanted more liberal policies they should elect more liberals.
Manchin has been in politics for 35 years as a state legislator, state secretary of state, governor, and senator. He knows how the process works. He is willing to do horse trading, just not for things that would doom him in 2024. Over at The Washington Monthly, Matthew Cooper wrote an open letter to him that is worth reading. It starts out by pointing out that Manchin has been a consistent moderate his whole life and quite open about it. He's not a hypocrite. He isn't even the first moderate Democratic senator. Ben Nelson, Max Cleland, Mark Pryor and many others were also moderates. He's also been a long-time supporter of unions, especially the coal miners' union. No Republican supports unions. It also points out that in 2016, Hillary Clinton ran on a bold infrastructure plan of $275 billion, so he is not being miserly with a $1.5-trillion plan. But the main point of the letter is to propose a deal: The other Democrats accept that he will not vote to kill coal, and in return, he votes to reform the filibuster enough to pass the "Protect the Vote Act," which he wrote (and which failed in the Senate yesterday). Let the Republicans read the phone book on the Senate floor for 3 weeks 24/7 until they all drop from exhaustion. This is horse trading and Manchin understands the idea quite well. (V)
Joe Manchin tends to get the most attention for blocking the Democrats' plans, which makes Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) jealous. She wants attention for blocking them as well. Her angle is the financing of the plans. While Manchin is fine with raising taxes on the rich and corporations, Sinema is not. She claims to have told Joe Biden what she will and will not accept, but she has been silent in public about what her red lines are. In any event, she is not enthusiastic about raising tax rates for high-income earners and corporations. One thing that she is willing to state in public is her opposition to having Medicare negotiate with pharmaceutical companies to lower drug prices. Both of these items put her at odds with the other 49 members of her caucus, but with a 50-50 Senate, each member has a veto over everything.
Democrats can probably find some sneaky way to raise revenue in a manner that Sinema will accept, but if they do they will be throwing away a huge selling point with voters. Very large majorities of Americans want Congress to raise taxes on the rich no matter how the money is used. Voters feel that rich people are not paying enough taxes. If Sinema gets her way, their taxes will not go up and voters will blame the Democrats for not raising them as they promised. That is especially true if the method the Democrats choose to raise revenue is complicated and nobody understands it. One idea that is being batted around is taxing people on their unrealized capital gains, which would be complicated and fraud sensitive (how do you tell how much the Rembrandt in your living room went up in value this year?).
Of the two recalcitrant senators, Manchin seems to be operating somewhat out of principle (although he has investments in the coal industry). He is trying to protect his state's highest-profile industry and is worried that too big a reconciliation bill could harm the economy. He has no problem taxing the rich. In contrast, Sinema seems to have no discernable principles at all. She is just doing what her donors are telling her to do in order to keep the donations to her campaign flowing. In just about every other country, this would probably be considered bribery, but in the U.S. buying a senator or two is perfectly legal as long as the money goes into the senator's campaign account.
Even if Senate Democrats can find some formula to satisfy Sinema, a bill including it will have trouble in the House, where there is much more support for a straightforward tax increase. A Senate bill that didn't do much (to please Manchin) and didn't cost much (to please Sinema) could be a tough sell in the House, where many members resent two senators who are each blocking their president and their party for reasons related to their own personal preferences and reelection campaigns in 3 years. This is not what team players do. If the Senate passes a bill that pleases Manchin and Sinema but fails to pass the House, the voters will undoubtedly conclude that the Democrats are incapable of governing and will probably hand both chambers to the Republicans in 2022 to let them try. If that happens, the only thing the Republicans will do until the end of 2024 is block all of Joe Biden's appointments. If Justice Stephen Breyer dies after Jan. 3, 2023 and Republicans control the Senate, don't count on even a hearing, let alone a confirmation vote. (V)
The full House will probably vote today on whether to hold Steve Bannon in contempt of Congress and ask the Justice Dept. to prosecute him for it. Rep. Liz Cheney (R-WY) has asked her Republican colleagues to vote for the contempt charge. She has said she has spoken with many colleagues who are afraid of doing so for fear of angering Donald Trump and Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA), so they are trying to stay out of the news. She is calling on them to be brave and do what they know is right. Trump responded by calling her "a smug fool."
Comments made after the meeting of the Rules Committee held yesterday suggests that not much bravery will be seen when the vote is taken. Rep. Jim Jordan (R-OH) said that since the FBI is investigating the Jan. 6 coup attempt, Congress need not bother. Rep. Matt Gaetz (R-FL) said: "The average American, when they wake up, I don't think one of the first 100 things they think about is Steve Bannon and his podcast." Rep. Tom Cole (R-OK) said: "One of the fundamental questions we should all ask is, should Congress be investigating a private citizen?" Democrats criticized Cole, saying that the parties had worked out a deal to have a bipartisan commission investigate the events of Jan. 6, but when Donald Trump criticized it, Republican support evaporated.
When the vote is taken, we will know how many Republicans are willing to stick their necks out and how many will be hiding under their desks out of fear that Trump will start taking potshots at them. Our guess is that fewer than a dozen Republicans will vote with all the Democrats to hold Bannon in contempt and ask AG Merrick Garland to prosecute him for it.
The vote wasn't the only thing Cheney talked about yesterday. She said that Bannon's refusal to obey the subpoena also suggests that Donald Trump was also involved in the planning and execution of the events of Jan. 6. She insisted that the Committee would get to the bottom of it. Chairman Bennie Thompson (D-MS) expanded on what she said, observing that Trump tweeted about it in advance and created the narrative. When the Trumpers left the rally Trump has invited them to, they went to the Capitol and stormed it.
Part of the reason that the Committee wants to talk to Bannon is that the day before the insurrection, Jan. 5, Bannon said that "hell is going to break lose tomorrow." The members want to know how he knew this. Was he part of the planning? Was Trump? (V)
The SDNY is investigating financial chicanery on the part of the Trump Organization, but it is getting some company now. North of New York City, in suburban Westchester County, the D.A. is now examining financial dealings at a Trump golf course in Ossining, NY, which just happens to be where Sing Sing prison is located. It would be more than a little ironic if financial crimes at the golf course caused Trump to move west a bit under 2 miles.
The D.A., Mimi Rocah, is investigating whether Trump misled local officials to get the value of his property appraised too low in order to reduce his property taxes. Misleading officials to reduce his taxes is also an issue in th SDNY investigation. It seems to come up a lot with the Trump Organization. Trump has called the SDNY investigation politically motivated and is sure to say the same of the Westchester one.
The Westchester investigation is being led by Elliott Jacobson, who worked as a prosecutor for over 30 years for the SDNY out of the White Plains office. He came out of retirement in February to help Rocah with this investigation. Getting help from a former prosecutor is not unusual. In fact, the lead prosecutor in the SDNY case is Mark Pomerantz, who also came out of retirement to lead it. The two cases are similar in that in both, Trump is suspected of manipulating property values to lower his taxes.
The problem (for Trump) with this kind of case is that there is usually a paper trail. For example, when he was president, Trump filled in federal disclosure forms stating that the Westchester golf course was worth $50 million. However, he told the Ossining tax authorities that it was worth $1.4 million. What's wrong with this picture? (V)
After the Arizona election audit fizzled, many people thought that the nuttery in the Grand Canyon State was over. Nope. Actually, it's getting worse. Or maybe better. It depends on your point of view. If you are an Arizona Republican who wants extremists, QAnon believers, and miscellaneous crackpots running for office up and down the ballot, 2022 will be a good year for you. And if you are a Democrat who thinks "the nuttier they are, the better it is for us," 2022 may also be a good year for you. What is undeniable is that the midterm ballot in Arizona will be full of er, unconventional, Republican candidates.
Ron Watkins, who is a celebrity in Q-world (and possibly is Q himself) is running for Congress. He thinks the 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump. Maybe he should talk to Rep. Andy Biggs (R-AZ), who doesn't know who won. Rep. Paul Gosar (R-AZ) recently spoke at a conference sponsored by a white supremacist. Trump-endorsed State Rep. Mark Finchem (R) is running for secretary of state. Kari Lake, who also believes Trump won the state, is running for governor. Trumpist Kelli Ward, who said last year's election was uncertifiable, was reelected chair of the Arizona Republican Party.
Maricopa County Supervisor Bill Gates (R) said: "We used to debate over ideology. And now it is how far you can go down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theories. And if you're unwilling to do it, it doesn't matter if you're pro-life, if you've never voted for a tax increase. It doesn't matter. It's all about going deeper and deeper into the rabbit hole, unfortunately."
He is not the only Republican official who has noticed this. Shelley Kais, Chair of the Pima County Republican Party, said: "When I'm out speaking with people, I'm seeing frustration and maybe even some anger." I won't say that the first thing out of people's mouths is election integrity, but they will say that it's the No. 1 issue."
The wholesale transformation of the Republican party into a bunch of crazy people would not be as remarkable if Arizona were, say, deep red Wyoming. But it was not expected in purple Arizona, which Biden carried and which is represented in the Senate by two Democrats.
Watkins, a former administrator at the Internet cesspool known as 8chan, is running against Rep. Tom O'Halleran (D-AZ) in a district currently R+2, though that could change after redistricting. He says Trump is the de facto leader of the United States. He posted a photo of himself with Lake and has said "she inspires me with her tenacity and willingness to lead the fight to take back Arizona from do-nothing RINOs. He also said he had dinner with her recently. Lake said she doesn't know Watkins and never had dinner with him.
Not all Republicans are happy going deeper into the rabbit hole every day. Chairman of the Apache County Republican Party Delos Bond said: "I really think we're going to shoot ourselves in the foot if we just expound on 2020." But that is what the Party seems to be doing. (V)
The Virginia gubernatorial race is close. Despite most polls showing Terry McAuliffe (D) slightly ahead of Glenn Youngkin (R), Charlie Cook calls it a toss-up. A new Monmouth University poll released yesterday has the race at 46% to 46% among registered voters. The previous Monmouth poll had McAuliffe 5 points ahead. David Byler, The Washington Post's answer to The NYT's data-crunching Nates, notes that each one has reasons to think he will win. Youngkin thinks the Democrats' dithering in Congress will hurt all Democrats. McAuliffe thinks that Virginia has become a blue state. Both could be right. But only one will win.
In the last 11 elections, whenever a Republican was in the White House, the Democrats won the governor's mansion in Virginia. This has happened six times. When a Democrat was in the White House, in four of the five cases, a Republican was elected governor of Virginia the next year. Only in 2013, when Barack Obama was in the White House was the Democratic candidate strong enough to overcome history and be elected governor. And who was that amazing candidate who beat all the odds? None other than Terry McAuliffe. (V)
The pattern makes some sense. As a president advances his agenda, it often energizes his opponents, who hate everything he is doing. It often does not energize his supporters because they have outlandish expectations that no president can fulfill, so they tend to be disappointed that their guy didn't get much done in his first year. As a result, some of them may not bother to vote in Virginia.
Still McAuliffe has three key advantages:
Of course, turnout is crucial, as it always is. If Democrats are demoralized by the endless bickering in the House over the reconciliation bill and enough of them stay home, Youngkin could win, even though the state has more Democrats now than Republicans.
Although it is getting less attention, the Virginia House of Delegates is also up for grabs. All 100 members are up for reelection in 2 weeks. Currently 55 are Democrats and 45 are Republicans, but depending on turnout, the chamber could flip. Democrats have 21 of the seats in the state Senate to the Republicans' 18, with one independent, but none of the state senators are up in 2021, so that chamber won't flip this year. This also means that if Youngkin wins and the Republicans flip the House of Delegates, there will be complete gridlock. (V)
Thomas Edsall has an interesting piece in The New York Times about studies that show conservatives are happier than liberals. Why? One possibility is that (by definition) conservatives like the status quo and liberals want to change it. Change is much harder than doing nothing, so conservatives get what they want (no change) more often than liberals get what they want (big changes).
Another issue is rising levels of inequality. For the most part, conservatives believe that people who are rich worked hard and deserve it and people who are poor are lazy and deserve it. So they are not unhappy with substantial inequality. To them, it is the natural order of things. Liberals don't buy this and are thus unhappy with substantial inequality.
However, a different scholarly paper cited by Edsall has very different views. It says that conservatives score high on traits associated with good mental health, including personal agency, positive outlook, moral beliefs, and generalized belief in fairness. Consequently they are more satisfied with their marriages, jobs, and residences. This paper also says liberals are unhappier due to less religiosity, a lesser likelihood of being married, and less belief in personal agency.
The latter paper found that both groups place a high value on fairness, but define it differently. Liberals tend to define fairness in terms of equal outcomes regardless of contributions and expect the government to enforce it. Conservatives tend to define fairness in terms of outcomes being proportional to contributions and expect the free market to enforce it.
Another paper found that a key ingredient for a meaningful life is a sense of coherence. Having an all-encompassing vision of life (like a religion) could help provide it.
Yet another paper looked at the elderly. Older people tend to look back on their lives and have a sense of being part of a tradition and culture that they want to see preserved going forward. Right-wing attitudes encourage this.
However, Edsall points out that so many of the studies are so contradictory that it is hard to draw any conclusions from them. (V)