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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  The Pandemic Is Over?
      •  Whither Biden 2024?
      •  Whither Trump 2024?
      •  Dearie Is No Loose Cannon
      •  DeSantis May Soon Learn if There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity
      •  About Those Georgia Polls...
      •  Ukraine Gas-Price Spike Has Subsided
      •  Today's Senate Polls

The Pandemic Is Over?

On Sunday night, Joe Biden appeared on 60 Minutes for a lengthy interview. And in a clearly unscripted moment of the sort that the program always shoots for, the President decreed: "The pandemic is over. We still have a problem with COVID. We're still doing a lot of work on it. But the pandemic is over."

If a person is going to explain the situation in 25 words or less, this is actually pretty on the mark. Strictly speaking, of course, the pandemic is not over. There are still hundreds of thousands of new cases of COVID daily, with tens of thousands of those resulting in hospitalizations, and several hundred of those resulting in death. Many of the behaviors that emerged as part of the pandemic—masking, social distancing, working from home—are still with us, at least to an extent.

As a practical matter, however, the pandemic is finished in that it's no longer materially affecting daily life. People are working, going to school, going out to theaters and restaurants. While masking still happens, it's rarely mandatory anymore, and the majority decline to do it voluntarily. Those who are going to get vaccinated pretty much have, and those who aren't, haven't. Something approaching herd immunity has been accomplished, even if the U.S. and other nations didn't quite get 100% of the way there.

In short, COVID is no longer a five-alarm crisis; it's settled in as a lower-level fact of life that is going to be with us for a long time (and probably permanently). There's no value in Joe Biden pretending otherwise, so he gave a truthful (and reasonably nuanced) answer. What else was he going to say?

Nonetheless, many liberals and many public health activists are furious with the President over his remarks. The general sentiment is that the U.S. is nearly in position to make a push and to strike the final, mortal blow against the pandemic, but that the nuance in Biden's words will be lost, people will hear "it's over" and let up on the gas pedal, and the pandemic will come roaring back to full life.

We will soon see if this line of thinking is correct, since outbreaks of disease always get worse in the fall and winter months. Still, we just don't see what else Biden could have said, as people are no longer open to leadership on the pandemic. As we've noted before, the enormous difficulties in maintaining unity during a 2-year pandemic really serve to underscore the miracles that Abraham Lincoln and Franklin D. Roosevelt performed in keeping the public united behind their respective war efforts for 4 full years (a.k.a. 2 years, immediately followed by 2 more years. (Z)

Whither Biden 2024?

In the same 60 Minutes interview in which Joe Biden was asked about the pandemic, he was also asked about his plans to run for a second term. And his answer was:

Look, my intention, as I said to begin with, is that I would run again. But it's just an intention. But is it a firm decision that I run again? That remains to be seen I'm a great respecter of fate. And so, what I'm doing is I'm doing my job. I'm gonna do that job. And within the timeframe that makes sense after this next election cycle here, going into next year, make a judgment on what to do.

We're not entirely sure what it means to be a "great respecter of fate," but we assume it's the Silent Generation's way of saying "Let the chips fall where they may," or "Whatever will happen, will happen."

In the past, when Biden was asked about his plans, he left no room for the possibility that he might stand down after one term. This latest answer, of course, cracks that door open just a bit. And so, this "revelation" was treated as BIG NEWS by virtually every outlet. The obvious supposition is that low approval ratings, age and/or Democratic skepticism about him running again might just be starting to wear away at the President's resolve.

We are passing the story along in part because it's making headlines everywhere, but also in part because it affords us an opportunity to reiterate our view that these kinds of declarations are almost entirely meaningless. Whatever decision he will make, 500 or so days from today, is virtually unknowable, even to him.

Biden's health is, indeed, one major X factor. He seems to be in good condition, but there's never been a case of a president deciding whether he can handle a full term in office in his eighties (Biden would be 82 at the start of his term and, thus, 86 at the end). The closest we've come is Donald Trump, who obviously decided that he was up to doing the job into his late seventies, and who seems to think he could do it in his 80s (he would be 78 on Inauguration Day 2023 and, thus, 82 at the end of a second term). But Trump is a lousy case study, since he undoubtedly deludes himself about the state of his health, just like he deludes himself about everything else. He could be in end-stage heart failure, suffering from terminal cancer, and missing three limbs after having fought King Arthur, and he'd still be having his physician put out fake letters about how The Donald is the healthiest president ever. And beyond Trump, the oldest president to seek a second term was Ronald Reagan, who was 73.

The even bigger X factor is Biden's popularity as 2023 turns to 2024. For most presidents, the decision to run for a second term is about their own agenda, their own ego, their own legacy. We suspect those things aren't nearly as important to Biden and that he'd be willing to stand down voluntarily if he felt he wasn't really up for a second term, and if the American political system was functioning normally. But it's not functioning normally right now. The President believes, with good reason, that the Republican Party is in the thrall of anti-democratic types whose authoritarian tendencies are either fascist or fascist-adjacent. Under those circumstances, it would be very difficult to throw away the electoral advantages conveyed by incumbency. Biden, and most Democrats, see 2024 as a must-win presidential election. And if the President honestly believe he has a better chance to win than any other member of his Party, he will almost certainly stand for reelection. He can always be a hands-off/caretaker-type president, as Reagan largely was in his second term. The same is true of Dwight D. Eisenhower, who was the fourth-oldest president after Biden Trump and the Gipper.

But Biden does not have a crystal ball, and cannot know what the lay of the land will look like over a year from now. So, unless he has decided 100% for certain that he's retiring after one term no matter what—and we seriously doubt he has—then any comments from him about his future plans are not especially meaningful. (Z)

Whither Trump 2024?

In contrast to Joe Biden, Donald Trump doesn't give a damn about the lay of the land in 2024, and has most certainly decided that he is going to run for another term in the White House. It's interesting that he never really wanted the job, never really enjoyed the job when he had it, and yet now that he's out of office, returning to the White House is an obsession.

Of course—and he might not know this—Trump isn't the only one who gets to decide whether or not he is his party's nominee. It turns out that there are things called primaries, where Republican voters get to weigh in as to who their standard-bearer should be. Who knew? Trump might wish we were still in the era of smoke-filled rooms, although if we were, he would never have gotten the nomination in the first place (Jeb! probably would have).

Trump's problem, when it comes to the voters, is that his popularity is on the downswing. According to the newest poll from NBC, and as we briefly mentioned yesterday, his favorability rating is down to 34%. That's just two points above his lowest-ever favorability rating, which was recorded shortly after the insurrection. Maybe it will go back up, but there's no obvious reason for it to do so. A lot of voters are not happy about the former president's legal problems, or about his constant "stop the steal" harping, and neither of those things is going away anytime soon.

Further, certain key Trump allies from 2016 and 2020 are slowly starting to move their eggs to other baskets. For example, the influential conservative PAC Club for Growth (CfG) is holding events with other candidates, is sending money in the direction of some of those candidates, and is polling to see if anyone might be a stronger candidate than The Donald. As you might guess, CfG is particularly intrigued by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL).

If the primaries began today, then Trump would probably be the GOP candidate. However, all it will take is a few prominent conservative groups/individuals jumping off the Trump bandwagon, and the dam would be in danger of bursting. Recall also that, in contrast to Democratic primaries, most Republican primaries are winner-take all. So, if Trump's support drops to second place, behind DeSantis', then that is not much different than being in last place, or not being on the ballot at all. One wonders if the former president recognizes that his position is growing tenuous. Probably not; if he did, he would do himself the favor of getting over the 2020 election and moving on. (Z)

Dearie Is No Loose Cannon

As long as we're on the subject of Donald Trump, his legal team will be getting their first hearing today in front of Judge Raymond Dearie, the special master appointed last week to go through the documents seized from Mar-a-Lago.

Dearie, as we've now noted many times, was picked by Team Trump and acceded to by the Department of Justice. Nobody coud quite figure out what happened there, as Dearie is not a Trump appointee and appears to have no particular connection to the former president (other than their both being from New York). Yesterday, Axios announced that it had solved the puzzle. Speaking to two Trump insiders, who commented anonymously, it turns out that lead counsel Chris Kise & Co. have persuaded themselves that Dearie is an FBI skeptic, primarily because he signed the warrant that allowed for the surveillance of former Trump aide Carter Page. That's a pretty big leap of logic, and there's nothing else about Dearie's record that suggests he's anti-FBI. Further, the task before the Judge has very little to do with the veracity of the Bureau, anyhow. He's going to be looking for potentially privileged information, and not evaluating the FBI's assessments of the documents.

In short, if this was Kise's first big tactical decision, well, it doesn't make it seem like he's exactly earning that $3 million retainer. And already, Kise & Co. are learning that Dearie is not the pushover that Trump-appointed Judge Aileen Cannon is. Although the first hearing is today, there have already been some exchanges of legal filings and court orders, and the Trump legal team is not happy with much of what Dearie has come up with.

To take one example, among several, recall that the former president has been somewhat cagey about the classified documents that were found at his residence. Since Kise took over, the party line has been that the documents weren't really classified, maybe because the FBI is fibbing, or maybe because Trump declassified them before leaving office. Trump's lawyers have been deliberately vague on this, since the FBI isn't fibbing, and since there's no evidence Trump tried to declassify the materials (which he might not have been able to do, anyhow). In any case, Dearie clearly has a finely tuned B.S. detector, because he wants details about which documents are supposedly no longer classified, and why. Kise and his colleagues do not wish to provide these details because they claim that would throw a wrench into Trump's future legal defense. Which is true, in the sense that when Team Trump is unable to provide this details, it will make clear that they are full of it.

We shall see how things shake out today, but it means there is a veritable certainty there will be another Trump legal item tomorrow. (Z)

DeSantis May Soon Learn if There's No Such Thing as Bad Publicity

Ron DeSantis is one of those folks who would change their name to "TV Listings" if they thought it would get them in the newspapers a bit more. And he's a master of getting free publicity with all of his various political stunts. That sort of publicity is invaluable to a politician, and may be doubly so to a Republican politician, if it turns out that the GOP is now permanently #2 when it comes to fundraising.

Yesterday, we had an item about DeSantis' latest stunt, in which he flew 50 refugees from Texas to a small airport in Florida and then to Martha's Vineyard. Our observation is that it's definitely been a short-term win for him, but that long-term he might end up paying the piper. There were developments yesterday that further advance that same storyline.

We'll start with the good news for the Governor: In the last 6 months, he's gotten mentioned on Fox more often than any 2024 Republican presidential contender other than Donald Trump. DeSantis has gotten 1,021 mentions, easily outpacing former VP Mike Pence (585), Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX; 442), and former U.N. ambassador Nikki Haley (161). And given Fox's recent move to distance the channel a bit from Trump, DeSantis may soon overtake him.

Now, on to the bad news. Florida Democrats are not shutting up about the possibility that DeSantis broke the law by misusing state funds. And two prominent members of the Florida state House have just sent a letter to Republican leadership insisting that the matter be looked into. We are doubtful that any Republican in Florida would dare challenge the governor. After all, they all surely know about the Night of the Long Knives. But, you never know. (Is that reference a little hyperbolic? Yes. Is it a lot hyperbolic? We think not.)

And that's not all. Bexar County Sheriff Javier Salazar (D) is hopping mad about DeSantis' stunt, and yesterday announced that he has begun a criminal investigation into the matter. There are some pretty tricky legal principles in play here, so we haven't the faintest idea if something might actually come of this, and if one day the Governor might be making an all-expenses paid trip to Bexar County... in leg irons. But we do know that, if given the choice, it's better to have no sheriffs investigating you than it is to have one (or more) investigating you.

Finally, in perhaps the best evidence that DeSantis might have really crossed the line this time, Ted Cruz appeared on Fox (mention #443!) to declare that "the biggest human trafficker on the face of the planet is Joseph Robinette Biden Jr." As we know from the last several years, anytime Republicans are feeling particularly vulnerable on a particular misdeed, they fight back by accusing Democrats of doing the same thing. And the person who is far and away most likely to engage in this sort of whataboutism is one Rafael Edward "Ted" Cruz (since we're apparently using full names). So, we take Cruz' Fox interview as prima facie evidence that he thinks there is at least some fire behind the smoke currently emanating from the S.S. DeSantis. (Z)

About Those Georgia Polls...

We have been scratching our heads when it comes to the various polls of Georgia, since most of them show Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA) doing considerably better than Republican U.S. Senate nominee Herschel Walker. After all, split-ticket voters are right up there with the Eastern Lowland Gorilla, the Javan Rhino and the Sumatran Elephant on the critically endangered species list.

We weren't the only ones scratching our heads; the folks at The Bulwark were curious, too. Unlike us, however, they decided to look into the matter. Writer Tim Miller took to the road in the Peach State to talk to people and to figure out what's going on. And he discovered a couple of things.

First, and to nobody's surprise, many Georgia voters see Walker as a deeply flawed candidate. The article makes liberal use of words like "clown" and "loon." Kemp is competent, has a recognizable and basically coherent political ideology, and is not joined at the hip with Donald Trump. None of these things is true of Walker. So, the former football player is bleeding a fair bit of Republican support, from split-ticket voters who would prefer a capable Democrat to a Republican who is a boob.

Second, and a bit more surprising, is that Abrams has some baggage that is holding her back. Warnock has succeeded in portraying himself as a moderate who largely takes his cues from Martin Luther King Jr. (former holder of Warnock's current pulpit), and not from Washington. Abrams is perceived by many to be ultra-lefty, and to be in the thrall of the Liberal Elite™. These things might not actually be true, but in politics, perception is often reality. Further, Abrams' unwillingness to accept the result when she was defeated in 2018 has rubbed some Georgians the wrong way.

So there you have it—perfectly reasonable assessments for why there would be Kemp-Warnock voters. And, as long as we're visiting Georgia anyhow, Walker attempted to manage expectations for his debate with Warnock, warning reporters that he (Walker) is "not that smart." Here's the full quote:

Talking to the voters, talking to you. You told me I gotta prepare, so I'm preparin'. I'm this country boy, you know, I'm not that smart. And he's that preacher. He's a smart man, wears these nice suits. So he going to show up there, embarrass me at the debate, October the 14th. And I'm just waiting, you know, I'll show up and I'm [going to] do my best.

That's probably not the best thing for an aspiring U.S. senator to admit, and later in the day a Walker spokesman tried to clean things up, asserting that the candidate was just being sarcastic and that anyone who doesn't realize that is, well, not that smart. It did not read like sarcasm to us, though we concede we did not have the benefit of seeing Walker's body language or hearing his tone of voice. In any event, the incident reaffirms the perception of a campaign that's always lurching from crisis to crisis, as it puts out fire after fire lit by the candidate. (Z)

Ukraine Gas-Price Spike Has Subsided

On the day that Russia invaded Ukraine, the average price of a gallon of gas in the United States was $3.67. Yesterday, the average price of a gallon of gas in the United States dropped... to $3.67/gallon. So, at least for Americans, and at least on the gasoline front, the impact of the war in Ukraine has dissipated. In fact, given the current high rate of inflation, which you may have heard about, gas is technically a little cheaper right now than it was on the day Russia invaded.

The price is still considerably higher than it was a year ago ($3.20/gallon). But it is also way, way off the high-water mark set on June 14 of $5.02/gallon. That's the highest average price in American history. It is stunning to us that the price could fall so far so fast, but the petroleum economy has always been kinda wacky. It's expected, given the current price of crude oil and of oil futures that the price per gallon will continue to drop over the next month to two, down to $3.40/gallon or so.

Eventually, of course, the price of gas can and will go up. But, heading into the general election, the price is going to be very similar to where it was last year at this time, and the overall trajectory is going to be sharply downward. Joe Biden and his party have to be absolutely thrilled about this, as it means that gas prices are not likely to hurt the blue team, and might even help a bit. Put it this way: Republicans aren't putting those Joe Biden "I did that!" stickers on gas pumps anymore. (Z)

Today's Senate Polls

Time is running out for Trudy Valentine and Mehmet Oz to make a race out of their respective contests. Chris Chaffee's goose, on the other hand, is already cooked. (Z)

State Democrat D % Republican R % Start End Pollster
Maryland Chris Van Hollen* 56% Chris Chaffee 33% Sep 08 Sep 12 Goucher Coll.
Missouri Trudy Valentine 36% Eric Schmitt 47% Sep 14 Sep 18 SurveyUSA
Pennsylvania John Fetterman 49% Mehmet Oz 39% Sep 08 Sep 12 Monmouth U.
Wisconsin Mandela Barnes 48% Ron Johnson* 47% Sep 14 Sep 15 Siena Coll.

* Denotes incumbent

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
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