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The Buck Stops Where?, Part I: Masking

On Monday, a federal judge struck down the CDC's mask mandate. On Tuesday, everyone wanted to know exactly what the Biden administration would do about it. And the answer, it would seem, is: lead from behind.

There is little question that ending the mask mandate is what the majority of the American public, including a sizable chunk of folks who take the pandemic seriously, wanted. For example, the most recent Axios/Ipsos poll, which is not an outlier, says that 66% of respondents think COVID is no longer a risk, and that 64% of respondents want all federal, state, and local COVID-19 restrictions lifted. That includes masking requirements, of course. And the percentage that feels that way is up 20% since February, so it's clear which way the political winds are currently blowing.

The enthusiasm for ending mask mandates is also evident from the speed with which virtually anyone with any power in the transportation industry responded. Within hours of Judge Kathryn Kimball Mizelle's ruling, there were announcements from Uber, Lyft, and every major airline that they were doing away with mask requirements. Many public transit agencies did the same, including in COVID hotspots like L.A., where the Metro (city buses and light rail) promptly made masking optional. If you're someone who's immunocompromised, and you need to travel, you'll need to hope that wearing a mask yourself is good enough.

When it comes to potentially appealing Mizelle's decision, the federal bureaucracy couldn't quite seem to decide whose call that was, with the CDC saying it was up to the Department of Justice, and the Department of Justice saying it would appeal if the CDC decided it was worthwhile. Does the White House have an opinion, perhaps? Well, current White House Press Secretary, and future MSNBC talking head Jen Psaki declared: "We've said from the start that our COVID response should be guided by the science and data and by experts." How about the fellow with the not-quite-circular office? When he was asked yesterday about whether he wants to see airline passengers keep masking up, Joe Biden said: "That's up to them."

We wonder if folks in Independence, Missouri could actually hear Harry S. Truman spinning in his grave, as a president from his Democratic Party refused to lead on a rather major policy issue. Certainly, the invertebrate approach did not escape the attention of soon-to-be-Psaki-colleague Chuck Todd, who expressed his pique on his daily show:

Folks, it's one thing for a Trump judge to strike down an order from the Biden White House. But it's an entirely different thing for the White House to let it happen without any legal pushback. And it's not first time recently that something hasn't gone the White House's way. They don't fight back, they don't defend their rationale. They just give you the emoji shrug.

We could have sworn we'd heard something about a sycophantic left-wing media that's never willing to call Democratic presidents out. Maybe we misunderstood.

In any case, despite the passive approach to masking, the White House is most certainly monitoring new COVID-19 variants, particularly BA.2. And the Biden administration knows how to read polls; the Axios/Ipsos poll linked above, for example, says that while two-thirds of Americans are ready to be done with masking, 75% are willing to resume the practice if the pandemic surges again. So, while it might not meet with the approval of Chuck Todd, the passive approach has put the administration in the position of letting the country "get back to normal," while also leaving open the possibility of playing white knight, and riding to the rescue if the pandemic takes a turn for the worse. (Z)

The Buck Stops Where?, Part II: Title 42

Mask mandates are not the only issue where the White House could take a more forceful approach, but is apparently choosing not to. Another such matter, which is also pandemic-related, is reversing Donald Trump's decision to invoke Title 42. In service of (theoretically) protecting America from disease-carrying immigrants, Title 42 allows the U.S. government to summarily eject would-be asylum seekers without the usual formalities, like a hearing before an immigration judge.

It may be the case that Title 42 is keeping Americans a little safer, disease-wise. However, it is definitely the case that Title 42 allowed the Trump administration to more tightly control immigration, which gladdened the hearts of many in the Trump White House, none more so than the 45th president's grand speechwriting wizard Stephen Miller. The Biden administration also found utility in Title 42. Not because the members of Team Joe are inherently xenophobic, but because they know, from the President on down, that there are few issues that provide Republicans with a bigger cudgel to wield in election season than "The Democrats want open borders!"

That said, in contrast to Trump's base, there is a sizable percentage of Biden's base that actually likes immigrants and does not want to see a harsh border policy. That would include many minority Democrats and many progressives, among others. And keeping Title 42 in place while letting other pandemic-control measures (like mask mandates) lapse could come off as a wee bit xenophobic. And so the White House announced that it was lifting Title 42, as of May 23.

Not so fast, as it turns out. Predictably, several red-state AGs—all of whom just happen to be eyeing higher office on the Trump plan—quickly filed suit. Almost as predictably, a number of Democratic senators who are either up this year, or who are responsible for getting senators reelected this year (e.g., DSCC Chair Sen. Gary Peters, D-MI) have made a stink. The political climate is tough enough for them as it is, and they don't want their Trumpy opponents to be able to unleash a boatload of "borders gone wild" rhetoric against them. Indeed, Sens. Mark Kelly (D-AZ) and Maggie Hassan (D-NH), who are generally loyal foot soldiers for the Biden administration, have introduced a bill to require the White House to have a detailed plan in place before lifting Title 42. We're guessing it's the sort of plan that will take until, oh, Wednesday, November 9, of this year to fully draw up and implement.

Reportedly, the White House is working behind the scenes to convince vulnerable Senate (and House) Democrats that getting rid of Title 42 is actually better for public safety than keeping it, since folks who are expelled are legally free to try to enter the country again, whereas folks who have their day in court and are rejected are not. The Mark Kellys and Maggie Hassans of the world are not buying it, and it's fair to guess that the White House doesn't really expect them to.

Indeed, the administration could end this discussion by simply committing to a plan of action, and saying "that's it, we're done here." However, by taking the passive approach, and letting the debate play out in the open, the losing side gets to hear, in no uncertain terms, why their side lost. And our guess is that the administration, given the already tough political climate, would be OK with keeping Title 42 in place for now. Assuming that's right, then with the Republican lawsuits, and the Democratic fit pitching, Joe Biden can go to groups like the Congressional Progressive Caucus and the Congressional Hispanic Caucus and say, "Hey, I agree with you that it needs to go, but we're just going to have to cool our jets for another 6 months." (Z)

The Buck Stops Where?, Part III: Student Loans

The basic suggestion we are putting forward, in this item and the two previous ones, is that Joe Biden is taking a lesson from the Sen. Lindsey Graham (R-SC) school of governance, and is trying out the spineless approach. Unlike Chuck Todd, however, we are not proposing that this is inherently a bad thing. Biden has led boldly on several touchy issues, like Afghanistan withdrawal and COVID relief, and where has that gotten him, approval- and political-capital wise? Maybe pulling strings from behind the scenes, as opposed to getting out front and presenting critics with a giant target, is the way to go.

With masking and Title 42, the dynamic appears to be staying away from a political hot potato, and letting others deal with it. The administration's announcement about student loans yesterday takes a similar, though not identical, tack.

As readers of this site know, there's a lot of pressure on the administration to do something about student loans. It is true that many people who have taken out student loans for college are pretty well off, and don't need to be helped. It's also true that many people who have taken out student loans for college are being financially choked by their debt, and are unable to retire it, or to really start their lives as financially independent citizens. Home ownership, for example, has been the backbone of the American Dream for generations, but if someone is paying $1,000 a month or more in student loans, and is trying to jump into the brutally expensive modern housing market, well, it just isn't possible.

The new directive from the White House aims to help those who would seem to be most in need of some breathing room. It's complicated but, in essence, it will reduce the debt of those who have been paying the longest, and those whose income is the lowest. Only a small number of borrowers (less than 50,000) will see their debt canceled completely, but a fairly sizable number (3.6 million) will get at least some relief.

We doubt this will satisfy the loudest voices in the progressive wing of the Democratic Party, who want something much bigger and bolder. However, pleasing nearly 4 million younger voters is probably more useful to the President than singing a chorus of kumbayah with Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez (D-NY). Further, a complicated scheme like this, announced with relatively little fanfare (it wasn't even covered by most outlets) gives the Republicans less material with which to create a soundbite. Fox's Greg Gutfeld, for example, considers this issue to be a hill worth dying on. Literally, it would seem, as he just announced on his show that he was willing to "go to war" to prevent student loan forgiveness. One hopes that Sallie Mae is well-armed, should it come to that.

Anyhow, even Gutfeld will struggle to make hay of Monday's announcement. And overall, perhaps a more passive approach to governance will pay dividends for the White House, allowing the administration to play chess from the shadows, and to avoid the constant attacks that seem to come from media and from politicians across the spectrum. (Z)

'Tis the Season

It is a mere 931 days until the presidential election of 2024. That means that there's no time to waste when it comes to figuring out who's running. After all, you'll turn around, and—in the blink of an eye—there will be only 850 days remaining. And how can a country mount a proper presidential campaign in only 850 days? Can't be done!

Anyhow, the big news on this front is that, according to two sources, Joe Biden has told Barack Obama that he plans to run for reelection in 2024. If this was a private conversation, then the existence of two sources means that both men promptly ran to the press to blab the news. If it was in a room full of people, then the announcement was designed to be made public. Either way, it's more chess from the shadows, and it's a warning to other Democrats not to distract attention from the President's agenda by quietly (or not so quietly) getting their own campaigns underway.

And speaking of other Democrats, there is reportedly a movement among some NeverTrump Republican muckety-mucks to recruit, as a 2024 Republican presidential candidate... Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). The theoretical appeal of Manchin is plain; he might win a bunch of Republican votes from conservatives who are sick of Trumpism, while also grabbing a bunch of Democratic votes, particularly from blue-collar laborers.

In the real world, however, this is a stupid plan. Democratic voters don't matter in most Republican primaries and caucuses, and there is no way that a Democrat who twice voted to remove Donald Trump from office would make any headway with the majority of Republican primary voters. Meanwhile, if Manchin did somehow become a general election candidate, very few Democrats would vote for him. That is because most of them, you know, hate him. The Senator is politically savvy enough to know all this, and is not going to sacrifice his political career tilting at windmills. Though if he does, he should immediately announce Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) as his running mate, which would really make people's heads explode.

Finally, speaking of challenging Trump, Rep. Adam Kinzinger (R-IL) is teasing a run. Asked about the possibility of a Kinzinger vs. Trump primary, the Representative said, "I would love it. I really would. Even if he crushed me, like in a primary, to be able to stand up and call out the garbage is just a necessary thing, regardless of who it is. ... I think it'd be fun." The general tone of his remarks is joking-not-joking, so it would not be too much of a surprise if he really does launch a presidential bid as either a Republican or an independent.

That said, none of this means much of anything. Neither Manchin nor Kinzinger is a viable presidential candidate no matter which party's banner they run under. And Biden can reveal his thinking to Obama all he wants; there's a long time until a decision has to be made, and there are all kinds of known unknowns and unknown unknowns that could change Biden's calculus. We only pass these stories along because they're all making headlines, and because there's going to be a lot of this sort of stuff in the next 9 months. This is an opportunity to suggest that you take such stories with many fistfuls of salt. (Z)

Donald Trump: Batter Up (Gubernatorial Edition)

Yesterday, we took a look at the 16 U.S. Senate races where Donald Trump has made an endorsement, and concluded that in 13 of them, he's backed a candidate who is a slam dunk, or is nearly so. That means that, barring future endorsements that might change the math, he's going to have a batting average of at least .813 in Senate primaries. There are only three states where his endorsement might even plausibly be decisive in the primary: Ohio (J.D. Vance), North Carolina (Rep. Ted Budd), and Pennsylvania (Mehmet Oz). Trump could increase his risk, and thus his potential reward, by jumping into the closely contested races in Arizona and Missouri, but thus far has resisted doing so.

Now, let's take a look at Trump's 14 gubernatorial endorsements:

State Candidate Latest Poll Risk
Texas Greg Abbott (R-TX) Abbott 62%, Allen West 15%, Don Hufflines 10% None
Massachusetts Geoff Diehl None None
Alaska Mike Dunleavy (R-AK) None None
Tennessee Bill Lee None None
South Carolina Henry McMaster (R-SC) None None
South Dakota Kristi Noem (R-SD) None None
Kansas Derek Schmidt None None
Oklahoma Kevin Stitt Stitt 59%, Mark Sherwood 15% None
Arkansas Sarah Huckabee Sanders None None
Maryland Dan Cox Cox 20%, Kelly Schultz 12% Moderate
Arizona Kari Lake Lake 29%, Karrin Taylor Robinson 22%, Matt Salmon 11% Moderate
Nebraska Charles Herbster Brett Lindstrom 27%, Jim Pillen 27%, Herbster 23% Significant
Georgia David Perdue Gov. Brian Kemp (R) 47%, Perdue 35.3%, Kandiss Taylor 4.0% Significant
Idaho Janice McGeachin Gov. Brad Little (R) 59%, McGeachin 18%, Ammon Bundy 6% Enormous

The Nebraska race is something of a special case, as Herbster was the frontrunner by a wide margin before allegations of sexual misconduct were levied against him. Thus far that hasn't been a problem for Trump, who will in fact appear with Herbster at a rally next week. But if Herbster continues to sink, it would not be a surprise for Trump to give him the Mo Brooks treatment.

Beyond that, Trump has already been right in one primary (Texas), and is guaranteed to be right in eight others, giving him a floor of .642. He's going to be wrong in Idaho, where he endorsed McGeachin because she's an absolute Trump fanatic (and a "stop the steal" zealot), but she was such a longshot that his failure is not likely to be taken as meaningful. If we discount that race, and the Nebraska situation, then as with the U.S. Senate, the governor's races are set to give us three races where Trump's influence (or lack thereof) might plausibly be on display; Maryland, Arizona, and Georgia.

A sample size of six races (or seven if you include Herbster or eight in you also include McGeachin) is not enormous. Further, the Trump endorsees will probably split their races. If so, then he'd end up being correct in something like 26 of 30 races between the Senate and the governorships. That's a batting average of .866, which Trump will undoubtedly crow about as a sign of his bigly kingmaking power. Indeed, he'll probably claim it's some sort of world record. But for serious politics watchers, when his floor is 23-for-30 (.766), and his ceiling is 29-for-30 (.966), it's dubious to draw any firm conclusions, one way or the other, from batting .866. (Z)

March... Sadness, Part XVI (Final Four, Part II)

And now the right half of the Not-so-Elite-Eight (that's right in terms of physical location on the bracket, definitely not in term of being "correct" about... anything):

The right side of the Final Four looks like this:

Others #2 Fox personality Tucker Carlson vs. Judges and Governors #5 Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL)

Here are the ballots for the Final Four:

This time, we need your responses by Thursday, April 21, at 11:59 p.m.—along with your comments. (Z & V).

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