Joe Biden has now laid his cards on the table. Or, at least the cards he'll be playing in this round of poker with Vladimir Putin. Military intervention in Ukraine remains off the agenda, and for now the fight against Putin will be primarily economic.
The sanctions that Biden announced yesterday target several major Russian banks, several major Russian families, and Russia's ability to export its goods, to import things it cannot make itself (like semiconductors) and to collect on international debts. With that said, the sanctions are not yet as strong as they could be. Russia won't be kicked off the SWIFT banking network, at least for the moment. And its petroleum exports will continue for now. There is a practical aspect to these limits, as these are the things that would hurt western nations the most, if implemented. Further, Biden is also very clearly trying to keep a few playing cards in his back pocket, at such point that there's a need to ratchet up the pressure even further. Some are calling the SWIFT cutoff the "nuclear option."
There were a lot of articles yesterday trashing Biden, and we will have more to say about those next week (short version: some people need to pick up a history book). However, we would tend to expect that the fairest assessment of yesterday's announcement would come from the folks at The Bulwark. They are not Democrats, so they aren't reflexively pro-Biden. But they are also not Trumpers, so they aren't reflexively anti-Biden. And The Bulwarkers think that Biden took an appropriate first steps. In a piece headlined: "U.S. and Allied Sanctions Are the First Pushback Against Putin: They're not perfect, and they're not done, but they're an encouraging first step," Paul Massaro reaches this conclusion: "[Vladimir] Putin has ended the post-Cold War paradigm. We now enter the age of democracy against autocracy. The first steps by the democratic camp have been late and somewhat tentative, but nonetheless reassuring." Massaro advises members of Congress on European security policy, so he does know of what he speaks.
Anyhow, we're less than 48 hours into the Russo-Ukrainian War, and it's already very clear that everyone is playing the long game. Putin's forces are clearly not going to pull back; the goal is to conquer and occupy the entire country and to replace president Volodymyr Zelensky with a puppet. Perhaps Donald Trump is available; clips of him have joined clips of Tucker Carlson in heavy rotation on Russian TV. It is generally expected that Kyiv will fall in the next few days (if it takes that long), and is feared that the entire country may fall sometime next week.
At that point, it will be something of a siege situation. Putin will try his best to keep Ukraine under his thumb, while at the same time trying to cope with the effects of the sanctions. It won't be easy for him; the sanctions are going to have a real impact on an already weary Russian people, and the Ukrainians are not going to accept Russian domination lightly. Any citizen of that country born after 1980 or so has little to no memory of, and little to no affinity for, the "good old days" when Moscow was in charge. The people of Ukraine will fight; just yesterday the Klitschko brothers, both of whom are world-famous boxers, and one of whom (Vitali) is also mayor of Kyiv, announced that they will take up arms and will help to resist the Russians. That alone is going to cause thousands of young people to do the same. It's like if Michael Jordan or Derek Jeter signed up for the U.S. armed forces. And the Ukrainian Ministry of Defense told Ukrainians to make Molotov cocktails to attack the Russians with.
As Putin tries to hold on, Biden and the allies will... well, who really knows what they will do? Certainly, although this won't be publicly announced for obvious reasons, there will be cyberattacks against Russia. If the lights in Moscow suddenly go off for a week, you'll know who to thank (Hint: Unitedyay Atesstay Ercybay Ommandcay). Beyond that, Team U.S. could stick with the current sanctions, try to wait Putin out, and brace themselves for the harm that will be done to Western countries in the interim (for example, the markets are taking a beating right now, oil has already jumped to $100/barrel, and there is surely going to be an increase in cyberattacks from Russia in response to the cyberattacks on Russia). The sanctions could be increased in severity, including the "nuclear option." Further, don't rule out the possibility of military intervention. Yes, Biden is saying "no" to that right now, and he certainly doesn't want another quagmire, nor a direct war with a nuclear power. That said, pretty much every American war starts out with economic sanctions before it becomes a hot war. That includes World War I and World War II.
The domestic political situation continues to be fluid. Republicans, for their part, are still struggling to reach some sort of consensus, something they may not be able to do, given the divide between the isolationist Trumpers and the more conventional Republicans. Perhaps the best illustration of this is provided by Sen. Ted Cruz (R-TX), who always has his ear to the ground, and who is always willing to assume whatever political position he deems to be most advantageous. He was asked yesterday whether or not he agreed with Trump that Putin's maneuvering has been "genius," and the Senator responded, in effect: "Have you heard my podcast? It's really good!" For those who are not professional politicians, we will explain that this is known as "changing the subject."
Yesterday, we wrote that this situation could give the Biden administration a big boost, politically, and we stand by that. Note that polling on this subject has been very bad for the President; last week's entry from Gallup had 36% approving of his handling of the situation and 55% disapproving. However, we suspect that is part of the general Biden malaise. Further, there is a difference between "I'm not happy about a vague policy directed toward a hazy situation" and "Here's how I feel about a specific set of policies directed toward a situation that's become very stark." So, we will be interested to see what the next wave of polling reveals.
The White House, for its part, agrees with this assessment. The administration thinks that the divisions among the Republicans will allow Biden to control the narrative here. And they believe, as we observed yesterday, there's a world of difference between Afghanistan—where Americans were fleeing, dying, and leaving equipment behind, all of which looks "weak"—and Ukraine, where none of those things are currently happening. Still, it's going to be many news cycles before this issue begins to really sort itself out. (Z)
Joe Biden has, according to multiple insiders, decided which Black woman candidate he will tap as his nomination to the Supreme Court. All that is left is for him to formally offer the job to his chosen candidate—something that reportedly happened last night, or else will happen this morning—and then to make the nomination public.
There are really only two days remaining on which the President might share the news, and one of those is today. Announcing today would allow Biden to seed the weekend news cycle and the Sunday morning news shows with this story. It would also reduce the chances that the nominee's identity leaks out ahead of schedule. On the other hand, he could wait until Monday, which would put some space between the Ukraine invasion and the announcement, and would create some momentum heading into Tuesday's State of the Union. Saturday and Sunday make no sense, since if Biden wants the "weekend benefits," those are best served by an announcement today. And the announcement is not going to wait until, or beyond, Tuesday, because the President wants to talk/brag about the nomination, and he has to share copies of his speech with the respondent (Iowa governor Kim Reynolds, R) and with others on Monday night, which will let the cat out of the bag. So, it's either today or Monday during the day.
As to the identity of the nominee, Ketanji Brown Jackson is the prohibitive favorite, of course. There might well have been nothing that could have derailed that, short of Democratic researchers learning that she's sacrificed goats as a tribute to Satan, or something like that. In any event, the U.S. Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit usually issues opinions on Tuesdays and on Fridays. Yesterday, it broke from that usual schedule to announce a 2-1 opinion authored by Jackson. That same schedule change happened the day before Brett Kavanaugh was nominated to the Supreme Court, so as to "clear the decks," as it were. If we're looking at the same sort of tea leaves here, then it not only points to Jackson as the pick, but also today as the announcement day, since there would be no need to alter the D.C. circuit's usual MO if nothing was happening until Monday. In any event, we'll see how good our crystal ball is sometime in the next few hours. (Z)
Update: Biden did nominate Jackson, moments after this post went live.
Those readers who prefer a strictly neutral tone might want to skip this one. Gov. Greg Abbott (R-TX) is one of several Republican politicians participating in a high-speed race to the bottom, both in service of reelection bids, and in hopes of positioning themselves to be the Republicans' presidential candidate in either 2024 or 2028. And this week, the Governor has made his latest move in this particular competition, announcing a new directive targeting trans youths in Texas.
The Texas legislature actually considered something like this last year, and it was a bridge too far even for them. Abbott's directive is an attempt to finesse that by offering an "interpretation" of existing law (Texas AG Ken Paxton, who is also running for reelection, and who also has lofty aspirations, issued a similar document.) What the Governor has done, in brief, is to instruct the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services to regard anything done to assist trans youth (besides "conversion therapy") as child abuse. So, mandatory reporters (teachers, doctors, counselors, etc.) are now theoretically required to bring the identities of trans children to the attention of authorities, and to report parents/friends/etc. who attempt to secure medical or legal assistance for trans children.
Put another way, if Abbott's order is followed—and it's not clear that the Texas Department of Family and Protective Services or mandatory reporters will actually abide by it—it would cause trans kids to be publicly outed, whether they are ready for that or not, which would certainly lead to bullying. Meanwhile, the supportive parents and other adults that tried to help these kids would potentially face criminal charges.
As a general rule around here, we are willing to consider political chess moves on their own terms, and to try to understand the thinking, even if we don't agree with it. But in this case, we're not going to pretend this is legitimate political maneuvering that should be treated as such. No, it is unfettered and callous cruelty. Few groups in American society are as vulnerable as trans youths. Most people know that trans kids have frighteningly high rates of suicidal ideation, but do you know exactly how high? The answer is that a little more than 50% of trans kids have considered committing suicide... sometime in the last year. Some of them act on that, and some complete the act. If Abbott is able to make his order stick, then young people will die, both because they are outed and shamed, and because they are less able to get assistance from adults. It's as simple as that.
And that leads us to the pure, unalloyed hypocrisy on display here. Texas' abortion law (which targets a different group of very vulnerable people) is ostensibly in place to save lives, because human life is precious and is made in God's image. So, which is it? Is life precious or not? Are people made in God's image or not? Similarly, Texas' anti-Critical Race Theory laws are based on the notion that parents know what is best for their kids. So, which is it? Do parents know, or don't they? Or is it only parents of non-trans kids who know best?
And the thing is that Abbott (and other politicians) didn't give a damn about trans rights until opposing them became the flavor of the month with the Republican base. Further, Abbott just so happens to have issued this directive days before the Texas primaries on March 1. A principled stand, it is not. The Governor has once again revealed himself to be someone who had no limits in terms of the harm he will do, or the craven opportunism he will demonstrate, in the vulgar pursuit of power. These paragraphs are loaded with opinion, yes, but they are still analysis. Abbott and his ilk are dangerous, dangerous people, and it will not be good for the country if someone with the cruel instincts of Donald Trump, but considerably more ability to actually get things done, somehow wins the White House. (Z)
Despite turning 87 just a few days after the election, Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) decided to run for another term last year. It would appear that he has now thought better of that choice. Confronted with increasing health problems, and with a wife who is also ailing, he is reportedly planning to announce his retirement in the next few days, possibly as soon as today.
Oklahoma is a red, red state. In fact, by Cook PVI, it's tied for third-reddest state with North Dakota at R+20, behind only West Virginia (R+23) and Wyoming (R+26). So, it's not going to end up in Democratic hands unless Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) has been hiding several clones of himself on his yacht (apologies if the thought of an army of Manchin clones gives readers nightmares). On the Republican side, the Sooner State bench is deep. Gov. Kevin Stitt would probably be the favorite if he jumps in, but there is also Lt. Gov. Matt Pinnell, and Speaker of the Oklahoma House Charles McCall. All five members of the Oklahoma U.S. House delegation are also Republicans, and any of them might try for a promotion. The upshot is that it will be a spirited race. And, by "spirited," we really mean "nasty," because that's how Republicans roll these days, even among their own. So much for Ronald Reagan's 11th Commandment of politics.
And, as long as we are at it, let's play a visit to Democratic Fantasyland for a moment. Oklahoma is one of the states that does not allow interim gubernatorial appointments to fill vacant Senate seats. And given the way state law is written, Inhofe's replacement won't be chosen until November and won't be seated until January of next year. Inhofe reportedly plans to remain in place until then, but if that part of the scuttlebutt is wrong, or if he becomes unable to continue his service, then the Senate would be 50-49 Democratic as soon as Sen. Ben Ray Luján (D-NM) returns to work. If the numbers get to that point, then the Democrats would be tantalizingly close to being able to do things without Manchin and Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (D-AZ) mucking up the works. They'd still need another Republican to vamoose, or to defect. And if the former, it would have to be a Republican from a state without interim appointments (Alaska, Louisiana, Mississippi, North Dakota, Wisconsin, Texas or, of course, the other Oklahoma senator).
In other words, Inhofe's announcement doesn't really move the blue team much closer to a solution to their Manchinema problem. But Democrats can dream, can't they? (Z)
Jim Inhofe isn't the only Republican senator whose career might just be over by January 3 of next year. Mike Lee (UT) might just be joining him among the ranks of the unemployed. However, in Lee's case, if it happens, it won't be voluntary.
Lee's problem, as with so many Republicans facing political peril, is Donald Trump. In this case, however, the script is flipped a bit. The issue is not that Lee just isn't Trumpy enough for his very red state. No, it's that he may be too Trumpy for his very red state, having now spent years hugging the former president close, after initially having been a Trump skeptic. For example, Lee recently compared Trump to the LDS Prophet Moroni, which may be a wee bit of an overreach. If we're looking for someone in religious texts that Trump brings to mind, "M" is probably the right starting letter, but the remaining letters are "ephistopheles" and not "oroni."
Recall that Utahns tend to like some Republican policies very much. But they are more traditional Republican policies. Among the state's residents, particularly among those who are members of the LDS Church, there is deep suspicion of Trump and of Trumpism. The LDS folks do not approve of Trump's sexual habits, or of his dishonesty, or of his scapegoating of minority groups. After all, it was not long ago that LDS members were themselves a minority group that was often scapegoated by xenophobic politicians.
Consequently, a pair of Lee challengers—former state legislator Becky Edwards and non-politician Ally Isom—are making progress in terms of (internal) polling and fundraising right now. They still have a long way to go, and only a few months in which to get there, and it's not easy to knock off an incumbent. But the duo might just make Lee sweat, particularly if one drops out and their support is consolidated.
Meanwhile, if Lee survives the primary—which, be clear, he probably will—he's not out of the woods. Evan McMullin (I), who collected 22% of the Utah presidential vote in 2016, is back with a Senate bid. If Democrats were to decide they would prefer a legitimate chance to elect a non-Trumpy Republican, as opposed to a longshot chance to elect an actual Democrat, then McMullin could pull this out. For what it's worth, had the McMullin and Clinton vote been consolidated in 2016, it would have outpaced the Trump vote by 3 points (48%-45%). And there are probably more Utah Republicans available to McMullin than there were in 2016. So, this could end up being a race to watch. (Z)
It is not a secret that we're unimpressed by Ohio Senate candidate J.D. Vance. Given the nature of this site, we are well aware that all politicians have an inner chameleon, and a propensity to bend a little (or a lot) in whatever direction the political winds are blowing. The really skilled ones do it in a way that is barely noticeable. Vance, by contrast, is the most ham-fisted chaser of "whatever it is I think Republican voters want" in recent memory. Given how many times he's "reformulated" himself, he should adopt "Preparation H" as a nickname. Actually, there are several reasons he should consider that nickname.
Anyhow, in his ongoing project to sculpt himself into J.D. Trump, the candidate decided to direct a cheap shot at one of his many perceived enemies. The problem is that Trump knows to punch down, whereas Vance apparently didn't get that memo. After taking some criticism from Gen. Barry McCaffrey (ret.) for being isolationist, Vance probably would have been wise to bite his tongue. But instead he decided to get on Twitter and fire back:
Your entire time in military leadership we won zero wars. You drank fine wine at bullshit security conferences while thousands of working class kids died on the battlefield. Oh, by the way, how much do you stand to gain financially from a war with Russia, Barry? https://t.co/BSOIhWWkdF— J.D. Vance (@JDVance1) February 19, 2022
McCaffrey's original remarks were strong, and Vance was certainly within his rights to respond, if that's what he felt the need to do. But he should have known that sparring with a four-star general is like being the guy at a gun fight armed with a butter knife. And the slurs on the general's record and integrity were out of line.
Predictably, Vance was absolutely shredded on social media, and on the various talk and news shows. The main observations that were made:
The general himself eventually fired back, with a demonstration of what it looks like to be a little understated with your jibes, as opposed to wildly over the top:
Well. Two of those kids who served were my children. Two more are now serving … grandsons. And… I don’t drink wine.— Barry R McCaffrey (@mccaffreyr3) February 20, 2022
Anyhow, when someone like Vance does battle with a four-star general and loses so badly it makes the voyage of the Spanish Armada look like a pleasure cruise, that certainly engenders a bit of schadenfreude. (Z)