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Manchin Yanks the Rug out from under the Democrats--Again

Build Back Better v1.0 was going to be a massive, and possibly transformational, outlay. But then it underwent the slasher treatment, primarily courtesy of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV). Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (D-NY) has spent many weeks trying to piece version—what, 12.0? 15.0? 16.183a?—together. And yesterday, Manchin got out the machete once again.

We should start by noting that, given the various high-profile failures that have come before, Schumer and other Senate Democrats have been playing according to the precise rules laid out by Manchin. The negotiations have been almost entirely on the down-low, and not in public. None of the other Democratic senators has gone on Meet the Press or Maddow to lambaste the West Virginian. And, most importantly, the discussions have proceeded along the exact lines demanded by Manchin: a rollback of the Trump tax cut, allowing Medicare to negotiate lower drug prices, and then using the revenue generated to reduce the deficit and to invest in fighting climate change. There is no question that this was the roadmap; the Senator himself said: "The revenue producing [measures] would be taxes and drugs. The spending is going to be climate."

Yesterday, as he so often does, Manchin changed his mind. In view of the inflation that the country is experiencing right now, he announced that a tax cut and climate spending are now off the table. All that he's willing to support now is a 2-year extension of ACA subsidies, to be paid for by allowing Medicare to negotiate on drugs. Schumer will presumably take the deal, as it's all that left at this point. Well, assuming Manchin does not change his mind again next week, and jump ship on the two remaining policy proposals, that is.

From where we sit, there is no avoiding the conclusion that Manchin is a huge jerk. Policy aside, it's a jerk move to let your colleagues invest their blood, sweat and tears into kowtowing to you for multiple weeks, and then to say: "Thanks, but no thanks!" And then there is the statement that a Manchin staffer made on the Senator's behalf:

Political headlines are of no value to the millions of Americans struggling to afford groceries and gas. Sen. Manchin believes it's time for leaders to put political agendas aside, reevaluate and adjust to the economic realities the country faces to avoid taking steps that add fuel to the inflation fire.

First of all, Manchin sounds like Fox when he implies that his fellow Democrats are just interested in headlines, and aren't actually trying to help people. Second, this "put political agendas aside" mantra of his is bulls**t. As the Senate is currently constituted, there is zero potential for the parties to agree on legislation like this. If Manchin knows this—and he must—then he's being incredibly disingenuous. And if somehow he doesn't know it, then he's a moron.

All of this said, we don't think that the failure of Build Back Better matters all that much for the midterms. We continue to believe that November is going to turn on some combination of inflation and abortion, and that the gridlock in Congress will be a relatively minor consideration in voters' minds.

And as a sidebar, we follow general newspaper style and do not capitalize prepositions in headlines. That caused us to notice that the headline for this particular item has three consecutive prepositions. There can't be that many constructions in English that have that, can there? (Z)

Senate Agrees to Clarify Role of VP in Elections

The Senate isn't going to approve any of Joe Biden's social spending anytime soon, but they have reached agreement on another matter of importance: reforming the Electoral Count Act, so as to make clear that the role of the vice president in counting the electoral votes is purely ceremonial.

The difference between this bill and Build Back Better (see above) is plain as day, and if we can see it, then surely Joe Manchin should be able to see it. Political parties, by their nature, are self-interested, and primarily pursue what is good for them and for their constituents. That has been the case for 200 years. What's unusual today is that horse trading and compromise is frowned upon by voters in both parties. Any Republican who supports a Democratic policy goal risks slurred as a RINO, any Democrat who reaches across the aisle in the other direction risks being slurred as a fascist or traitor.

The Electoral Count Act is getting fixed because doing so serves the interests of both parties. Democrats don't want another situation where a Mike Pence may be the only thing keeping the nation from descending into a constitutional crisis. Republicans have taken note of the fact that the current vice president just so happens to be a Democrat, and that if the rules aren't clarified, it could be the GOP that ends up with the short end of the stick on Jan. 6, 2025.

Build Back Better will never work like this because the modern Republican Party is reflexively opposed to virtually all spending that isn't military and, as noted, GOP voters are infuriated by compromise with the Democrats. BBB can only be passed with Democratic votes, using reconciliation, which is why Manchin's constant refrain of "kumbayah" is so dishonest/stupid. (Z)

Lost, Not Stolen

As long as we're on the subject of the 2020 election, there are plenty of Republicans who hate "Stop the steal," because they think it's hurting the Party, or they think it's hurting the country, or both. And a group of them decided to try to do something about it. Yesterday, former U.S. senators John Danforth and Gordon H. Smith, former judges Thomas B. Griffith, J. Michael Luttig and Michael W. McConnell, former solicitor general Theodore B. Olson, and longtime GOP operatives Benjamin L. Ginsberg and David Hoppe issued a report entitled: "LOST, NOT STOLEN: The Conservative Case that Trump Lost and Biden Won the 2020 Presidential Election."

The basic thesis of the document is contained within the introduction:

Donald Trump and his supporters have failed to present evidence of fraud or inaccurate results significant enough to invalidate the results of the 2020 Presidential Election. We do not claim that election administration is perfect. Election fraud is a real thing; there are prosecutions in almost every election year, and no doubt some election fraud goes undetected. Nor do we disparage attempts to reduce fraud. States should continue to do what they can do to eliminate opportunities for election fraud and to punish it when it occurs. But there is absolutely no evidence of fraud in the 2020 Presidential Election on the magnitude necessary to shift the result in any state, let alone the nation as a whole. In fact, there was no fraud that changed the outcome in even a single precinct. It is wrong, and bad for our country, for people to propagate baseless claims that President Biden's election was not legitimate.

Consistent with the fact that most of the authors are lawyers, the document is both thorough and meticulous, zooming in on various claims made about the election in six different states (Arizona, Georgia, Michigan, Nevada, Pennsylvania, and Wisconsin).

We haven't got much sense of whether or not this report could plausibly have an impact. Most of the people who believe in "Stop the steal" don't care a whit for evidence, no matter what the source, and they are likely to slur these fellows as RINOs. That said, the report does give folks who might appear on Fox a weapon to wield: "Even prominent conservatives who have looked at Donald Trump's claims have dismissed them!" So, there may be an impact there. (Z)

Everything Trump Touches Turns Corrupt

King Midas, of course, had the Midas Touch—everything he touched turned to gold. Donald Trump most certainly doesn't have that ability, but he appears to have a related "skill," with a remarkable power to bring corruption anywhere and everywhere, even to institutions regarded in the past as incorruptible. Today's (apparent) example: the United States Secret Service.

The news, which we were first alerted to by reader J.S. in The Hague, Netherlands, is that the 1/6 Committee requested copies of the text messages that Secret Service agents exchanged before, during, and after the insurrection. And Secret Service officials responded that gee, they would like to help, but that the messages "accidentally" got deleted. Shades of Richard Nixon.

If this explanation is true, then it makes the Secret Service look incompetent. But obviously, we're not buying it. And if the deletions were deliberate, then it means that the agents were either trying to protect their turf in general, or were trying to protect Trump in particular. None of these possibilities reflects well on the U.S.S.S., obviously.

The Committee is going to try to reconstruct the messages, though it's not publicly known what methods they might use, or what messages they already have through other channels. In fact, it's not even clear at this point whether all the requested messages were deleted, or just some. All of this will come out eventually. Meanwhile, from this point forward, any information the agents offer when it comes to Trump should be taken with several grains of salt. For example, it's now hard to put much stock in their pushback against Cassidy Hutchinson's 1/6 Committee testimony. (Z)

Abrams Is Awash in Cash

The Q2 fundraising reports continue to roll in, and they continue to have lots of great news for the Democrats. The Republicans continue to play things close to the vest, although today's the deadline, so that approach isn't going to last much longer, and all will be revealed. We'll have a breakdown of the numbers of the Senate next week, but today let's take a look at the Georgia gubernatorial race, which was the big fundraising story of the day yesterday.

Democratic candidate Stacey Abrams is a fundraising machine, of course. Gov. Brian Kemp (R-GA), by contrast, is a bit less skilled on that front. Further, he is constrained by the fact that he has to spend at least some of his time doing his day job, and by the fact that Georgia law largely does not allow him to fundraise while the legislature in session. As a result of all of these things, it comes as no surprise that Abrams is dominating Kemp, taking in $49.6 million to the Governor's $32.9 million.

That's great news for the Democrats, right? Abrams outpaced Kemp by nearly $20 million, and has clearly inspired a lot of enthusiasm. But... what happens if we add this: The great majority of Kemp's haul ($27.5 million, or 83%) came from Georgia. The state that gave Abrams the most support, by contrast, was... California ($10.2 million). Only $7 million of Abrams' fundraising (14%) came from Georgia, and $1.5 million of that was a donation from Fair Fight, an advocacy group founded and operated by... Stacey Abrams.

That's great news for the Republicans, right? Last we checked, Californians cannot vote in Georgia. So, the people who can actually cast ballots in the gubernatorial election are overwhelmingly behind Kemp (by a margin of roughly 4-to-1). But... what happens if we add in this: Because it's a state (and not federal) campaign, candidates can accept very large donations from individuals or businesses. There is no $2,900 limit. And if the donations are small enough, the candidates don't have to submit information about where the money came from. Abrams had $6.7 milion in unitemized donations, whereas Kemp had a mere $567,000. This strongly suggests that Abrams has significant grassroots support, whereas Kemp is being funded primarily by fat cats. And fat cats get only one vote, just like everyone else.

That's great news for the Democrats, right? Probably. But the real point here is that fundraising tallies are so hard to parse these days that you just can't imbue them with too much meaning. It's better to have more money than less, and big fundraising takes correlate somewhat with voter enthusiasm, but only somewhat. Polling, even given the weaknesses that have presented themselves, is still far more instructive. And at the moment, the polls have Kemp up by an average of about 6 points. So, Abrams is going to have to spend those millions very wisely. (Z)

Indiana AG Targets Indiana Abortion Doctor

The story of the 10-year-old rape victim has clearly become the first high-profile battle over abortion in post-Roe America. As we have noted, the girl was victimized in Ohio, but because that state has already outlawed virtually all abortions, she had to travel to neighboring Indiana to end her pregnancy. Many on the right insisted that the story was fake news, and that the doctor who reported the story made it up. That "hot take" became more than a little problematic when, as we noted yesterday, the rapist confessed.

One would think that Republicans would run for this hills, in hopes of getting as far away from this story as is humanly possible. But Indiana AG Todd Rokita (R) did not get that memo. He announced yesterday that he is launching an investigation of the doctor who performed the abortion, with an eye towards criminal prosecution and/or suspension of her medical license.

The doctor's name is Caitlin Bernard, and performing the abortion itself is not currently illegal under Indiana law. However, the Hoosier State does require that a report be filed within three days of the procedure. This is the angle that Rokita is going to focus on. CNN and other outlets have already confirmed that Bernard did indeed file the paperwork. And really, any of us could have figured that out without CNN's help. She is an academic physician (Indiana University) who was well aware that this story would blow up. Of course she filed the paperwork.

Rokita is certainly able to do this same analysis, and he also has access to the same resources that CNN does, so he knows full well that this is a wild goose chase. However, he undoubtedly looks in the mirror and sees future governor Rokita or future senator Rokita, and so is doing some grandstanding and some harassment of Bernard to score political points, since his base is staunchly anti-abortion. It's rational, if reprehensible, for Rokita to abuse his powers like this.

We pass this story along, in particular, because we suspect there are going to be a number of stories in the next few months with this dynamic. That is to say, news items that highlight the most extreme implications of red-state abortion policy, where the national GOP would like to make them go away for fear of blowback in states like Pennsylvania and Nevada, but the local GOP organs see an opportunity to squeeze them in order to please local voters. This could prove to be significant in the midterms. (Z)

This Week In Schadenfreude

Some weeks, it's a little hard to find something that works well for this item. And some weeks, there is an abundance of riches. We've got a backlog that will probably spill over into next week, and so today you get three for the price of one. Such a bargain!

First up is Bible thumper, former judge, former U.S. Senate candidate, and accused sexual predator Roy Moore. Moore does not like being reminded that he is an accused sexual predator, and gets very angry with people who do so. Comedian Sacha Baron Cohen saw an opportunity for comedic gold, however, and so arranged to conduct an interview with the accused sexual predator, albeit in the guise of (fictional) Israeli security expert Gen. Erran Morad (you can watch the clip here, if you wish). And during the interview, "Morad" demonstrated the use of a (fictional) pedophile detector, which beeped like crazy whenever it was in the vicinity of Moore.

Moore doesn't exactly come off as a rocket scientist here, since he didn't see through the gag. That may be forgivable, since Baron Cohen is very good at what he does. However, Moore doubled down by suing Baron Cohen, despite having no case whatsoever. First of all, parody and satire are well-established exceptions to defamation law, and second, Moore signed a pile of waivers before the interview waiving his right to sue (see: not a rocket scientist). So, the only effect of the lawsuit was the Streisand Effect—filing it served only to remind everyone that Moore is an accused sexual predator. When he lost the suit, it reminded people yet again that he's an accused sexual predator. And when he appealed, Moore reminded people for a third time that he's an accused sexual predator. And now, Moore has (predictably) lost his appeal, which means no renumeration or apology, and yet another wave of stories reminding people he's an accused sexual predator. Wonder if he'll appeal again.

And now, we move on to the restaurant beat. As many readers will recall, before Rep. Lauren Boebert (R-CO) was a member of Congress, she was a restaurateur. And the "selling point" for her restaurant, such as it is, was that most of the wait staff was packing heat. Hard to know how that makes the food taste better, since we're not talking the kind of heat that makes for a juicy burger. But apparently it worked, since the name of the restaurant—Shooters Grill—made very clear what kind of establishment people were eating at.

As of this week, however, Boebert is a restaurateur no more, as her landlords declined to renew the restaurant's lease. Perhaps they disagree with her politics. More likely, they took note of the nation's propensity for mass shootings, of the fact that Boebert is a lightning rod, and of her establishment's laissez-faire attitude about guns, and decided that the liability here was something they wanted no part of. The Representative says she and her husband are praying for a new location, but nothing has presented itself, as yet. And really, if you can't keep that business going in a town that is literally named Rifle, where can you keep it going? In any event, it's too bad that Boebert's employees lost their jobs, but it's pretty good that her approach to guns has led to consequences for her. Even responsible gun owners—and there are many of them among the readers of this site—surely must agree that this kind of performative (metaphorical) di**-waving is dangerous and counterproductive.

Finally, for our third item, we will remain on the restaurant beat. Most readers are probably aware by now that Associate Justice Brett Kavanaugh went to dine at Morton's The Steakhouse last week, which led to a (peaceful) protest being organized out front of the establishment. This does not seem particularly disruptive to us; lots of restaurants have lots of people and/or noisy stuff going on out front. And Kavanaugh does travel with a security detail. Nonetheless, he is apparently a delicate flower who does not like to be reminded that he may not be the most popular fellow in the land. So, he snuck out the back door of the restaurant.

Because the Justice had to leave hurriedly, he was not able to have dessert. But that's not where the schadenfreude is here, at least not most of it. No, it has to do with the restaurant's response, as it strongly took sides with Kavanaugh. Really, they probably should have stayed out of it, since speaking up kind of made it seem as if they favor wealthy and powerful people over, say, the poverty-stricken young women who will be forced to carry unwanted children to term. But making things worse is the absolutely ridiculous, overwrought statement that Morton's issued: "Politics... should not trample the freedom at play of the right to congregate and eat dinner." Hm, for some reason, our copy of the Constitution does not seem to mention the right to eat dinner.

As a result of this, Morton's is now being bombarded with fake reservations. Of course, the game here is to try to sneak past a name that is clearly satirical, but that the restaurant does not recognize as such. So, the person who made a reservation as "Arnold Benedict" probably scored a victory, while we doubt that Morton's actually put "Abortion Rights" or "Kava Naugh" into their reservation schedule.

In any event, we've got several cases here of people who reaped a little bit of what they sowed. So, hopefully you found some schadenfreude in at least one of the three stories. (Z)

Political Chaos in Italy

Tip O'Neill famously decreed that "all politics is local." There's a fair bit of truth there, but you wouldn't want to take it too far. Sometimes, to understand what's going on, you have to look with a wider lens—nationally, or even internationally. To take three notable examples, prohibition, progressivism, and red scares were not just an American phenomenon, they had clear counterparts in many other countries of the world in the eras in which they unfolded. Clearly, there were underlying dynamics that stretched well beyond America's borders.

We bring this up because there's clearly a lot of political unrest around the world right now. Boris Johnson was sacked in the United Kingdom. Former Japanese PM Shinzo Abe was assassinated. Israel can't go 6 months without holding a new election. Colombia just elected its first-ever left-wing leader. Fully making sense of the connections here will be a task for future scholars, but it's clear that these things (along with Trumpism) are not happening in a vacuum.

The latest case study here is the nation of Italy. You know, the folks who brought you the Roman Empire, the Renaissance, and pizza. A real soap opera is unfolding there right now: Prime Minister Mario Draghi called for a vote of no confidence and won, but the Movimento Cinque Stelle, which is the largest segment of the coalition government, abstained from participation. So, Draghi resigned, only to have President Sergio Mattarella reject the resignation.

Sounds like turmoil to us. With that said, there are nuances and subtleties here that we could not possibly hope to grasp. And since the only Italian we know is "C'è qualcuno che parla inglese?," we can't exactly go to the horse's mouth (a.k.a. the bocca di cavallo) to figure it out. So, we reached out to Italian reader M.M. in Milan for an explanation, Here it is:

You might be aware that in Italy we are wading through the umpteenth cabinet crisis. Just a grim statistic to start with: In 77 years, we have had 67 cabinets.

In my opinion, the main problem is the extreme fragmentation of the party system, arising also from a mostly proportional representation system that encourages virtually everybody to form their own political party, in the (usually hopeless) attempt to cross a threshold (around 3%) and get at least one MP elected.

Further, our electoral system and laws are ever-changing, according to the wishes of the parties in power. Right now we have a mixed system (1/3 first-past-the-post, 2/3 proportional), which is a perfect recipe for a stand-off and forces parties to form (sometimes unnatural) coalitions after the vote.

We have roughly five different political groupings; their results ebb and flow with no steady patterns:
  1. Center-left, main party: PD (Partito Democratico, i.e. Democratic Party). Social-democratic, I'd say slightly overlapping the left of U.S. Democratic Party.

  2. Populist center, an ever-shifting and incoherent formation. This political niche is currently taken by "Movimento Cinque Stelle," founded by a comedian-turned-demagogue.

  3. More traditional center, fragmented into small parties, usually irrelevant unless they enter some coalition.

  4. Center-right, home of Silvio Berlusconi (yes, he's still treading the boards) and his acolytes.

  5. Populist right (and far-right), including "Lega" (former "Lega Nord") and "Fratelli d'Italia" (the heirs of post-fascist parties), often spouting racist and bigoted views.
Usually, general elections result in some sort of stand-off. In the last one (2018), Movimento Cinque Stelle (populist center) and Lega (populist right) formed a coalition cabinet; one year later the cabinet broke up and the very same Movimento Cinque Stelle formed another coalition cabinet, this time with the Democratic Party. A textbook definition of opportunism.

Then, enter the pandemic. In the midst of the crisis (late 2020) the cabinet lost its majority. After consultations with political parties, President Sergio Mattarella talked Mario Draghi—the former governor of European Central Bank and highly respected technocrat, well-liked and well-known all over mainstream and moderate Europe—into forming a "high profile" coalition government including almost all the parties across the political spectrum, bar the post-fascist right and the radical left (which, anyway, doesn't have any MPs). Sort of a "national unity" government, initially welcomed by pundits and the public. I remember media outlets dubbing it "the government of aristoi"—Greek for the best and savviest people. This government was tasked with tackling the health crisis. They actually did a good job, in part because they found a very effective plenipotentiary coming from the Army, a general who supervised and deployed a well-coordinated national vaccination plan. Another task was passing several stimulus bills, and they helped Italy to have a significant economic rebound.

And then, there was managing the E.U. funds from the so-called Recovery Plan. Lots and lots of money pouring in. This is where governing gets tricky. Every single party, and every single faction, sub-caucus, even MP... all of them have their pet projects and priorities. Not to mention the fact that the parties tried from the beginning to outdo each other when having to fill cabinet and sub-cabinet positions. So governing has become a parliamentarian attrition guerrilla war. The latest incident (the straw which will break the camel's back?) has been controversy over a stimulus bill aptly named "Decreto Aiuti" (Aiuti is the plural of "Help" in Italian). The Movimento Cinque Stelle (populist center) broke up in smaller caucuses, which don't have any chance of getting MPs elected in the next general election; the larger group resorted to parliamentary shenanigans, trying to tweak obscure and arcane Senate rules to mark their disagreement with the cabinet, without voting for a no-confidence motion (therefore, trying to avoid any political fallout). This stunt was supposed to be a way to assert a "strong" political identity, and to regain lost ground and trust from their voters.

The cabinet survived the no-confidence motion, yet Mario Draghi talked with the President and resigned. Is it a high-stakes gambit? If he prevails and form a different cabinet, insisting on elevating to the most important positions his most trusted persons, he'll be stronger and will be able to govern according to his agenda and not to the whims of [N] parties. Yet, maybe he's saying that he's just tired of such a farce and that he expected to have a large mandate, without being exposed to political crossfire.

Mind that, according to our Constitution, we don't elect a prime minister. We elect MPs, and usually the largest caucus (or coalition) chooses a PM. Even if the coalition retains a parliamentarian majority, if the cabinet is not politically viable, the PM resigns and the Parliament has the task to form a new cabinet.

The President didn't accept Draghi's resignation, and sent him back to Parliament, urging him to check if it's possible to have a different majority for a slightly tweaked cabinet. On Wednesday, Draghi will announce the results of this fathoming. He might be able to assemble a new cabinet with more or less the same majority (apart from Movimento Cinque Stelle). If he deems that there's no chance for a viable cabinet, the most likely outcome will be moving up the general election. It is supposed to be in February-March 2023, but it might be in late September/early October.

In the meantime, we might have a so-called "governo balneare." It means something like "seaside season cabinet," dealing just with ordinary business and trivial things. It won't be the first time. At least we have funny names for grim situations. Stay tuned for more circus-like politics.

Finally, just some stats to highlight the extreme volatility of our political system. I think that from time to time, we Italians fall in love with some politician, and then we get tired, waiting for the next "Mr. Right" (no "Ms. Right" so far). Movimento Cinque Stelle (populist center) in the general election 2018: 32% of the vote. Right now, they are polling around 15%, and this latest political stunt seems more a seppuku than a kabuki act. Lega (populist right) in the general election 2018: 17%; European elections 2019: 34%; right now polling around 17%. Partito Democratico (center-left) in the general election 2018: 18%; European elections 2019: 22%; polling around 22%. Fratelli d'Italia (far right) in the general election 2018: 7%; right now polling around 20%. Being the only opposition party helps a lot to intercept the "protest" vote.

I think that if we vote in fall, the right/far right coalition will easily claim a majority.

Thanks, M.M.! And note that this space was supposed to be given over to another rundown of international court systems. We'll have that next week, we promise. (Z)

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