Ukrainian president Volodymyr Zelensky knows that he and his country cannot do this alone. And so, he's on something of a speaking tour, although the pandemic plus the fact that he's trying to lead a war mean that he doesn't actually have to travel much. He did a virtual visit to the U.K. last week to speak to Parliament. He spoke to the Canadian parliament yesterday, the same way. And tomorrow, he'll stay in Ukraine while delivering a virtual address to the U.S. Congress.
This is a somewhat unusual honor. It was not especially practical for foreign leaders to address Congress in person until the 1930s, given the travel issues involved. Since then, it's happened about once a year. Can you guess which country's leaders have stood up on the dais most often? We'll tell you at the end, though we can tell you right now that it's not Ukraine. In fact, this will be just the second time a Ukrainian leader has ever addressed Congress (Petro Poroshenko was the first).
The basic point of Zelensky's address will be to rally support for his country, and in particular to rally support for another big, fat check to aid with the war effort. Normally, when someone is going to lobby Congress, they have to work hard to so much as get their foot in the door. When you're fighting a war against the United States' mortal enemy, however, you get to skip that and they broadcast your lobbying for everyone in both chambers (and for the American public) to see.
Zelensky actually skipped out on a similar address scheduled for yesterday, before the Council of Europe. He had Ukrainian Prime Minister Denys Shmyhal speak in his place. It is unclear what happened; the only excuse given was "urgent, unforeseen circumstances." One gets a lot of leeway when one is actively leading a war effort, so nobody is griping much. That said, it is improbable that Zelensky will miss his date with Congress.
The speech is scheduled for 9:00 a.m. ET, which is not so great for Americans on the West Coast or in Hawaii or Alaska, but was presumably chosen to avoid interrupting Congress' workday. For what it's worth, Kyiv is 6 hours ahead of D.C., so it is not like Zelensky will be staying up late, or like it would be an imposition for him to wait until noon ET. Anyhow, none of the major news services has set up its stream yet, but it will certainly be on the front page of C-SPAN.
Oh, and the first foreign dignitary to address Congress was Ambassador André de La Boulaye of France, on May 20, 1934. And the French retain the lead in this category, with nine addresses to Congress. The other nations to speak to Congress more than twice are Israel (8), United Kingdom (8), Mexico (7), India (6), Italy (6), Ireland (6), South Korea (6), the various iterations of Germany (5), Australia (4), Canada (3), Argentina (3), and the Philippines (3). Russia, you will notice, is not on the list. We doubt it will be joining anytime soon. (Z)
Mind you, those aren't the exact words used by the colleagues of Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV), but that is a pretty good encapsulation of what they are thinking—and saying. Throughout the whole Build Back Better drama, there has always been a sense that even if the blue team can't get everything it wants, some version of a bill will get the blessing of the West Virginian and will be enshrined into law.
Now, they aren't so sure. There are basically two worrisome problems from the blue team's perspective. The first is that "what Manchin wants" is a constantly moving target; what he says he will support today is different from what he said he would support yesterday or what he will say he will support tomorrow. This was first evident in his demands related to the overall outlay, where he had a total price tag he was allegedly insistent upon ($1.5 trillion), then forgot to mention that for two months, including in a high-profile op-ed on Build Back Better, and then suddenly remembered. It's continued to be evident as he's danced the Build Back Better Ballet. Maybe Joe Biden should acquire a nutcracker.
The second problem is that there is no negotiation going on, and no initiative being taken by Manchin or his staff. Senate Democrats, from Majority Leader Chuck Schumer (NY) on down, have tried to engage him hundreds of times, only to end up with nothing to show for it. Manchin says he's interested in putting together a bill that he can vote for, but he has done nothing to actually put such a bill together. If he won't do the work, for whatever reason, and he rejects whatever is brought to him, then what else is there?
And so, the Senator's colleagues are dispirited. That starts with Dick Durbin (D-IL), who says he has "no idea" what Manchin wants. Since Durbin is the Majority Whip, whose literal job it is to get people on board with a particular piece of legislation, then for him to have no idea means that everyone is in the dark. "It's not like a normal negotiation and that's what is frustrating Biden and frustrating everybody," said another Democratic senator, off the record. "I have no reason to think that [Manchin does want a bill], literally no reason to think that he does," said a third Democratic senator, also off the record.
As we have written many times, we continue to struggle to understand where Manchin is coming from here. Yes, he comes from a very Trumpy state, but a Trumpy state where key provisions of Build Back Better are very popular. If he aspires to another term as U.S. Senator, or to reclaim his old job as governor, he's taking serious damage by getting nothing done. If his goal is pork, he can have a million rashers' worth of (metaphorical) bacon for the asking. If he wants to line his own pockets, as a person who is in the business of selling coal, that can be arranged (albeit carefully). If he's planning a presidential run (doubtful), then he's never going to make any headway having alienated most Democrats. He might attract more Republican votes than, say, Joe Biden did, but that's not going to help much in the 2024 primaries.
In any event, one has to assume that Build Back Better (or whatever its current name is) will be on life support for the foreseeable future. We shall see if it roars back to life, or if it ends up in the big circular file in the sky. (Z)
The confirmation hearings for Judge Ketanji Brown Jackson will commence on Monday of next week. In general, the Republicans would like to go on the attack, since that's how it generally works these days, and since they're still smarting from the Brett Kavanaugh confirmation. But the red team is having trouble finding an angle from which to attack the would-be justice.
The first "problem," if that is the right word, is that Jackson is pretty much unimpeachable (and we mean that in every sense of the term). Kavanaugh was plausibly accused of sexual assault, there was some funny business with his personal finances, and he may have done some problematic work for the George W. Bush White House. The then-majority GOP and the Trump White House largely managed to sweep these things under the rug, but it doesn't mean the problems didn't exist. By contrast, Jackson has been vetted six ways to Sunday, in part because the Biden administration knew full well that Republicans have an army of oppo researchers, and in part because dirt on Jackson would make a reporter's career. You can safely assume, at this point, that if there were any skeletons in the closet, they'd be out there for the world to see by now.
The other "problem" with Jackson, from the Republican perspective, is that she is a Black woman. Giving a white guy the third degree, particularly if he deserves it (but even if he doesn't), is socially acceptable. On the other hand, doing the same to a Black woman risks coming off as racist and/or sexist. Just ask Joe Biden, who is still haunted by his treatment of Anita Hill more than 30 years ago. Or ask Tucker Carlson, who was lambasted for his exceedingly racist demands to see Jackson's LSAT scores (shades of Republican demands to see Barack Obama's college transcripts; as compared to nary a demand for Donald Trump's test scores or his transcripts).
Anyhow, in view of this, the Republican approach to the Jackson hearings looks like it will be "can't we all just get along?" For example, Sen. Chuck Grassley (R-IA) observed: "The best message I can give you at this point, but I think you've heard me say it before: It's going to be a fair, thorough hearing, and we're not going to get in the gutter like the Democrats did." In case you missed his meaning, here is a translation: "Democrats are jerks, as illustrated by how they handled Brett Kavanaugh, and now we are going to show that we're the good guys."
Anybody who buys this hasn't been paying attention to politics in general, and to Supreme Court confirmations in particular, for the last decade. If it turned out that Jackson had bounced checks, or had propositioned a former clerk, or had bought BetaMax when everyone else was buying VHS, you can bet that Senate Republicans would turn that into Watergate v2.0. But they've got nothing, so they're going to take lemons and try to make lemonade. We doubt that many voters will be paying close enough attention to figure out what's going on, though, no matter how many times Grassley & Co. are explicit about the lesson they are presumably teaching.
And in case you think we're in error, perhaps you will believe Sen. Mazie Hirono (D-HI), who has no issue telling it like it is. Her assessment:
[Republicans are] setting it up that they're just so wonderful people. You know what I have to say about that. They can't find enough ways that they can really attack her, so maybe they're putting out a narrative that "look how reasonable and wonderful we all are."
Note that we had reached our conclusions before we saw those of the Senator. (Z)
The various states where the Republicans have the trifecta are in a race right now. Whether it's a race to the top or a race to the bottom is a matter of your political perspective. In any event, the midterms are coming up, the Supreme Court is 6-3 Republican, the culture wars are in full swing, and for all of these reasons, these states are eager to take hyperpartisan action.
The latest to make a move is the legislature of Idaho, which took a look at what Texas was doing on abortion and liked what they saw. Well, they liked the idea, but they found the actual implementation to be a little namby-pamby. So, the Idahoans have just passed an abortion bill that would create a "bounty" system like the one in Texas, but would start the clock at six weeks and/or whenever a fetal heartbeat is detectable. The bill is on its way to the desk of Gov. Brad Little (R-ID), who is expected to sign it into law.
Let us imagine that the Supreme Court (or, at least, 5 members of it) would like to pare back abortion rights, possibly including a reversal of Roe v. Wade and Planned Parenthood v. Casey. This is probable. Let us also imagine that the Court (or, at least, 5 members of it), would like to take things slowly, chipping away at abortion rights bit by bit, so as to avoid a nasty response—court packing, or the creation of a constitutional court, or support for federal legislation protecting abortion rights, or some other SCOTUS-weakening result. This is very likely.
If our two suppositions are on target, well, the red states are not playing along. They are taking things to the limit, right NOW. Either SCOTUS is going to have to uphold all of these new laws, or is going to have to strike them all down, or is going to have to stand on its head to explain why 15 weeks is OK but 6 weeks isn't, leaving 50+% of the American public rolling its eyes. No matter what happens, SCOTUS is going to end up with a result other than the one (presumably) preferred by Chief Justice John Roberts and his colleagues.
Meanwhile, Mississippi—who brought you the abortion law that will get before SCOTUS before any other—hates to be pushed out of the headlines. That state can't get much more draconian about reproductive rights at the moment, but there are always new frontiers to be explored, like Critical Race Theory. And yesterday, the Magnolia State took action against a school of academic analysis that... isn't actually being used in any of the state's elementary or secondary schools, enacting a complete and total prohibition on the teaching of CRT.
Just to make sure you know where he stands (or, technically, where he sits), Gov. Tate Reeves (R-MS) took the unusual step of posting a video of himself signing the bill (and commenting on it) to Facebook. "In too many schools around the U.S., CRT is running amok. It threatens the integrity of education and aims to only humiliate and indoctrinate. That's why I signed legislation that will help keep CRT where it belongs—out of (Mississippi) classrooms."
Of course, by "too many schools," what Reeves actually means is "zero schools." And on signing the legislation, he affirmed that the bill "in no shape and no form prohibits the teaching of history. Any claim that this bill will somehow stop Mississippi kids from learning about American history is just flat out wrong. I've said it before, and I'll say it again—all elements of Mississippi and all elements of American history—both the good and the bad should be taught in our schools. Period." So, in theory, a teacher can cover racism, slavery, etc., they just can't do it through a CRT lens.
You know, (Z) would be willing to pay all of his own expenses in order to travel to Mississippi to deliver four lectures before the Governor and the legislature, all on the subject of race and racism in America, one of them drawing on CRT and the other three CRT-free. Then we could see if these folks are actually able to identify CRT when it is in use.
Of course, it would not actually be necessary to stage a demonstration of that sort to prove the point. These folks have no idea what CRT is, as indicated by the fact that the legislation Reeves signed does not, in any way, specify what would qualify as teaching the subject. That makes the law rather hard to enforce, don't you think? Of course, Reeves & Co. have no actual interest in enforcing the law. They just want to perform anti-wokeness for the right-wing masses.
Ultimately, neither Idaho nor Mississippi is going to be anything other than a ruby red state anytime soon. However, there are now more than 20 states with newly imposed abortion bans (some of which cannot legally take effect) and there are 15 states with newly imposed CRT bans. If this is what the Republicans plan to run on in states that are more purple (and some of those 20 and 15, like Florida and Georgia, are definitely purple), then they are kind of blowing their wads a little prematurely. There would seem to be some wisdom in waiting until August or September (i.e., right before the election) for this performative governance. But wisdom does not seem to be their strong point. (Z)
Speaking of poor short-term thinking, Ronald Reagan must be rolling over in his grave right now. His 11th Commandment of Politics was, of course, "Thou shalt not speak ill of any Republican." As Politico points out, nearly all of the hotly contested Republican U.S. Senate primaries have turned absolutely vicious.
There are a number of reasons this is the case. In no particular order:
This stands in marked contrast to the Democratic Senate races. In many cases, including Ohio and North Carolina, the Party was basically able to clear the field, leaving just one plausible candidate standing. In those cases where the primary is contested, things have largely remained respectful. The textbook example is Pennsylvania, where Lt. Gov. John Fetterman and Rep. Conor Lamb are focusing primarily on why they are the best candidate, and not why the other guy is the pedophile-enabling, child-kidnapping, pizza-selling spawn of Satan.
Naturally, the ugly Republican primaries are going to do some damage, leaving the successful candidate bloodied and possibly cash-poor, and on the record as having said one or more things that will not play well in the general election. If the GOP does not somehow channel the spirit of St. Ronnie very soon, then it is absolutely going to cost itself one or more Senate races that it would otherwise have won. (Z)
Bill Maher is a maverick and an iconoclast—just ask him. And to make sure you know he is a maverick and an iconoclast, he often makes a point of demonstrating his maverickness (mavericity? mavericktion?) and his iconoclasm. Such was the case this weekend, when he appeared on Ben Shapiro's show for a segment entitled "How to Disagree." Because if there's one thing that Maher and Shapiro have mastered, it's listening respectfully to the ideas of others and responding in a thoughtful fashion. Should you doubt it, see this clip of Shapiro, or this one of Maher.
Anyhow, we don't much care to watch Maher's entire appearance, so maybe there really was something in there about how to disagree. What we can definitely say is that there was plenty in there about how to be disagreeable. In particular, Maher has a particular bee in his bonnet about COVID-19. And when he reaches "bee in bonnet" stage, Maher invariably says whatever the hell he wants to say, regardless of how inconsistent or hurtful or dishonest it might be.
So, what's the nature of this particular bee? Well, Maher has observed that obesity is a risk factor for COVID-19. He has also persuaded himself that the media did not do enough to highlight this fact. And so, he has concluded that the media is somehow responsible for untold numbers of COVID deaths. His exact argument was that by downplaying the link between obesity and COVID-19, and by generally downplaying the significance of obesity, the media "has blood on [its] hands."
Should you be skeptical, here are some of the exact words Maher used during his rant:
If you just said to somebody, "Okay, there's an X factor in this... This X factor accounts for 78 percent who die or go to the hospital." Wouldn't you be a curious? If you were a news organization, wouldn't you be talking about that fact all the time?... Again, I'm not shaming people. I'm just saying we are never going to solve the health care crisis in this country until we get our arms around this thing, and we're not allowed to talk about it or else you're a bad person. Anyone who doesn't, I'm sorry, you have blood on your hands. Anyone in the media who doesn't talk about this because you're so afraid of the reaction, you have blood on your hands because you are not doing these people a favor.
Shapiro did not jump in, but he did nod in agreement the whole time.
Maher's remarks are just monumentally stupid, which has become par for the course for him these days. To start, he says he's not shaming people, but of course he is. Further, it is true that the CDC said that 78% of patients hospitalized for COVID are overweight. But "overweight" and "obese" are not the same thing, and the CDC's number for actual obesity among COVID patients is 50.2%. Further, the obesity almost always exists with one or more additional comorbidities for COVID, most obviously advanced age, diabetes, and high blood pressure. Oh, and finally, a diagnosis of obesity is generally based on Body Mass Index, a deeply problematic diagnostic tool developed nearly two centuries ago—when they were still using leeches—by someone whose field wasn't even medicine. The upshot: Let's not pretend that Maher has put his finger on what truly ails America.
More broadly, Maher is lazily blaming "the media," which is the same thing that right-wing pundits do all the time. But if he really thinks "the media" never talks about the health consequences of being overweight, or about the link between being overweight and COVID, then he doesn't read very much (or at all?). A google search for "Americans" and "obesity" generates a mere 51,200,000 hits. A google search for "COVID-19" and "obesity" produces a staggering 161,000,000 results. Not all of those results are from "the media," but tens of millions of them are. Also, as Maher himself "fights the good fight," don't forget that he is part of... the media.
Further, Maher clearly thinks that being overweight is a personal failing, and that people would stop being overweight if they just had some self-control, and perhaps if "the media" was willing to speak truth to them. This is more medical thinking straight out of the 19th century, and describes how people not only viewed being overweight, but also alcoholism, depression, and a host of other conditions for generations. Needless to say, modern medical science realizes it's much more complex than that, even if Dr. Maher does not.
Oh, and one more observation: Michelle Obama made combating childhood obesity her main cause as First Lady, and Republicans excoriated her for it. Maher never had a word to say about that. One begins to wonder how "politically independent" he really is.
Anyhow, we might not normally have written this up, but we had a letter this weekend about Noam Chomsky, and how—in the words of reader S.H. in Phnom Penh, Cambodia—his "rhetoric embodies an arrogance and extremism that serves healthy political discourse poorly." We think that describes Maher pretty well, too. And while the right has more than its fair share of obnoxious, bullying, sometimes intellectually dishonest pundits, Chomsky and Maher, while they may well be on target sometimes, are reminders that the right most certainly does not have a monopoly on such behavior. (Z)