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TODAY'S HEADLINES (click to jump there; use your browser's "Back" button to return here)
      •  Biden to Make His Case Tonight
      •  Balloongate Stretches on for Another Day
      •  NYT: Blue Slips Must Go
      •  New Poll Affirms State of the GOP Field
      •  Raffensperger Endorses Early Primary... in 2028
      •  Setec Astronomy, Part II

Biden to Make His Case Tonight

The day has arrived: Joe Biden will deliver his second state of the union address tonight. It's his third address to a joint session of Congress overall, but the first such speech of each president's term is not considered a SOTU. Foreign readers must be so confused about the traditions of American politics. American readers too, for that matter.

Biden's address will take place against the backdrop of two rather important numbers. The first is the staggeringly good jobs report for January, which revealed that roughly half a million jobs were added in the previous month (capping a stellar overall year for jobs growth). The second is the ABC News/Washington Post poll from earlier this week that reports that 62% of Americans think Biden has accomplished "not very much" or "little or nothing" during his presidency.

The obvious "angle" here is: Will Biden's speech successfully be able to use the former (the jobs and other positive economic indicators) to try to improve upon the latter (the tepid response to his presidency)? You can see articles that take this basic theme here, here, here, and here, and this is hardly an exhaustive list.

If we may be so bold, we think this is a dumb question. Or, at least, it's a question that can be answered right now. And the answer is: "No, the SOTU isn't going to change Biden's polling numbers in any meaningful way." First of all, he's a capable speaker most of the time, but he's not dynamic or inspiring. Second, the SOTU is largely going to attract a politically dialed-in audience, and not the kind of folks who only vaguely know what Biden has done in the last 2 years. Third, and related to the second, SOTUs never produce any kind of polling bump, beyond a dead-cat bounce.

For us, then, the more interesting question is what the speech will reveal about Biden's relationship with House Republicans. Will he continue to play the role of bipartisan Joe, or will he hint at an iron fist approach? Probably the former, but with the debt ceiling on the horizon, you never know. And will the Republicans in the audience (including Speaker Kevin McCarthy, R-CA, who will be seated behind Biden) behave like grown-ups, or like small children? Maybe McCarthy will take a page from Rep. Nancy Pelosi's (D-CA) book and visibly tear up his copy of the address. When she did it, we thought it was bold, but probably a shrewd bit of political theater. If McCarthy does it, we can tell you right now what we will write: "For God's sake, Kevin, come up with your own damn shtick as you try to kiss Donald Trump's posterior."

As we've noted a couple of times, the Republican response is going to be given by Gov. Sarah Huckabee Sanders (R-AR). We'll watch it, since we have a responsibility of sorts to do so, but her speech will be almost totally irrelevant. First, she may be a governor, but she is not in any meaningful way at the loci of power. Second, despite almost 2 years as White House Press Secretary, she's a poor public speaker—very twitchy and distracting. Finally, and most importantly, it's just going to be a recitation of the same tired talking points we've already heard a million times about the border, and Biden ruining the economy and yadda, yadda, yadda. We could write the speech ourselves, if we had an extra 10 seconds to kill today.

Not all networks have made clear their broadcast plans, but the SOTU and the response will be widely available, of course. Here's the list from last year; presumably this year's list will be very similar: ABC, CBS, FOX, NBC, Telemundo, Univision, NBC LX, PBS, Black News Channel, CNBC, CNN, CNNe, Fox Business Network, Fox News Channel and MSNBC, Newsmax and NewsNation. Truth be told, we didn't even know there was such a thing as the Black News Channel. Makes sense, though, as a counterpoint to the White News Channel. You know, the one that employs Tucker Carlson. (Z)

Balloongate Stretches on for Another Day

Actually, another thing about the State of the Union (see above) that will be at least a little bit interesting will be exactly how much time is devoted to the Chinese "weather" balloon that was shot down over the weekend. Will Biden do a little explaining/bragging? Will Sarah Huckabee Sanders try to make hay out of the situation? Tune in to find out!

What we do know is that, as we wrote yesterday, the initial Republican response was to point fingers at the Biden administration, and to do a lot of chest-puffing and posturing about how a Republican president would have taken that balloon down tout suite, and that Republican partisans might just have to take things into their own hands the next time.

There is still plenty of chest-puffing and posturing going on, from Republicans who are trying to use this to burnish their "tough guy" credentials. To take one example, among a vast sea of them, Sen. J.D. Vance (R-OH) posted this photograph to his Twitter feed yesterday:

J.D. Vance, dressed in blue jeans
and a hoodie and aviator sunglasses points some sort of high-powered gun skyward

Either Vance does not understand how guns work (not enough range for this task), or he's assuming that his constituents don't. In any event, we don't know what this image suggests to readers, but we know what it suggests to us (Hint: allsmay enispay).

As to pointing the finger at the Biden White House, and its alleged incompetence, that's not working out so well anymore. First, it's now clear that the President handled things... well, perfectly. As soon as the balloon was sighted, he held a meeting with defense officials. At that meeting, he signed an order to down the balloon as soon as that could be done without endangering people on the ground. Once the balloon was no longer over U.S. land, a fighter downed it with one shot, and in a way that will allow the equipment on the balloon to be recovered mostly intact. What more could Biden have done here?

There's also a second problem with the "Biden is an incompetent moron" narrative. As it turns out, several ballons flew over U.S. airspace during Donald Trump's term in office, and not only did Team Trump not do anything about them, they didn't even notice them. Oops! Exactly how this is known now, when it apparently wasn't known then, is not clear. Maybe the DoD now knows what the balloons look like on radar, and went back over past radar records.

Anyhow, this new news has forced Republicans to change course. Trump, for his part, is claiming "fake news." His supporters/enablers, like Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-GA), have declared that this speaks to deep-state corruption at the Pentagon, and are calling for an investigation. How Republicans might have time for that, when Hunter Biden's laptop needs looking into, is not clear. In any case, it's example number 4482 of how Trumpers' criticism of, well, just about everyone, is almost entirely knee-jerk, and is almost completely unrelated to facts or reality.

Meanwhile, in the piece we wrote yesterday, we wondered exactly how much value the Chinese government might get out of information-collecting balloons. But maybe collecting information wasn't the point. Maybe the goal was to stir the pot a little, and to rile up partisans on both sides. If so, mission accomplished. (Z)

NYT: Blue Slips Must Go

Blue slips are kinda inside baseball, but they are also familiar to readers of this site. They are, of course, a tool afforded to, and used by, U.S. senators to give them a veto over federal judges who have been nominated to serve in that senator's home state. No explanation is necessary; if the senator does not return the blue slip, the nomination is ended, then and there.

Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) has recently drawn attention to the practice, at least among inside baseball watchers, due to his blue slipping of Judge William Pocan, whom Joe Biden had nominated for the U.S. District Court for the Eastern District of Wisconsin well over a year ago. Johnson once supported Pocan, but then changed his mind for... unclear reasons. The Senator has suggested, at various times, that the issue is that Pocan doesn't live in the city where he'd serve (Green Bay, best known as the home of the NFL's most popular and distinguished franchise), or else that Pocan was responsible for giving a too-low bail to a defendant who later got drunk and drove his car into a crowd of people, killing six.

These halfhearted explanations make little sense, however. Pocan also didn't live in Green Bay when Johnson first lent his support (and has said he would relocate, in any case), and the Judge had nothing to do with granting low bail to the vehicular manslaughterer. It appears that the Senator's change of heart was actually driven by one of two things: (1) He learned Pocan is gay, or (2) he got marching orders from above to block any and all Biden nominations to the federal bench.

In any event, the editorial board of The New York Times' editorial board is fed up, and ran an editorial yesterday calling for an end to blue slips. They observe that Senate Judiciary Chair Dick Durbin (D-IL) could "unilaterally end this blue-slip custom at any time without requiring any kind of vote or radically upending an important Senate practice," and they would like to see him do just that.

The Times is right that there's nothing sacred, or even official, about the blue slips. The (somewhat crude) theory behind the blue slips is that the Constitution requires that senators "advise and consent" on judicial nominees, and the blue slip is their opportunity to do that. If they do not return the blue slip, then that means, at least symbolically, that they have not advised and consented, and thus the demands of the Constitution have not been met.

The problem here is that this logic is full of holes. The Senate is also supposed to advise and consent on treaties, too, but that basically never happens, primarily because George Washington decided it was a waste of time, and everyone since has abided by the precedent he set. Even if we decide that the "advise and consent on judges" portion of the Constitution counts more than the "advise and consent on treaties" portion, there's nothing that says that some senators count more than others depending on where the judge will serve. Further, the blue slips have been used very differently over the years, and in most of those years, they were not vetoes. It was only back in the 1950s, when the Senate Judiciary Committee came under the control of a segregationist, that vetoes became acceptable. And even after that bigoted Judiciary chair (James Eastland of Mississippi) came up with the veto concept, the rules have been adapted a bunch of times, such that vetoes were possible in some decades but not in others. Oh, and don't forget that the vetoes have already been scuttled for appellate nominees; they are only available for district court nominees.

In short, the blue slips aren't particularly justifiable as a tradition or as a reasonable implementation of the language of the Constitution. And, given the partisanship in Washington, and the importance of judges to both sides, it's only a matter of time before the blue slips go the way of the dodo for district court nominees. The Democrats will surely consider making that change on their watch, with a bunch of judicial seats in states with at least one Republican senator to fill, and with two consecutive rough maps in 2024 and 2026 that could leave Senate Democrats in the wilderness for a long tine. That said, Dick Durbin is not exactly known for being bold, or for bucking the status quo, so the death of the blue slips in 2023 or 2024 is not a certainty by any means. (Z)

New Poll Affirms State of the GOP Field

Yesterday, the conservative Club for Growth released a new poll of the 2024 GOP field. In a multi-candiate field, Donald Trump is on top with 37% support, followed by Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) at 33%. None of the other candidates even breaks double-digits, with former VP Mike Pence in third at 7%, and the rest doing even worse than that. If the matchup is reduced to a head-to-head between Trump and DeSantis, then the Governor handily outpaces the former president, 49% to 40%.

Excepting a couple outliers by pollsters of dubious merit, this tracks very closely with all the other polls of the race. In a crowded, and thus fractured, field, Trump lays claim to a little over one-third of the Republican vote, and that's enough for him to come out on top. Given GOP rules, it would also be enough for him to claim the lion's share of delegates. On the other hand, if the field is not fractured, and the only options are "Trump" and "not Trump," then Trump gets almost exactly the same percentage of the vote, but the not Trump vote coalesces and is enough for victory (and with it, most of the delegates).

Unless Trump dies, or maybe if he goes to prison, it's hard to see what might happen to change this dynamic. That means that the race for the Republican nomination appears to be down to three big questions:

  1. Will DeSantis survive the microscope and become the not Trump candidate?
  2. With the other not Trump candidates get out of the way quickly once it becomes clear it's not happening?
  3. If Trump is denied the nomination, will he launch an independent bid?

Again, outside of death or (maybe) incarceration, we don't know what Trump could do to get more popular than he is, or what he could do to alienate his loyal cult... er, base. Which leaves us with the dynamics, and the questions, outlined above. (Z)

Raffensperger Endorses Early Primary... in 2028

We wrote an item yesterday about Democrats' plans for the 2024 primaries. As a reminder, the blue team wants to shift the order of the early states, and primarily in states (South Carolina, New Hampshire, Nevada and Georgia) where Republicans control most or all of the decision-making.

Yesterday afternoon, one of those decision-making Republicans spoke up. That would be Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger (R) who, thanks to Donald Trump, is probably the only state secretary of state whose first name we don't have to put in headlines. Raffensperger, who is currently the decider in Georgia, said that moving the state up in line would be swell in 2028, but that it's already too late for 2024.

That would seem to throw a rather giant wrench into the works. The Democrats' plan is contingent on moving all of the early states around, not some of them. Unless they are willing to turn to blackmail (no delegates for you!), and that's enough to get Raffensperger to blink (not likely), then it sure looks like the DNC is back to the status quo for 2024.

Truth be told, we're a little mystified as to what the Democrats (starting with Joe Biden) were thinking here. They knew full well how the rules work in each state and, more importantly, who controls the levers of power therein. Why on earth didn't they choose states similar to the ones they actually picked, but where the Democrats run the show. For example, Rhode Island instead of New Hampshire. Arizona instead of Nevada. Ok, admittedly, the Democrats don't have a lot of Southern alternatives to Georgia, but still.

Maybe the goal was to get the ball rolling, with an eye toward 2028. If so, mission accomplished... maybe. But in the interim, Biden & Co. end up with some egg on their faces, while also aggravating voters in places that take their "us first" status seriously. Seems like a misfire to us. (Z)

Setec Astronomy, Part II

Last week, we had an item in which we shared readers' comments on classified documents (see that item for an explanation of the headline, if you don't recognize "Setec Astronomy"). Today, we'd like to run a few more of those reader comments:

  • J.L.H. in Los Altos, CA: My career was mostly in SCIFs at the Top Secret/codeword level. I totally agree that much (most, depending on how your staff mathematician measures this) material is over-classified. I have known a public telephone number of a major corporation to be considered Secret and handled as such, merely because it was in our SCIF and our association with that company was Secret. But just to lighten the conversation, here is a contrary example: When our manager wanted some publicity photos of us at work, to ensure that no classified info was visible in the photos we were all ordered (during work hours, of course) to be playing a moon-lander video game on our monitors.

  • A.H. in Newberg, OR: This is part of my life story. It is from my experience +/-50 years ago during the Vietnam era.

    I was a "Communication Center Specialist" (switchboard and teletype operator) I had a TS/Crypto clearance... part of my job was encrypting and decrypting coded messages. We had to send and receive one per month. The device, a KL-7, is an updated version of the German Enigma machine of World War II. Usually, we would send back and forth with a different training base. There were a lot of jokes from Playboy shared through "classified" encrypted messages. With nothing better to do, I sat down one night to take care of my monthly obligation. I start typing in the first 5 letter groups and I look at the tape coming out. "UNCLASS EFTO AFEO" (Unclassified, encrypt for transmission only, Air Force eyes only). HOLY S**T. This is a real one. I just blew up the pattern, and started over. I finally got it broken down. It spits the message out on a strip of paper. You then take the strip, cut it into page length lines and glue it to a piece of paper. You seal it in an envelope marked "Classified." Then you call the duty officer and tell him you have a classified message that he needs to pick up immediately and notify the appropriate addressee (remember, this is an E-3 Airman First, telling a 1st Lieutenant to get his ass in gear). The next morning I was still at work when the civilian from the base personnel office strolled over to talk to my NCOIC and ask if the spelling on one of the words was correct. The message was really, really, extremely important: The base was instructed not to hire any dependent children to mow lawns or do other similar maintenance on base during the summer due to budgetary restrictions. Hell, they could have just written a memo and sent it through the regular mail.

    I will acknowledge that it said "unclassified."I was stationed at a small backwater pilot training base in South Georgia. 99+% of what we did was "UNCLAS EFTO AFEO," but still, it was a secure system. Everything we sent or received went through a scrambler. Once a year, some strangers in civilian clothes would come through for a couple of days. We were told don't talk to them, don't acknowledge them, they don't exist. They would inspect our facility, look for compromised equipment, scan the building for loose electronic leaks, then disappear. I do not know which alphabet agency they were with.

  • C.I. in Chevy Chase, MD: I think you are exactly right in your explanation of why secret documents can be controlled on a submarine, but not in other situations. All the "three-letter agencies" have large buildings that are entirely a SCIF, with hundreds of employees, and it's just not possible to sign documents in and out from a central authority. And the often-stated fact that some documents are highly classified as a means of drawing attention, rather than the sensitivity of the information contained, is well-known.

    My favorite story about classified information concerns The Washington Post. About 10 years ago, I saw a link on the WaPo website that said something like "The document the government doesn't want you to see." I clicked on the link and was horrified to see a document labeled "Top Secret," with various other code letters that indicated what type of information it contained. I was familiar enough with classified material to know that the labels indicated that it was real. I won't go into the information it contained, but it was about as innocuous as classified info could be. I cleared that article out of the browser's cache as fast as I could. The next day at work there was an e-mail telling us not to look at that link. I phoned the security people to tell them that unfortunately, I already had. They responded that they knew some people would have seen it before the warning, and since I had reported it, I needn't worry.

    But here's the thing: In that building there was a small shop that sold candy, souvenirs (golf balls stamped "CIA") and... The Washington Post. I didn't have the guts to look to see if there was a printed article with that information in that edition. But if there was a printed article, and I bought a copy of the Post to take home, then I would have been guilty of removing classified information from a secure facility.

  • L.V.A. in Idaho Falls, ID: R.H. in Macungie wrote of their experience with handling classified documents in a military setting. Do not assume the precautions described extend to non-military settings. As an employee at a DOE lab, I have access to classified documents. Many are available on a classified computer system, but many are also available in paper form. They are not required to be logged when in use and occasionally live on someone's desk until returned. Point is, we have been applying military-type standards for the control of classified documents in a civilian setting. Apples and oranges?

  • L.A. in Huntington Beach, CA: I had a security clearance for a few years while working on an NSA contract for an embedded device. The source code was classified, which was understandable since it had some encryption info in it. The binary produced from the source was also classified. However, when the binary was programmed into the memory of the device, it was magically no longer classified. So I could take the device home, if desired, with no problem. Had I felt the urge (I never did), I could have dumped the memory at home, and under the rules I suppose I would have then had classified information at home. This was a minor item, but always struck me as a perfect demonstration of how arbitrary and bonkers the whole classification regime is.

Thanks again to those who wrote in! We'll probably run one more set next week, so if any reader has anything to add to the discussion, you know where to send it. (Z)

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---The Votemaster and Zenger
Feb06 Balloongate Takes Off and Goes Down
Feb06 The DNC Announces the 2024 Primary Calendar It Would Like
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Jan31 Setec Astronomy, Part I
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