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McCarthy Getting Nowhere with Biden

House Speaker Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) desperately wants to negotiate with Joe Biden about the debt limit. His idea: Make Biden agree to cut future spending in return for not plunging the U.S. and the world into another Great Depression. It's a brilliant move, except for one little thing: Biden refuses to negotiate with hostage takers. Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen is using every trick in her bag of tricks to delay the day of reckoning, but by June she will have run out of tricks. That's when the poop hits the ventilator.

Biden has countered McCarthy's requests by asking him to put together a budget that can get a majority in the House. Biden submitted a $6.8-trillion budget to Congress on March 9. He is asking McCarthy to put it into Excel and start hitting the DEL key until he has achieved the $4 trillion in cuts he wants and then publish the results. Biden well knows that the Republicans are badly divided on the budget and putting together one that pleases 218 of McCarthy's members will be nearly impossible, especially given what a weak leader McCarthy is. In particular, Social Security, Medicare, and defense make up the lion's share of the budget and many of his members don't want to cut any of them for fear that the Democrats would use that as a cudgel to beat them in 2024. But if they are left intact, it is very hard to make big cuts without devastating almost everything else.

On Tuesday, McCarthy conceded that he is not making progress on any front. Furthermore, his party is badly split on the consequences of a default. Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY) has seen this movie before and knows that if disaster strikes, the Republicans will get the blame for the resulting depression. He doesn't want that, so he isn't going to help McCarthy at all. Another problem in the run-up to the deadline is that business leaders do not like uncertainty. They are in the process of informing McCarthy of this. They will also note that raising the debt limit without conditions has been done dozens of times before under both Democratic and Republican presidents, and will wonder why that can't be done now. (Quick answer: Because the Freedom Caucus has McCarthy's [insert body part here] in a vice.) Unfortunately for McCarthy, big business is an important constituency that he can't completely ignore.

So what happens next? No one really knows. Sometimes things spiral out of control. If we had to guess, out best guess is that Biden will offer to make some minor changes in the budget and then have a chat with the 18 House Republicans who are in districts Biden carried in 2020. He will try to convince five of them that tanking the world economy is not in their constituents' interest and that it would be in their own interest to vote with the Democrats and pass his "new" budget. But this is just a guess.

If this fails, Plan B might be to invoke the Fourteenth Amendment clause saying that the public debt "shall not be questioned" and just tell Yellen to keep issuing T-bills, notes, and bonds, and let the Supreme Court handle this hot potato in a few years. Though that would be bold, it might actually be the better choice. The debt limit was actually created to make spending easier, and was certainly never meant to facilitate hostage-taking. It would be useful to resolve this question once and for all; we tend to assume that the Supreme Court will prioritize the text of the Constitution (i.e. the Fourteenth Amendment) over the text of a bill passed by Congress (i.e., the legislation that created the debt limit). The six right-wing justices were chosen because of their social conservatism, not because they are budget hawks, so they are much more likely to call balls and strikes in a case like this as opposed to one about, say, abortion or Affirmative Action. (V)

Disinformation Is Being Democratized

Back in the old days (say, 2020), only major players like the Russian troll farm in St. Petersburg could run a big disinformation campaign. Those days are over. Now it doesn't take a big team or lots of money to make deepfakes—videos that are phony but look very real. People with modest computer skills can do it using new artificial intelligence software. Just as social media gave every Tom, Dick, and Harry a worldwide platform for hate speech, new AI technology gives at least thousands (and soon millions) of people the ability to make deeply false political ads.

Fake photos are easy:

Fake photos of Trump being arrested

Videos like these are a bit harder:

But by 2024, motivated high-school kids will probably be able to flood the Internet with passable fakes. Many people are not aware how good the technology already is and millions will believe the fake ads, especially when Tucker Carlson shows them on his program and says whatever the Fox News' lawyers let him say, like: "Look at these and judge for yourself." Even in the best case, where people are aware of the fact that fake photos and fake videos are everywhere, many people may simply conclude: "There is no reality anymore."

It is not only presidential races that are threatened with deepfakes. They can be made against any candidate at any level. While a deepfake used in a presidential race will get plenty of attention from the national media, a deepfake in a race for state representative probably won't. If it works, it won't be long before every campaign has a team of people whose job it is to make outrageous fake photos and videos about the opposing candidate. Fake audio recordings that purport to catch a candidate on an "open mic" could also become common.

And simple stuff is already happening. ChatGPT can already write plausible e-mail fundraising ads like this computer-generated one:

Fake fundraising ad written by an AI program; 
it makes vague conservative-type promises, like 'I'll preserve your freedom'

The next step is to combine this technology with the database both parties have that include tens of millions of voters. This database contains a tremendous amount of information about everyone, from how they are registered, to what kind of car they have, what organizations they belong to, what magazines they subscribe to, and much, much more. Now imagine the AI program being told to write an ad aimed at one specific person purporting to be a captured e-mail from the other side designed to enrage that person. For example, imagine Republican NRA members getting a "copy" of a (fake) e-mail Joe Biden supposed sent to his supporters in which he promises to have the FBI go out and confiscate all AR-15s as soon as his new term begins. The ad could be written by the software in a convincing way. Or an ad sent to Democrats who have donated to the ACLU purportedly from the Trump campaign promising to suspend the Constitution and declare martial law on Inauguration Day.

Given enough servers, everybody on the mailing list could get a different, personalized, plausible-sounding (but fake) e-mail that is precisely tuned to get the recipient into a blue funk. That is not done yet because writing millions of highly tailored personal e-mails requires too many campaign interns. But if a computer can churn out thousands of these personalized e-mails per hour—and they look realistic—then do you really think they will say: "That would be unethical so we won't do it?" Do you think the genie is going back into the bottle any time soon? We're not so sure. (V)

Manhattan Grand Jury Will Take a Break for a Month

The Manhattan grand jury looking at the hush-money payoff to Stormy Daniels is taking a month off, as originally scheduled. This pushes a possible Trump indictment back to late April or May at the earliest.

Is this a good thing for Donald Trump? Our guess is: No. This is a bad thing. The Manhattan case is hard for most people to understand. Paying someone money to keep their mouth shut is not a crime. The crime here is failing to report it as an election expense. If Trump's campaign had reported paying Stephanie A. Gregory (Stormy Daniels' maiden name) $130,000 for consulting services it would probably have been close to legal. For most people, this whole thing looks like a minor accounting error and is not a big deal. It is not even clear that D.A. Alvin Bragg could win this in court.

So why is pushing it back potentially a bad thing for Trump? In our view, there is now a better chance that Fulton County D.A. Fani Willis will come with the first indictment, and that case is crystal clear and a very big deal. Trump tried to intimidate Georgia state officials into overturning an election. And she has a rock-solid case. Not only does she have a tape of Trump making the infamous phone call to Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, but she can also put three Georgia officials who were in the office when the call was made on the stand to testify. An interesting question might be: "Did you feel Trump was trying to intimidate the secretary of state?" Since the secretary, his deputy, and his top lawyer were all there during the call, their answers will be tough to refute. The public will easily be able to understand this case and won't dismiss it as a mere accounting mistake.

Of course, we don't know when Willis will bring her case or who will be indicted, but there is every reason to believe Trump and Rudy Giuliani will be among the targets. The foreperson of the grand jury has basically said as much in (very) slightly coded language. Will Willis speed up her case to beat Bragg? That depends on how far she is and how close to being finished she is and she's not talking. But we think that if Willis goes first, the public reaction will be 10x worse than if Bragg goes first, simply because the crime is much more serious and the evidence and witnesses far stronger (a tape and three state officials in Georgia vs. a convicted felon and a porn star in New York). Trump had better hope that Willis is still dotting her i's and crossing her t's.

A new Quinnipiac Univ. poll bears this out. In it, 57% of the registered voters said that an indictment should disqualify Trump from running and 38% said it should not. The latter is Trump's base: about 38% of the electorate. On the other hand, 60% of the voters think Bragg's case is politically motivated. Together this says that if Bragg goes first, people will see the case as political but if Willis goes first, they will see it as disqualifying. Pretty different reaction. We don't know if Willis follows the polls, but if she does, this could be extra motivating to get the job done fast.

One other way in which the sequence of events (thus far) has been not so great for Trump. If he had actually been arrested on the day that he said he was going to be arrested—or anytime that week, really—then the base would have expressed maximum outrage. Whether that would have meant violence of some sort, we do not know, though it very well could have. But now there will be weeks (or more) in between "Trump warns he is going to be indicted" and "Trump is indicted." That's going to dull the outrage to some significant extent, as his base is going to have plenty of time to acclimate to the reality of his arrest. Some of them might still take to the streets, some of them might still get violent. But the odds of those things are considerably lower than they would have been if Trump had stayed quiet. Given that he wants outrage and violence, then his going off half-cocked was a rather significant mistake, and more proof that he does not think long-term and he most certainly is not playing 3-D chess. (V)

Iowa and New Hampshire Really Do Matter

The Democrats want to dump Iowa altogether as an early state and push New Hampshire back after South Carolina. That Iowa part of that might work since the parties run the caucuses, but the New Hampshire part not might not because the primary dates are set by states. In any event, the Republicans are sticking with Iowa first and New Hampshire second. Is that actually important? Mark Mellman, a pollster and political consultant who has help elect 30 senators, 12 governors, and dozens of House members says it is.

Mellman notes that since 1976, when primaries began to pop up like worms after a good rain, every presidential nominee but two won either Iowa or New Hampshire. The first exception was in 1992, when favorite son Sen. Tom Harkin (D-IA) won Iowa, rendering it moot, while neighboring son Sen. Paul Tsongas (D-MA) won New Hampshire. But Bill Clinton came in second in New Hampshire and ultimately won the Democratic nomination. Joe Biden was the second exception. In 2020, Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-VT) won New Hampshire, and someone not named Biden won in Iowa (either Sanders or Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg, we still don't know). In other years, failure to win at least one of the two meant you were roadkill.

Here's how it works. In 1976, the then-unknown Jimmy Carter was polling at 4% nationally and the pros said he was wasting his time as no peanut farmer had ever been elected president in all of history. After winning both early states, his poll level tripled and he was big news. In 2004, John Kerry picked up 20 points after winning Iowa and 13 more points after winning New Hampshire. From then on, he was unstoppable. The reason this happens is that the media makes winning these two small and relatively unimportant states the beginning and end of the universe. They could say: "Who cares about these two tiny and unrepresentative states? Let's wait for a major state to vote." But they don't." That's the rub. The momentum from these little states also propelled George W. Bush, Barack Obama, and Donald Trump to their respective nominations. Is it fair? No. Is it logical? Also no. But half of the entire primary press coverage goes to these two states and the winners are on the front page of every paper from The New York Times to the East Cupcake Middle School Reporter. Giving these little states so much power makes little sense, but that's how it is.

What the first two states also do is separate the sheep from the goats. Candidates who come in fourth or fifth or lower in both are written off as dead meat by the media. Then polls drop and donations stop. It's hard to recover from that.

So what about 2024? If Joe Biden decides to run, we here boldly predict that he will beat Marianne Williamson and the media will write her off until she announces her 2028 run. What about the red team? Right now, Donald Trump and Gov. Ron DeSantis (R-FL) dominate polling in both states. Gov. Chris Sununu (R-NH) can't even crack 10% in his own state. We don't put a lot of faith in whether Trump or DeSantis is ahead, since DeSantis isn't even a declared candidate yet and Trump has not been indicted yet. But after DeSantis declares and Trump is likely indicted in New York and Georgia, things could change fast. On the other hand, in both early states, retail campaigning is really, really important. The voters want to meet the candidates in person and size them up. Trump is good at that but DeSantis is very wooden. His advisers have surely warned him about that, but changing your personality isn't that easy, even if you know you have to and are highly motivated to do it. If Mellman is right, then if Trump and DeSantis finish one-two, in either order, in both early states, then the rest of the field is doomed and it will be a cage match between those two going forward. (V)

Christie Will Not Support GOP Nominee If It Is Trump

Axios has a scoop: Former New Jersey governor Chris Christie has flatly said that he will not support Donald Trump, even if Trump wins the GOP nomination. He's the first high-profile Republican politician to say that point blank with no qualifications, although Chris Sununu sort of said something vaguely like that (but added that he didn't think Trump would get the nomination, so it didn't matter). Christie is toying with a run and said he will decide on it before the summer. If he does jump in, he might try to be the "Never Trump ever again" candidate. It is risky and it probably won't work, but if it ends up being a badly damaged Trump, a wooden DeSantis, six wishy-washy mini-Trumps, and Christie, maybe he might have a small chance, although we have our doubts.

Where Christie could be important, if he has the guts, is in the general election. Suppose Trump is the nominee and Christie goes around telling Republicans to write in DeSantis or Mike Pence or vote for the Libertarian candidate or anyone other than Trump. Could that deprive Trump of just enough votes to sink him? Who knows? Also, it remains to be seen whether he has the fortitude to actually active oppose his party's nominee. That wouldn't make him terribly popular with the Republican powers that be. Still, having one Republican who can get media attention actively dissing Trump for the next year and a half might be interesting to watch. (V)

A New Front in the Disenfranchisement Wars: College Campuses

Republican state legislatures are always on the lookout for new and exciting ways to disenfranchise Democrats. One popular target is poor people who don't have drivers' licenses, or passports, let alone Global Entry cards, all of which cost money. But some states are now going after another group that skews heavily Democratic—college students—with mixed results.

This group is important because their turnout has surged in recent elections. Specifically, some states are trying to prevent college students who are going to school in a state other than where their parents live from voting where their college is. Fundamentally, they are counting on students being unable to figure out how to register and get an absentee ballot in their parents' state, thus leaving them disenfranchised. But that's only one way to do it. There are others.

One example of a success story for Republicans is Idaho, where the state legislature just forbade students from using their student ID cards—even those issued by state universities—as voter ID cards. Many students do not have a driver's license, passport, or other ID, so, presto!—they can't vote unless they figure out how to get some other valid ID. However, Idaho is in the minority. Of the 17 states that require government-issued photo ID, only four others—North Dakota, Ohio, South Carolina, and Tennessee—do not accept student ID cards. The other 12 accept ID cards from state universities. Arizona and Wisconsin have rigid rules on student ID cards, but colleges there are trying to meet them.

Other states have not been as successful for Republicans. Attempts to keep out-of-state students voting in New Hampshire and Virginia have failed. So has banning the pre-registration of 17-year-olds. But Republicans are keeping at it. New Hampshire is an interesting case in point. A bill was introduced that required college students to show an in-state tuition receipt to vote failed because Dartmouth and other private colleges don't issue them. All students pay the same tuition, regardless of where they live. Disenfranchising students who actually come from New Hampshire and attend the state's most prestigious university didn't fly.

Another state where the legislature tried to make it hard for students to vote is Texas (naturally). Texas has a vast network of universities and except for the UT Austin campus, nearly all students are from in state. So a clever Republican legislator introduced a bill to ban all polling places on university campuses? Why? Because we have the power to do so. The bill is still in committee and might not pass. If it does, it is sure to be challenged in court.

In Virginia, an effort to repeal a state law that allows teenagers to pre-register if they will be old enough to vote in the next general election failed. It died in committee. In Wyoming, a bill that enumerated what was a valid ID left out student IDs, but also left out Medicare and Medicaid cards. That one died because it would have hit seniors, who skew Republican. But it is sure to come up next year, this time including Medicare and Medicaid cards but leaving out student ID cards.

Georgia legislators were smarter. They allowed student IDs—but only from public universities. This means students at historically Black colleges and universities (which are mostly private) need some other form of ID. In Ohio, a new law just passed that banned the use of utility bills and university account statements, which used to be valid. So the battle goes on. Wherever Republicans see an opportunity to keep college students from voting, they almost always try.

In other countries, none of these shenanigans exist. People who are in principle eligible to vote nearly always can vote. This is one of the reasons that turnout of the voting-age population in the U.S. is middling. Here is a comparison with other wealthy countries:

Election turnout by country; at the
top of the list is Belgium with 78% turnout, followed by South Korea at 77% and Australia at 76%. The U.S., at 62%, is in the bottom third,
but still outpaces the countries at the bottom, including Japan at 56%, Canada at 55% and Chile at 51%

Part of the reason is that partisan officials in the U.S. try to depress turnout, but there are other reasons as well. One of them is that in systems with proportional representation, the difference between your party getting 21% or 22% can mean an extra seat in the parliament. In a first-past-the-post system, like in the U.S., Democrats in Idaho and Republicans in Oregon may be thinking: "Why should I vote since it doesn't matter if we get 41% or 42% of the vote?" (V)

Biden and Top Officials Are Going on an "Achievements Tour"

It has become increasingly clear that a key part of Joe Biden's reelection strategy will be to be emphasize his numerous legislative achievements. Oddly enough, this could put him on the same page during the primaries as Ron DeSantis, with both of them saying: "I achieved a lot and Donald Trump was a failure and achieved nothing." Each of them has his own reasons for making Trump look weak and a failure.

Biden and other members of his administration are starting a 3-week tour touting all the new laws the President signed. On Tuesday, for example, he was at the semiconductor manufacturer Wolfspeed in Durham, NC. There will be a $5-billion investment in new plant there. North Carolina, especially the Research Triangle area, which includes three top universities (Duke, the University of North Carolina, and North Carolina State) has many tech start-ups that will benefit from the new laws. It is a key swing state that Biden is sure to visit over and over pitching how many good jobs his laws will create. The three cities that bound the Triangle—Durham, Raleigh, and Chapel Hill—are only an hour's flying time from D.C. so Biden can zip over to one of them in the morning, give a speech, and be back in the White House in time for lunch. That's not true of Atlanta and certainly not true of Phoenix.

Biden isn't the only one who will pitch his achievements. Pete Buttigieg is going to "campaign" in multiple states talking about the infrastructure upgrades in the infrastructure law Biden signed. He will talk about improvements to local airports, roads, water systems, and other infrastructure in the bill. People can understand things like: "Your local airport will get safer, repaved runways or a new terminal building on account of the bill Joe Biden signed."

The vice president, first lady, and second gentleman are also hitting the hustings in 20 states to pitch Biden's accomplishments. All the battleground states, including Nevada, Michigan, Pennsylvania and Georgia, will get visits from some of them. High-profile visitors always get lots of attention and interviews on local television stations and local newspapers.

Another thing Biden is going to do is use the full power of incumbency. He just agreed to allow more oil drilling in Alaska and is planning to auction off the rights to drill for oil in a huge area of the Gulf of Mexico. Environmentalists will go apopletic, but Biden knows the Republicans will hit him on energy policy, so he wants to show that he is solidly behind getting more energy from domestic sources to reduce the residual dependence on foreign sources. He will also say that in the long run, more American energy sources means lower gas prices, something else that will drive environmentalists crazy. But they have nowhere to go as the Republican policies are 100x worse.

Biden understands that being an incumbent allows you to actually get stuff done and then talk about it. That will be much tougher for Trump since he didn't get much accomplished in his 4 years as president and can't get in the news with new achievements now, as Biden can—and will. (V)

Senate Votes to Repeal the Iraq AUMFs

In 1991, Congress passed a resolution to Authorize the Use of Military Force in Iraq, In 2002 it did it again. Yesterday, the Senate voted to repeal both. This is more-or-less like Congress undeclaring war against Japan in 1973. An AUMF is kind of like a declaration of war in that it authorizes the president to use his powers as commander-in-chief to use military force against a foreign country. Actually formally declaring war is Not Done anymore. AUMFs are the way to go these days, as they allow Congress to shift responsibility/blame for an unpopular war to the president. There is no need to bomb Iraq right now, so Congress wants to cancel that power lest some future president (without mentioning any names) misuse it. The bill is expected to pass the House.

The vote in the Senate was 66-30. That means that 30 senators want to keep the AUMF in place. The ranking member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Jim Risch (R-ID), voted against the bill. He said it will indicate to the world that the U.S. is disengaging from the Middle East and sees that as worrisome. He clearly belongs to the internationalist wing of the Republican Party (see next item). (V)

On Foreign Policy, It's 1952 All Over Again

In 1952, the Republican presidential nomination contest marked a turning point for the party. In one corner was Dwight Eisenhower, a committed internationalist who favored an alliance with Europe to contain Russia. In the other was Senator Robert Taft, an isolationist who wanted to avoid engaging with the world except for confronting "Red" China. From that election through 2016, every Republican candidate—Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, the Bushes, Bob Dole, John McCain, and Mitt Romney—belonged to the internationalist wing of the GOP. In 2016, Donald Trump broke the streak. And so, that debate is now coming back to Republican politics.

This time, Trump—and to a lesser extent, Ron DeSantis—are in the Taft "isolationist except China is bad" camp. Nikki Haley, Mike Pence, and most of the other wannabes are really internationalist in orientation, but have to be careful how they express this to avoid riling the isolationist base. If Trump or DeSantis gets the nomination, then the race is going to pit an isolationist against a committed internationalist, Joe Biden, who was on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee for 30 years, ending as chairman. Foreign affairs usually aren't the key to elections, but with an ongoing war in Ukraine, which is a proxy war with Russia, it could be different this time.

Also, though everyone in both parties is anti-China, the battles will be about how to handle China. Biden and the Democrats are going to ridicule Trump for putting a tariff on t-shirts and iPhones, which just made them more expensive for U.S. consumers. Biden, in contrast, is taking very concrete steps to beef up American manufacturing capacity. Making Chinese products more expensive is pointless if the U.S. still has to buy them from China because nobody else makes them. Biden's strategy will be to tout things like the Wolfspeed plant (see above), the $100-billion chip factory Intel is building in Ohio and the $40-billion chip factory a Taiwanese company, TSMC, is building in Arizona. These not only will reduce America's dependence on China for advanced chips, but also create many good-paying jobs in American factories, something Trump's policies never did. So it is likely that foreign policy will play a much bigger role than usual in the 2024 elections.

Another area where foreign policy will play a role is the environment. Mitigating climate change—and all the deleterious effects thereof—will require worldwide cooperation, such as the Paris Accord. Republicans are against these measures, but every time there is a big hurricane in the East or massive wildfires in the West, Democrats are going to be harping on: "This is climate change. How do you like it?" (V)

Greatest Blunders: Venality, Round 1, Part I

Today, we move to a different quadrant of the overall bracket. In the actual NCAA Tournament, the quadrants are known as "regions," because where the games are played (and, to some extent, where teams are placed) is dictated by geography. In the case of the blunders competition, there's no geographic component, so "region" doesn't really make sense. Hence "quadrant."

The Venality quadrant involves situations that were fundamentally unethical, illegal or immoral. Each of the various entrants involves a political figure trying to pull a fast one of one sort or another, but getting caught with their hands in the cookie jar.

Also, as a reminder for those who don't follow sports, the actual NCAA Tournament begins with four games called the "First Four"; these pit, in effect, the eight weakest teams in the tournament against each other for entry into the main bracket. This was done to increase the number of participants (and, not coincidentally, the amount of money the tournament brings in). In order to remain true to our inspiration, we also staged a First Four of the two weakest entrants in each bracket. This was announced last week.

And with that out of the way:


George H.W. Bush Nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (79.5%) defeats George W. Bush Fires Seven U.S. Attorneys (20.5%)

Some reader comments on this matchup:

  • J.L. in Glastonbury, CT: I went with Clarence Thomas because we've been reminded of Bush 41's blunder regularly for 30 years; firing the U.S. Attorneys was just one more brick destroyed in the wall of norms, paling in significance to politicizing a fraudulently sold war and what was to come from Donald Trump...

  • P.M.C. in Schaumburg, IL: The Republicans got exactly what they wanted in Clarence Thomas; he is the gift that just keeps giving. To be a blunder it must have some negative connotations. Even after going through all those word things, I can't see how this was a blunder.

  • D.L. in Uslar, Germany: I'm not sure Clarence Thomas can be considered a blunder. Sure, his rulings have been bad for the country (in my eyes and those of many liberals, at least), but any other Bush appointee would have been little different. Withdrawing his nomination would probably have been as bad a blunder as sticking with him. Thomas counts less as a blunder and more as playing a very weak hand.

  • M.K. in Long Branch, NJ: If these are the 16/17 seeds, the competition in this bracket must be tough indeed. Thomas is the clear choice, as Bush nominated a clearly unqualified candidate, the Senate failed in its duty to weed him out, and his performance speaks for itself.

  • A.T. in Quincy, IL: As you noted, the attorneys weren't fired until after G.W. Bush had won re-election, so in a sense, it was actually rather shrewd to wait, especially for a President of W's caliper (sic). At the same time, it's hard to say what consequences have resulted from their dismissal. I can't think of any, for sure. The selection of Thomas, on the other hand, was a blunder (if a blunder it was) whose consequences remain with us to this very day, and potentially well into the future.


An engraving of the Burr-Hamilton duel; Clarence Thomas testifies before the Senate

#1 Alexander Hamilton Duels with Aaron Burr (July 11, 1804): If you think Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton, or Donald Trump and Ron DeSantis, or Donald Trump and Joe Biden, or Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi, or Donald Trump and pretty much anyone represent the height of political animosity in American history, then you don't know about Alexander Hamilton and Aaron Burr.

The rivalry between the men had many causes. Hamilton was a Federalist, Burr a Democratic-Republican. Both wanted to control politics in their home state of New York. Hamilton thought Burr a conniving schemer with little love for the Constitution, Burr thought Hamilton a shady operator whose primary concern was the well-being of the economic elite. Neither of them was necessarily wrong in their assessments. Both were also masters of passive aggression, and managed to push each other's buttons for years and years in a manner that allowed them to avoid taking responsibility for their actions.

Things finally reached their boiling point in 1804. Hamilton was not in the best emotional state, in part due to financial problems and in part due to his son's having died... in a duel. Meanwhile, Burr's career was in deep trouble; he was dumped as VP, and was running for governor of New York. A loss in that election would be (and, in fact, was) the end of the line for Burr as politician. It was in that context that the usually cunning Hamilton arranged for the publication of a staunchly anti-Burr letter written by Hamilton's father-in-law. It described Burr as a "dangerous man, and one who ought not be trusted with the reins of government." It also made specific reference to even less flattering opinions that Hamilton himself had about Burr, without spelling out exactly what those opinions were.

The pi**ing contest that ensued was long and complicated and would make a pretty good opera. Or maybe a musical. Someone should really look into that. The bottom line is that it was obvious that Hamilton was behind the attack on Burr, Burr wanted an apology, and Hamilton refused to give one. Eventually Burr challenged Hamilton to a duel. This is where the venality comes in (assuming that a bunch of nasty personal attacks does not qualify as venal), as dueling was illegal by that time. Hamilton and Burr both knew it, and so they took extensive steps to avoid legal trouble for themselves or their seconds (for example, crossing over the state line into a fairly remote part of New Jersey).

Hamilton did not want to duel, and he definitely did not want to kill Burr, but he also did not want to be dishonored. There is some evidence that he intended to spoil his shot, which would have satisfied the needs of honor without doing any actual harm. Burr did not feel the same way; he aimed to kill and hit Hamilton in the gut. After a couple of agonizing days, Hamilton expired. Not only did his blunder cost him his life, it also deprived the Federalist Party of its most effective organizer. It's not a coincidence that the Party was effectively dead in little more than a decade.

#16 George H.W. Bush Nominates Clarence Thomas to the Supreme Court (July 1, 1991): We've already discussed this one, in the inaugural post in this series. As you can see above, quite a few readers are not persuaded this really constitutes a blunder, either because it worked out very well for the Republican Party or because George H. W. Bush had limited options given that he needed a Black, conservative jurist. Fair enough; we included it because we believe Bush 41 really did value democracy, and that he would be distressed by some of the things Thomas has done in the last year or two. We can't know for sure, of course, because Bush Sr. died in 2018.

Text messages from Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson in which they concede that stop the steal is BS; a picture of the tape recorder Nixon had in the Oval Office

#8 Fox Lies about Voter Fraud (Nov. 8, 2020): Throughout the 2020 campaign, Fox was happy to indulge Donald Trump and his inside circle as they made all manner of claims about the potential legitimacy of the outcome. Mail-in balloting was a particular obsession, though there was carping about many other matters, too. It's almost like Team Trump knew they were going to lose and were proactively trying to protect Trump's ego and/or to set the stage for insurrection.

Still, whining about mail-in balloting isn't actionable. Fox didn't cross the line into "potentially illegal" until the Sunday following the 2020 election. On that day, Trump ally and all-around loon Sidney Powell appeared on the show Sunday Morning Futures, hosted by Maria Bartiromo. The host asked: "Sidney, we talked about the Dominion software. I know that there were voting irregularities. Tell me about that." And Powell replied: "That's putting it mildly... That is where the fraud took place, where they were flipping votes in the computer system or adding votes that did not exist... That's when they had to stop the vote count and go in and replace votes for Biden and take away Trump votes."

Other Fox personalities took it from there, with both Sean Hannity and Tucker Carlson picking up the banner the very next day. But Bartiromo's show is where it started, and so it's not surprising that this exchange appears at the very beginning of the lawsuit that Dominion filed against Fox (it also shows up in Smartmatic's lawsuit).

There are some blunders in this competition whose consequences are not yet known, and may not be known for years. All that can be done is to guess what the consequences might be. If Fox loses the suit, they're going to take a huge financial hit. And it's at least possible their business, or at least their business model, can't survive that blow.

#9 Richard Nixon Decides to Install a Taping System in the White House (February 1971): Richard Nixon was persuaded that his presidency would be historic (he was right about that, though not in the way he had hoped). And he knew that Lyndon B. Johnson, who was also deeply impressed with himself, had arranged to record all of the conversations that took place in key spots in the White House (e.g., the Oval Office). So, a litte more than halfway through his first term, Nixon decided that he wanted a recording system, too (this was after trying other alternatives, and finding that none of them produced accurate accountings of his conversations).

The scheme started small, at first, with only the Oval Office and the White House Cabinet Room being recorded. Eventually, it expanded to several more White House rooms, to Camp David, and to several different important phone lines. Under those circumstances, it was easy to forget that everything was being captured for posterity. And so, Nixon was sometimes caught on tape swearing. Or saying things that were racist or sexist or antisemitic. Or, you know, ordering the FBI to cover up the crimes of campaign staffers who had broken into Watergate.

At this point, let us note that Nixon's actual order to engage in a cover-up did not make the bracket, and isn't going to show up when we reveal the other eight Venality contenders tomorrow. We made that decision because ordering the coverup wasn't really a mistake, it was a gross act of immorality and illegality that Nixon tried to get away with and failed. Installing the tape system was also rooted in venality (specifically, arrogance), but was much more of a blunder, as it had profound consequences that Nixon simply didn't foresee. It's also worth noting that without the tapes, Nixon would probably have survived the Watergate scandal. After all, the fight over whether Congress could listen to the "smoking gun," followed by the ham-fisted erasure of the key recording, is what turned the public against Nixon. And the release of an alternate smoking gun tape, from a different day, is what finished the job and forced his resignation.

Gary Hart and Donna Rice cuddling while Hart wears a 'Crew of the Monkey Business' t-shirt; Cal Cunningham holding a press conference

#4 Gary Hart Invites the Press to Follow Him Around (May 3, 1987): As we noted in the introductory post, we tried to keep the number of sex scandals to a manageable number. It is just a coincidence that we ended up with a sex scandal vs. sex scandal matchup in the first round.

Gary Hart made the cut because of his brazenness, and also because his shenanigans effectively marked a brave, new world in political reporting (muckraking?). Before the 1980s, politicians cheated on their spouses left, right and sideways, and the press uttered nary a peep. Go look for the contemporary coverage of the dalliances of John F. Kennedy or Lyndon B. Johnson. You won't find it.

Maybe it was Richard Nixon's fault. While he didn't cheat on his wife, he engaged in pretty much every other form of unethical behavior, taking some of the luster off the "imperial presidency" while teaching the media that scandal sells. The change might also have to do with the evolving media landscape; whereas newspapers and the evening news had been dominant for generations, by the 1980s those media were getting competition from talk radio, cable TV, scandal-driven newsmagazines and the earliest incarnations of the World Wide Web. So, salacious content may have been a necessary step in order to keep watchers watching and subscribers subscribing.

In any case, Gary Hart failed to read the tea leaves and to understand that he no longer lived in a world where Nelson Rockefeller could die of a heart attack while shtupping his secretary and have it reported that he was giving dictation. And so, while running for president in 1987—arguably as the Democratic frontrunner—Hart carried on an extramarital affair with a woman named Donna Rice. Reporters from The Miami Herald managed to figure out what was going on, and they challenged the candidate on his dalliances. Hart's response: "Follow me around. I don't care. I'm serious. If anybody wants to put a tail on me, go ahead. They'll be very bored."

Hart would later say that he did not expect the reporters to actually take him up on the offer, which was a pretty bad guess, because of course they did accept the offer to follow him around. And they managed to confirm what was already suspected, namely that Hart was cheating on his wife. It was particularly delicious that the Herald staff got photos of Hart and Rice fooling around on a yacht named Monkey Business.

At the time, public opinion was divided. Some were bothered by Hart's behavior. Others felt the press had been inappropriately intrusive. Still others took the position that boys will be boys and that, as New York governor Mario Cuomo observed, "everyone has some skeletons in the closet." Still, Hart's polling numbers took a dive, and on May 8, 1987, he suspended his campaign, ending his presidential hopes less than a week after his taunt.

#13 Cal Cunningham Gets Caught Cheating on His Wife (October 6, 2020): Incumbents usually have the advantage in Senate contests. But not so much in North Carolina, where one-term senators are more the norm than the exception. So, Sen. Thom Tillis (R-NC) was no shoo-in to keep his job in 2020 and, indeed, he trailed Democratic challenger Cal Cunningham in polls for most of the campaign.

But then came a literal October surprise, as a woman named Arlene Guzman Todd revealed that she and Cunningham had been "intimate" in July of that year. There were extensive text messages to back her claims up, and so the candidate had little choice but to acknowledge that she was telling the truth. He also refused to answer questions about other potential dalliances, which certainly left the impression that Guzman Todd was not the only one. North Carolina is a Southern state, which means a lot of voters who dislike sexual shenanigans (unless, apparently, they are the work of Donald Trump). Cunningham fell behind Tillis in the polls, and ultimately lost the election, 48.7% to 47%.

So why did this sex scandal, among the many available options, make the cut? Because if Cunningham had kept his zipper in the upright position, and had won the election, the Democrats would have needed either Sen. Joe Manchin (D-WV) OR Sen. Kyrsten Sinema (I-AZ) during the time they had the trifecta as opposed to needing both Manchin AND Sinema. How might things be different if that were the case?

Joseph Welch with his head in his hands; Screen capture of Clinton's speech on Lewinskygate

#5 Joseph McCarthy Meets His Match in Joseph Welch (June 9, 1954): As with the Watergate coverup (see above), we do not believe that then-senator Joseph McCarthy's crusade against alleged American communists (and, at the same time, against alleged American homosexuals) was en error. It was a calculated, grossly immoral choice made in the vulgar pursuit of power and fame.

And for several years, it worked. A reasonable case could be made that from 1950 to 1954, McCarthy was the second most powerful person in the country, behind only the president. And actually, since the first half of that covers the latter portion of Harry S. Truman's term, and Truman was wildly unpopular, it might be the case that McCarthy spent some time as the most powerful person in the land. Certainly, he was powerful enough that Dwight D. Eisenhower, despite having won the largest war in human history and being a very popular president, was leery of a direct confrontation. For those keeping score at home, that means that Ike had no problem going mano-a-mano with Adolf Hitler or Benito Mussolini, but was not willing to take on Joe McCarthy.

Over time, McCarthy got way too big for his britches. He eventually arranged for his hearings to be aired on the then-new medium of television. Apparently, the Senator did not realize that his greasy hair and nasally voice were a turnoff that brought to mind a very large rat. Then, he started pointing fingers at members of the U.S. Army. It was one thing when McCarthy was going after artists, labor leaders, civil rights leaders, college professors and other groups that skewed overwhelmingly liberal. But going after the mostly conservative military? That was much more problematic. And the Army responded by hiring, as its lead counsel, Joseph Welch. Welch was a brilliant lawyer, one whose shark-like skills surely made Johnnie Cochran jealous. However, he was also elderly, soft-voiced, and wore a bow tie. The overall visual impression was "grandpa." And the contrast with McCarthy could not have been more striking.

Thus was the stage set for the fatal blunder. McCarthy was in the habit of going after people much weaker than he, people who could not defend themselves, in the process destroying their lives and their careers. And so he targeted a young but promising member of Welch's law firm, who had briefly participated in a few groups in college that were vaguely left-leaning. The implication is that the young lawyer was probably a communist, and that maybe Welch himself was also a communist.

Welch had been waiting for this. Although his remarks appeared to be spontaneous, they were actually penned in advance: "Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty or your recklessness. Let us not assassinate this lad further, senator. You have done enough. Have you no sense of decency?"

The house of cards largely collapsed from there. McCarthy's credibility was shot, his hearings came to an end, and he was censured by his Senate colleagues. Depressed by his loss of power and popularity, he leaned heavily into the bottle. He already had a drinking problem, and this was the final blow to his alcohol-battered body; less than 3 years after Welch unloaded, McCarthy was dead. Most sources say cirrhosis was the cause of death; some say it was a de facto suicide.

#12 Bill Clinton: "I Did Not Have Sexual Relations with that Woman" (Jan. 28, 1998): Undoubtedly, readers know that Bill Clinton did indeed have sexual relations with that woman, namely Monica Lewinsky. She confided in her "friend," Linda Tripp, who hated Clinton. And Tripp leaked the story to the press.

Like most presidents, when Clinton found himself in a hole, he kept digging. Undoubtedly, Hillary Clinton was aware of her husband's philandering ways, so there was no real need to deny the affair on that front. That means that Bill was trying to save face, and in so doing he told lies while under oath, and while on national TV. "I did not have sexual relations with that woman" came during an address to the nation.

Clinton's behavior, and his subsequent attempts to cover it up, got him impeached and also cost him his law license. Neither thing actually did him all that much harm; his final midterm election went swimmingly in the midst of the scandal, as voters attempted to tell then-Speaker Newt Gingrich "You're making mountains out of molehills." And, of course, Clinton had no plans to ever practice law again.

However, the scandal did cause Al Gore to hold Clinton at arm's length during the 2000 presidential campaign. That was a problem, as Clinton—even with the scandal—was more popular that Gore. Plus, the President's charisma and gift of gab could have been a corrective for the Vice President's woodenness. It was a very, very close election, and if the small state of New Hampshire, the large state of Florida, or Gore's home state of Tennessee had flipped, the Democrats would have kept the White House and George W. would be the Bush family's famous presidential failure instead of Jeb!

The ballot for this round is here. If you have comments on any or all of these matchups, and why you voted as you did, please send them here. (Z)

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