I spent Thanksgiving on a chilly, nearly deserted Topsail Island, trying to disconnect from work and politics and the world at large. I wasn’t entirely successful; an idle mind can’t help but ruminate. In any event, the news tsunami awaits the second you return. So instead of picking one story from the deluge to focus on, this week’s column threads together several smaller thoughts—seven, as it turned out. Ready?
1. Donald Trump is better positioned in 2020 than you think. Yes, even though his approval rating is below 42 percent. Three reasons: 1) Presidents typically win re-election unless there’s a recession; 2) the U.S. isn’t expected to see a recession in 2020; and 3) the Electoral College tilts in Trump’s favor.
2. If Fox News existed in 1974, Richard Nixon wouldn’t have resigned. The key difference between Nixon’s impeachment and Trump’s isn’t the strength of the case but Republicans’ willingness to hold their party leader accountable. Gerrymandering and polarization are to blame, but so too is the right-wing propaganda machine that checks dissent and reinforces nonsensical and conspiratorial talking points. And so, for instance, Senator John Kennedy of Louisiana could go on the Sunday shows last weekend to dissemble about Ukraine hacking the the DNC server without consequence, and Trump can complain about being shut out of the impeachment process even as he refuses to participate in hearings, and Fox News et al. will regurgitate this narrative to his base. Nixon was born a half-century too early.
3. Trump’s DOJ is a political tool. On Sunday, The Daily Beast published an interview with Lisa Page, the former FBI lawyer whom Trump has casually accused of treason because a) she was part of the investigation into Russian election interference, and b) she criticized Trump in text messages with Peter Strzok, an FBI agent with whom she had an affair. Next week, a Department of Justice inspector general report will reportedly clear Page and others of bias, but the damage is done. One anecdote from the Beast story: In December 2017, the night before deputy attorney general Rod Rosenstein—then overseeing Robert Mueller’s investigation—was to testify to Congress, a DOJ spokeswoman offered reporters a salacious, context-free selection of Page and Strzok’s texts. In the two years since, Trump has relentlessly targeted Page as an avatar for the Deep State and demanded to know why she isn’t in prison. At a rally in October, Trump simulated an orgasm as he mentioned her name.
4. Trump’s overlooked war on the poor continues. While we’re focused on impeachment, the Trump administration has been trying to gut assistance to low-income families. In December and July, the Department of Agriculture proposed two rule changes that would kick more than 3.7 million people off of food stamps. And then, in October, it proposed a third rule that would eliminate benefits for nearly 8,000 additional households while cutting benefits for 19 percent of households who receive them. (The public comment period for the first two proposals has ended; final rules are coming soon.) Meanwhile, the gap between rich and poor is the largest it’s been in the 50 years since the U.S. Census Bureau began monitoring income inequality.
5. The Democratic primary? Who knows? If you’d asked me six months ago who the Dem nominee would be, I’d have said Kamala Harris, thinking she’d have the best chance of assembling a coalition of African Americans, women, and establishment types. But she failed to launch, and last week, both the Post and The New York Times wrote postmortems for her campaign two months before the first votes, and on Tuesday, she dropped out. A month ago, I’d have said Elizabeth Warren. But she stumbled over her health care rollout (see no. 6) and now finds herself in a three-way tie for second (depending on the poll) with Bernie Sanders and Pete Buttigieg. Joe Biden remains stubbornly out in front (see no. 7).
6. The M4A fight is pointless. Warren’s health care plan was derided by centrists as too ambitious (it increases federal spending by $20 trillion over a decade) and by left-wingers as not ambitious enough (it doesn’t eliminate private insurance until the third year). To my mind, that only illustrates the point that duking it out over the fine print is a fruitless exercise. Any progress on health care will require a) a Democratic president, b) a Democratic House and Senate, and c) a Democratic Senate willing to eliminate the filibuster. If you hit the trifecta, fine, then argue about how to phase out private insurance—and whether you can get the votes from a caucus that will include the likes of Joe Manchin. Until then, all you’re doing is providing Trump with ammo.
7. Joe Biden 2020 = John Kerry 2004. Ask me about the nomination today, and I’d tell you Biden might pull it off. Yes, he’s clunky and corny. And yes, he has baggage and excites precisely no one. But he has as-yet-unrivaled support in the African American community—you don’t win without it—and among party leaders. More important, he’s viewed by many shell-shocked Democrats as the most electable candidate—the safest choice in a precarious election, a responsible, relatable, nice-guy contrast to Trump’s circus act. Perhaps that’s true. But it also reminds me of the underlying thesis behind John Kerry’s campaign against George W. Bush sixteen years ago: the reluctant war hero versus the chickenhawk, the highbrow intellectual versus the uncurious doofus. Remember how that went? (See no. 1.)
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at email@example.com.
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