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A Taxing Situation

Having failed in their efforts to repeal and replace Obamacare, President Donald Trump and the congressional Republican majorities are moving on with plans to revamp America’s tax system. So far, at least, it doesn’t look any more promising than the previous crusade.
Which is a shame, as America’s tax system is badly in need of revamping, and the traditional Republican remedies are probably best. The system should be simplified, flattened, rid of deductions that serve only well-lobbied special interests, include more deductions that encourage investment in the broader economy, and that highest-in-the-world corporate tax rate especially needs lowering. If commensurate budget cuts could somehow be effected, so the already disastrous national debt didn’t explode, it would probably be helpful to lower every other tax in sight.
A Republican president and Republican majorities in Congress should be able to get it done, and even persuade a few centrist Democrats from well-heeled districts with big corporate donors to go along, but at this particular moment it seems a daunting task. Any attempt at serious tax reform is difficult, as all sorts of well-lobbied special interests immediately get involved, and there are lots of class resentments and economic theories to be considered, so that last time it happened was way back when President Ronald Reagan unified the Republican minorities in Congress and got more than a few centrist Democrats in well-heeled districts to go along.
This time around the Republican president is Trump, the leaders of the congressional Republican majorities inspire little more confidence, the Congressional Democrats are more unified in opposition to anything they might come up with, and the economic and political circumstances aren’t quite so ripe.
When Reagan offered his 461-page tax plan to Congress he knew every minute detail of it, and had spent the previous decades making a persuasive case to America for the sophisticated free market theories that inspired it, and with his experience as a past president of the Screen Actors Guild and two-term governor of California he knew the more down-and-dirty practical arguments to use with reluctant Republicans or potentially friendly centrist Democrats from well-heeled districts. The tax rate on the uppermost bracket was 70 percent at the time, which was steep even by the standards of the moribund European economies, cutting that by rate to 28 percent freed a lot of capital for pent-up investment in the private sector, and after the stagflation that had started in Nixon administration and lasted through the Ford and Carter administrations, most of the the country and enough Democrats were willing to roll the dice on those sophisticated free market economic theories.
When Trump unveiled his nine-page outline of how to revamp America’s tax system during a typically rambling speech in Indiana, we couldn’t shake a vague suspicion he didn’t understand a word of it. We had a hard time making sense of it ourselves, as did everyone else we’ve read, but everyone seems to agree with Trump’s opening unscripted that it does involve those “massive tax cuts” that Democrats are always accusing Republicans of yearning for.
During the speech Trump insisted the vaguely worded tax plan wouldn’t benefit himself, and he added his catchphrase “believe me,” which will surely endear him to his many lower-bracket fans, but until he releases his tax returns you’ll have to take him at his word, and by now most Americans don’t. Reagan had released his tax returns and put his relatively modest fortune into a blind trust, so he didn’t have that rhetorical problem. He could also make a case that taking a 70 percent cut from anybody who got lucky or smart enough to make it to that rarefied tax bracket was unfair, whereas Trump is stuck with a rate that went up and down and up again through the Clinton and Bush and Obama administrations and lands in a mid-30s range that strikes the more average earner as about fair. The relatively insignificant cuts proposed won’t unleash a relatively significant amount of capital into the private sector, too, and with Trump constantly boasting about how high the stock market indices and how low the unemployment rates are the populace probably isn’t in any mood for tax cuts for the rich at the moment.
Those Reagan tax cuts brought a promised doubling of federal revenue collections, but without any commensurate budget restraint the deficits and debt swelled. The broad economic expansion nonetheless continued long enough to get his vice president elected for a third term, and although a brief and relatively mild recession got President Bill Clinton he fiddled so slightly with the tax system that all that capital wound up investing in a technological revolution that has propelled the American through the desultory administrations of George W. Bush and Barack Obama and even into the era of Trump. That soak-the-rich mantra the Democrats are still loudly chanting is as stupid as ever, and we discern a few very good ideas in that nine-page outline about how to revamp the tax system, so we’ll hope for the best.
The highest corporate tax rate in the world is an obvious problem that every last Republican and at least a few centrist Democrats with corporate donors should want to solve, and there’s also a strong case to be made against estate taxes, but there was also a strong argument to be made for repealing and replacing Obamacare. Trump and the congressional leadership weren’t quite coordinated on how far to slash the corporate tax rate, both were failing to acknowledge that the actual corporate tax rate is much lower, given all the deductions their lobbyists have obtained, most of which do have a invigorating affect on the broader economy, and we can’t shake a suspicion that Trump is about to find out that tax reform is even harder than health care.
The Republican majorities in Congress are as always all hepped up for tax reform, but they have diverse districts and different donors and individual viewpoints to consider, and no matter the ranch hands Republicans are always harder to round up in a pen than Democrats. There are still a few debt-conscious Republicans left, perhaps including the Speaker of the House, some Republicans from less well-heeled districts that went big for Trump and his promises of tax hikes on the rich, and even some free market hold-outs who now worry that the tax rates are not far off from optimal. A zero percent tax rate yields zero revenues, but so does a 100 percent tax rate, and both liberal and conservative have always agreed there’s some point in between at which tax rates start to result in lower revenue, which many of our states have tried to ignore, but with Trump boasting about the great economy he’s unlikely to convince anyone outside the hated Republican establishment that his rich buddies and cabinet members need any sort of tax break.
If it we’re up to us we’d concentrate on the arguments for a lower corporate tax rate, which are so compelling they have even persuaded all of the Europeans and the Asians, state the moral case that after someone has spent a long and fruitful life paying exorbitant taxes he shouldn’t be taxed a final for dying, and not antagonize any of those lower-bracketed and class-resenting die-hard Democrats and heartfelt Trump supporters with any noticeable tax cuts for the rich, and if we were Reagan we could probably get it done. Trump isn’t at all a Reagan-esque sort of ranch hand you might have seen on the silver screen, neither are that Senate Majority Leader or House Speaker, and at this point we can’t see any of them winning over any sort of Democrat. We’ll still hope for the best, but we won’t be making any bets, and will anxiously wait to see where the Wall Street money goes.

— Bud Norman

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Two Big Disasters in Puerto Rico

President Donald Trump’s most strident critics seemed almost disappointed when two historic hurricanes battered Texas and Florida but things went about as well a one can expect. They well remembered how President George W. Bush, who they had also stridently criticized, had taken such a hit in polls numbers for all the things that went wrong after a hurricane battered New Orleans, but this time around Trump actually got a small bump up after the storms. Yet another hurricane has since battered Puerto Rico, though, and his critics are eagerly finding fault.
The hurricane brought winds that demolished thousands of buildings and rains that flooded most of the ones still standing with several feet of water, and it left the entire island and all of its three and half million inhabitants without electricity. Some of the hospitals and emergency personnel had generators and enough fuel to keep them functioning, but others didn’t, and an estimated 30 people died and hundreds of serious injuries were suffered and many thousands were left homeless and pretty much everyone was in need of food and potable water. Even the best of efforts wouldn’t be sufficient to the challenge, but there are arguments that this time around the efforts haven’t been the best.
The federal government began shipping supplies and rescue workers to the island just behind the storm, and Trump has boasted of the praise he’s received from the Puerto Rican governor, but the mayor of San Juan has tearfully complained it was insufficient and all the cable news networks have somehow found power to broadcast proof of the claim. Some of the deeper-digging stories tell of delays in getting much needed shipments to the island due to regulations that could be temporarily waived by executive order, such as the little-known Jones Act that prohibits foreign-flagged ships from carrying goods between United States ports, and given Trump’s enthusiasm for de-regulating anything he can that seems an oversight. According to news reports Trump is mulling signing those orders, and the military’s top hospital ship and lot more help is currently heading Puerto Rico’s way, and Trump is promising a visit to the island, but Trump’s critics will be able to note that came after a lot of bipartisan criticism and a Hillary Clinton “tweet” about sending the U.S.S. Comfort.
It didn’t help that Trump was “tweeting” five times as many “tweets” about National Football League players and the national anthem than he did about Puerto Rico, and that on one of those occasions he griped about Puerto Rico’s “broken infrastructure & massive debt,” and in another also made mention of the territorial government’s debt “to Wall Street banks which, sadly, must be dealt with,” and although he added that “Food, water and medical are top priorities — and doing well,” that did not play well in Puerto Rico. Trump bragged to the television cameras about the great reviews he was getting from the governor and other unnamed Puerto Ricans, but it only reminded the critics of Bush infamously saying “heckuva job, Brownie” to his soon-to-be-fired Federal Emergency Management Agency director.
This all came in the middle of yet another racial imbroglio that Trump has started up with the NFL and the National Basketball Association, too, so his critics are of course indignantly noting that the swarthy and Spanish-speaking population of Puerto Rico isn’t getting the same treatment as the slightly whiter and more English-speaking people of Florida and Texas. Many of the staunchest Trump supporters we know think of Puerto Ricans as the Sharks in “West Side Story,” and regard them as illegal immigrants with some convoluted legal loophole to be here, and Puerto Rico has no votes in the electoral college, so we have to admit there might be something to it.
Trump is quite right that Puerto Rico irresponsibly ran up an unsustainable debt, and did so without updating an electrical grid that would have been vulnerable to a much milder storm, and is generally almost as badly run as New Orleans and a hundred miles at sea to boot, but this hardly seems the right time to be making those arguments. The federal government has recently passed $20 trillion in debt on Trump’s watch, after all, and both Trump and his cabinet have also been profligate with the taxpayer’s dollar. Puerto Rico was enticed to borrow all that money when dollars started flowing in after the federal government briefly made it a sort of tax haven, was forced to close hospitals and schools and forestall infrastructure projects forbade it to declare bankruptcy on all that debt to Wall Street, and right now Trump shouldn’t be raising questions about he expects them to deal with it.
The good news is that massive shipments of aid and aid workers are on the way, federal dollars to get that power back on earlier than the expected six-month wait are being negotiated, that famous hospital ship is also on the way, and Trump seems to at last realize that he’s responding to an historic public relations disaster.

— Bud Norman

The Not-So-Quite Grand Old Party

These should be the best of times for the Republican party, what with complete control of the federal government and most of the states, but Tuesday seemed more like the worst of times. The party’s latest effort to repeal and replace Obama proved as futile as the previous ones, the Senate candidate backed by both the party establishment and the anti-established President Donald Trump lost to a full-throated theocrat in an special Alabama primary, and another shoo-in incumbent moderate decided not to make another run for Congress, along with all the other assorted bad news.
No one was surprised by the party’s latest failure in its seven year crusade to repeal and replace Obamacare, which went down without a vote for the same reasons it did on the previous tries. The GOP’s majority is in the Senate is too slim to lose even three votes, there are moderates who don’t like any of the offered health care bills because they’re too austere, conservatives who don’t like any of them because they’re too profligate, and every attempt to modify the bills to appease one faction inevitably offended the other. Each of the bills had something for everyone to dislike, all the opinion polls they were even more unpopular than the hated Obamacare law, and no one in the party could muster much of a sales pitch.
That conspicuous lack of a sales pitch was partly because the Republicans were in too much of a hurry to make one, for no good reason we can discern, but it’s also due to a lack of salesmanship in the party. The Republicans did spend seven years making a strong case against Obamacare, to the point that all the opinion polls showed it was widely hated, and steep insurance premium rate hikes in most markets made it all the easier, but they had less luck pitching the alternatives. They couldn’t talk the public out of liking the provision that insured coverage people with pre-existing conditions or the subsidies that allowed many millions of Americans to get some sort of policy, and since those were the market-distorting features that resulted in those sky high premium rate hikes that made Obamacare so unpopular it was hard to come up with an alternative, much less sell it to a wary electorate.
Neither the moderates nor the conservatives in the party were up to the task, and despite his reputation for salesmanship Trump couldn’t offer any help. During his presidential campaign Trump had promised coverage for every American at greatly reduced price and care that would be so great your head would spin, but he clearly didn’t have a plan that would have accomplished that, and of course no Democrat or Republican or independent knew how to do it, so he was never an enthusiastic supporter of what was on offer. He threw a beer party for the Republicans in the House of Representatives after they passed a repeal and replace bill on a second try, but the later “tweeted” that the bill was “mean,” and except for one little-seen speech on a weekday afternoon his efforts were mostly limited to trying to bully reluctant Republicans into voting for anything he might get on his to sign.
Trump’s salesmanship also fell short in Alabama, where a clear majority of Republican voters chose the state’s former Supreme Court Justice Roy Moore over Trump-backed incumbent Luther Strange in a race that reveals all sorts of internecine Republican squabbles. Strange was the incumbent because he’d been appointed to the seat after longtime Sen. Jeff Sessions was appointed to be Trump’s Attorney General, which has turned to be a complicated matter, and had been a loyal ally to Republican majority leader Sen. Mitch McConnell, whose political action committee donated generously to Strange’s campaign, yet despite these impeccable establishment credentials he was also endorsed during an open primary round of voting by the same Trump who was blaming McConnell and the establishment for all the party’s recent failures. The open primary featured a fellow named Mo Brooks who was so severely conservative that all the talk show hosts and numerous other Trump apologists were touting him, all of whom come right out and griped about Trump’s endorsement, and when Strange and Moore wound up in the run-off they all sided with Moore. The final days of the campaign saw former Trump “chief strategist” Steve Bannon and former Alaska Gov. Sarah Palin, both of whom had proved their populist credentials back when Trump was contributing to Hillary Clinton’s Senate campaign, giving fulsome speeches on behalf of Moore.
Trump’s efforts on behalf of Strange, meanwhile, were less enthusiastic. He tried to convince Alabamans that Strange hardly knew McConnell and was a true fellow disestablishmentarian, but no one was buying that. By now too many rank-and-file Republicans in Alabama and elsewhere loathe McConnell and the Republican establishment even more than they love Trump, and Trump seems to sense this with his usual keen political instincts. He showed up for a 57 minute speech at a raucous campaign rally for Strange last week, but he spent most of it bragging about his popularity and blasting Republican Sen. John McCain and starting a feud with the National Football League that took up most of the news cycle, and in one of the few mentions of Strange he admitted that “I might have made a mistake in endorsing the guy.” He also promised to campaign for Moore if that’s how the election turned out, and although we’re sure he’ll keep that promise it remains to be seen how it will work out for the Republicans.
Moore is the favorite in his special general election against Democratic candidate and former U.S. attorney Doug Jones, if not as heavy a favorite as Strange would have been, but we doubt he’ll play as well as a Republican standard-bear in the other 49 states. In the recent Republican past we have proudly supported the party’s stand that the Judeo-Christian traditions which have done so much to create our enviable western civilization should continue to inform our decisions into the future, and steadfastly insisted that such time-tested principles enhance rather than threaten our freedom and democracy, but we have to admit Moore really is the theocratic Republican that Democrats have always caricatured. He was twice removed from Supreme Court seat, once for defying a federal order to remove a Ten Commandments sculpture from public grounds and the second time for ordering lower Alabama courts to ignore a Supreme Court decision to issue marriage licenses for same-sex couples, and in both cases he made clear that God’s law should supersede civil law, which is pretty much the dictionary definition of theocracy.
We’re the church-going sorts of Republican Kansans who think it ridiculous that anyone would object to the Ten Commandments taking up some small space in the public square, and we had our old-fashioned constitutional originalist reasons for disagreeing with that Supreme Court decision that found a previously hidden right to a same-sex marriage license, and we still don’t think the government should compel anyone to baking a wedding cake, yet we’re not entirely comfortable with Moore. If fate should ever compel us to choose between following either God’s law or man’s law we hope we’ll opt for the former, and we give thanks that hasn’t to us happened yet, but there’s God’s law according to Moore and God’s law according to us and God’s law according to the rest of you, and we’re left here on Earth to sort it out. Our version of God’s law includes verses about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s, and obeying civil authority, and a Savior who came not to establish His heaven and not on earth, and as crazy as that sounds we invite everyone to share our faith but won’t try to compel anyone to do so.
Maybe Trump will muster more enthusiasm for it. He’s a thrice-married and six-times-bankrupt casino-and strip club mogul who has bragged about all the married babes he’s bagged and said at a religious gathering he’s never felt the need to ask God’s forgiveness for anything, and talked fulsomely about the lesbian and gay and bisexual and transexual communities at the Republican convention, of all places, but he’s somehow big with a lot of the Christians in Alabama and elsewhere and has a keen political instinct. How that will play with the rest of America, of course, also remains to be seen.
Tuesday also brought the news that Tennessee’s Sen. Bob Corker was bowing out of the Senate. He’d had a long and admirably unnoticed career holding off the crazier Democratic ideas and letting down the party on its crazier ideas, and was regarded as one of the party’s wise old hands on foreign policy matters, so naturally he was a frequent target of Trump’s “tweets.” His departure provides an opportunity for a more Moore-like or Trump-friendly candidate to win the Republican nomination, and be a slightly-less-favored front-runner for the seat, but it’s hard to say that would play elsewhere.
There’s still a chance for the party to make the best of it. Surely there’s something better than Obamacare that the Republicans can come up with, and even if it doesn’t cover everyone at lower prices and is so great it makes your head spin a regular order of hearings and deliberation and compromise and public protests to match what the Democrats have been staging could prevail. Those time-tested Judeo-Christian principles will surely survive Moore’s attempts to impose them on a wary populace. There’s speculation that Corker is bowing out to set up a primary challenge to Trump, and that will prove interesting.

— Bud Norman

Football, Politics, and Other Hard Hitting Sports

The youngsters will never believe it, but we recall a time when Americans could take weekends off from politics and watch sports. These days politics permeates the entire popular culture, though, and even the football stadia and basketball arenas don’t offer a safe space. Over the past weekend the biggest sports stories were all political stories, with President Donald Trump playing his usual leading role in all of them.
Sunday’s slate of National Football League contests featured the usual pin-point passes and fancy football and hard hits, but the most-watched highlights were the widespread protests staged by the players during the playing of the national anthem. In case you don’t follow either football or politics, the fad started last season when the San Francisco 49ers’ back-up quarterback, a fellow named Colin Kaepernick, knelt to one knee during the anthem to draw attention to the “Black Lives Matter” movement protesting police violence against minorities. All the polls showed that most Americans found the act disrespectful to the country’s most cherished symbols, but it gave Kaepernick a certain cachet among a significant percentage of the population, and a fame far greater than what he’d earned on the gridiron, and then a few other players in the NFL and the National Basketball Association joined in. All the sports talk and politics radio stations talked about it, but they eventually moved on to the next insignificant-in-the-grand-scheme-of-things sports squabbles.
Although Kaepernick had shown great promise in his first two starting seasons his performance had dropped precipitously since then, and when he was cut from the ’49ers no other teams chose to add him to their rosters for this season, but of course the story didn’t end there. Some pointed to his past signs of promise and argued he was blackballed in retaliation for exercising his free speech rights, while others pointed to the recent decline in his performances as the reason for his unemployment, so that argument was revived through the entire off-season. We figured that Kaepernick had his free speech rights to be a pretentious jerk but that any team owners who didn’t want to hire Kaepernick for whatever reason were entitled to their opinions, and we aren’t at all qualified to evaluate football-playing horseflesh, nor do we take much interest in the game at all these days, so we were hoping the whole fracas would finally fade away.
Which it might have done by now, if not for that speech Trump gave to a raucous in a packed Huntsville, Alabama, sports arena last Friday. The speech was quite a doozy even by Trumpian standards, and we urge any students of classical rhetoric to study it carefully and revise all theories accordingly. Trump bragged at length about hid electoral victory, assured the crowd the Russians had nothing to do with, basked in the crowd chanting “lock her up” about his vanquished Democratic opponent, had everyone lustily boo Arizona’s Republican Sen. John McCain, lobbed some schoolyard taunts at the now-nuclear-armed nutcase dictator of North Korea, and made a couple brief mentions of the Republican candidate for Senate he was ostensibly campaigning for, including an admission that he may have made a mistake by endorsing by the guy, who’s currently trailing in the polls to a more zealously Christian conservative. He also marveled at how Alabamans love him so much despite the fact that he’s a much richer guy than any of them “who lives on Fifth Avenue in the most beautiful apartment you’ve ever seen,” and regaled the audience in the football-crazed state with his gripes about the professional game.
First Trump complained that the game is becoming sissified, with attention-seeking referees throwing penalty flags for what would have been considered hard but clean hits back when the game was great. This probably would have been a talk radio topic on both the sports and politics shows, given the mounting evidence that players suffered high rates of debilitating and even deadly injuries to the head other and vital body parts back when the game was great, but Trump also revived the whole national anthem brouhaha from last year.
“Wouldn’t you love to see one of these NFL owners, when somebody disrespects our flag, to say ‘Get that son of a bitch off the field right now Out. He’s fired. He’s fired,’ Trump said, with the language left unexpurgated here because that’s by now apparently one of those things that connect him with Alabama values, as the crowd seemed to love it. Trump predicted that the first owner to do so would immediately become the most popular man in America, where the most pressing problem seems to be a few overpaid athletes you might never have otherwise heard about kneeling during a national anthem, and even scored a few points about all the on-field rules the league has imposed regarding end zone celebrations and some right-of-center statements some players have made tried to make.
As you might have expected, and by now surely know if you follow either sports or politics, an unprecedented number of NFL players made some gesture of disrespect to the flag during Sunday’s games. Most of the players and coaches and whatnots on both the Pittsburgh Steelers and Jacksonville Jaguars chose to stay off the field during the anthem, several other teams chose to stand arm-in-arm during the anthem rather than with a hand over the heart, every team had some player making some sort of statement, including players holding a hand on a kneeling teammate’s should while pledging allegiance. Jaguars owner Shahid Kahn, the leagues only Muslim owner, joined his team in its protest, as did the Washington Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, whose team name entails enough trouble already, and Philadelphia Eagles owner Jeffrey Lurie. Thirty of the 32 owners issued statements expressing various degrees of disagreement with Trump, including a few who had been big money donors to his campaign, and not a one of them fired any of the disrespectful sons of bitches, if you’ll pardon an old Alabama expression.
Odd as it may seem to have a president of the United States engaged in a “twitter” war with the National Football League, it’s been a longstanding feud between Trump and those haughty football elitists. They first locked horns way back before the ’83 season, when an NFL franchise cost about $80 million and Trump instead invested a mere $6 million in the New Jersey Generals of the newly-formed United States Football League. The USFL was based on the sound idea that Americans love hard-hitting football but only get it in the fall and early winter, so a league that offered fairly well-played games in the spring and summer should draw a profitable number of ticket holders, but Trump had other ideas. He persuaded his fellow owners to move to a fall and early winter schedule, and when the networks inevitably chose to broadcast the superior brand of NFL football to sue the league for a violation of the anti-monopoly law and win billions of dollars.
Trump’s lawyer, Roy Cohn, who’d previously worked for Sen. Joe McCarthy and various mafioso, won a verdict for the plaintiff, but the jury only awarded the USFL a one dollar in damages, given how ridiculous its new business model was, although the judge trebled the amount, but the three dollars didn’t keep the league from going bankrupt shortly thereafter. By now it’s obvious that Trump was scheming to win a settlement that would have him in possession of the an NFL franchise at the bargain-basement price of $6 million plus legal fees, didn’t much care which of his co-owners didn’t get in on the planned league expansion, and clearly came out the loser in his first clash with the NFL. Trump still talks about how he “hammered” the league, but he can also boast that at least there wasn’t a single New Jersey General who was seen disrespecting the flag on Sunday.
Back when he was signing two consecutive overrated Heisman Trophy winners to multi-million dollar contracts Trump boasted that he could have easily afforded an NFL franchise such as the Dallas Cowboys, but that he’d rather create a professional football powerhouse from scratch than be the poor sap who inherited a powerhouse and got no credit for its continued success or all the blame for its off-seasons. Thus Trump wound up losing an estimated $22 million on his fantasy football team, bona fide billionaire Jerry Jones wound up buying the Cowboys for $140 million and now owns what Forbes magazine estimates is worth $4.8 billion, and Trump surely feels some lingering resentment. He was turned down on a bid for the lowly Buffalo Bills franchise, too, and as they say on talk radio that’s got to smack.
Still, we can’t argue with the idea of standing up for the flag, and we suspect Trump has shrewdly that a vast majority of America does as well. The points these overpaid athletes you might never have otherwise heard about are making involve more complicated questions than most of them realize, and if they wind up with less policing in black communities they could very well result in the loss of those black lives matter, and it’s really quite ridiculous that football players who give one another head injuries for a living are so prominent in the discussion. Trump might just have picked a winning political battle.
The broader culture wars seem lost, though. That flag we stand for at every sporting event we attend stands for freedom, which is why we stand and take off the hats and put hands over the hearts for however long it takes, and merely roll our eyes and heave a sigh at the pretentious jerks who act otherwise for whatever reason they might have. If everyone took a similarly tolerant stand in this all too modern age we think the sports and political talk radio would be much more pleasant and enlightening, and we could all get on with the rest of that ready Monday-through-the-Friday-night-news dump, but there’s a lot to tolerate these days.
All the political talk on radio and television and “twitter” is screamed these days, and all of the screaming from the sports and entertainment and media and corporate and occasionally the military segments of the establishment is screamed at Trump, and even Trump can scream only so loud. Trump can gloat that the NFL’s ratings are down, and that all the flag-disrespecting has something to do with it, but there’s also a guilty feeling about watching all the head injuries all that annoying penalty-flag-throwing is trying to prevent, and the undeniable fact that the NFL is more popular than either Trump or the USFL.
This was going to be the year we completely gave up on football, but so far the Kansas City Chiefs and the University of Oklahoma Sooners and the Wichita Heights High School Falcons all look like championship contenders, so we’ll be obliged to look up those scores. If none of those work out we’re done with the game for good, and if we can somehow figure out how to escape politics we’ll be done with that as well.

— Bud Norman

Things Get Moore Strange in Alabama

There’s an awful lot going on in the world these days, with another round of hurricanes in the Caribbean and a second big earthquake in Mexico and the escalating war of schoolyard taunts on the now nucqearized Korean Peninsula and all those recent “Russia” revelations, but we can’t keep our eye off that special election t coming up next Tuesday in Alabama. President Donald Trump is scheduled to be in the state today to campaign for his preferred candidate, which suggests the matter also commands his attention despite everything else going on in the world these days, and of course his involvement makes the whole thing even harder to figure.
In case you don’t usually follow Alabama politics, as we usually don’t, the state is finally getting around to picking a successor to Sen. Jeff Sessions, who resigned his seat to become Trump’s Attorney General. Sessions seems to have been Attorney General forever by now, and we’re sure it seems even longer than that to him, but they take their time about doing things down south, and the Republicans are just now getting around to choosing their candidate for a general election that will occur somewhere down the road and  whichever Republican will surely win. One reason for the delay is that the Republicans had to hold an open-first primary to select the two run-off candidates, and given the nature of Alabama politics and the Republican party as a whole and the further complications of Trump’s intervention that was hard not to watch.
In the primary there were three credible and intriguing candidates. One was Rep. Mo Brooks, a one of those hard-line conservatives who voted against anything that wasn’t hard-line conservative enough no matter what the rest of the Republican caucus was going along with, and he was favored by all the talk radio hosts and the nationalist and populist Steve Bannon wing of the White House. Another was former state Supreme Court Judge Ray Moore, best known for twice being removed the bench for refusing to comply with Supreme Court rulings regarding public displays of the Ten Commandments and same-sex marriage, who was enthusiastically supported by the same evangelical voters who supported Trump. There was also the former state Attorney General Luther Strange, who had been warming Session’s seat as a temporary replacement and was a chosen son of the much-reviled-by-talk-show-listeners and Trump and most other Republicans Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell, but for reasons no one can explain Trump also endorsed Strange.
As confusing as it must have been to the average Republican Alabamian, where he’s statistically likely to be a big fan of Trump, the open primary somehow ended with with Moore and Strange in the run-off. As popular as Trump is in the state, though, the talk-show-backed Brooks immediately endorsed Moore right after his near defeat, the more defiant sorts of evangelical voters have stayed loyal, and the president flies into the state in support of a candidate who’s far behind in all the polls. That’s Trump’s base resisting Strange, too, which is a noteworthy development in the ongoing war within the Republican party.
At this point it’s hard to see it working out well for the Grand Old Party in any possible case.
If Moore wins the Republicans will at long last be saddled with a Senator who actually closely resembles the Democrats’ caricature of the party’s extremist religious zealotry. Moore has reassured Alabama’s voters that he’s not in favor of executing homosexuals, but other than that he hasn’t gone out of his way to allay any secular fears about his religious fervor.. We’d like to think we’re as evangelical and Republican as the next guy, and we share Moore’s concerns that God is being banished from the public square, and we try our best to adhere to those ten commandments that Moore defiantly erected on public grounds, but we also note the New Testament scripture about rendering unto Caesar that which is Caesar’s and obeying civil authorities, and that part about “come let us reason together,” so the mixed martial arts afficionado Moore strikes us as suspiciously prideful for a prophet.
If Strange wins so does McConnell and the rest of the Republican establishment, which is by now hated by the entirety of the Democratic party and most of the independents and pretty much all the Republicans except for a few old Never-Trumper types such as ourselves, even Trump is today campaigning on behalf of Strange. Strange would likely end up on the repeal and replacement of the debate about Obamacare Trump now favors, and might help out on other issues, but given his establishment credentials he’s bound to cross paths with Trump at some point, and we don’t see him as the unifying figure the party needs right now.
If Brooks had somehow survived the open primary that probably wouldn’t have helped, either. He might have wound up sinking the last ditch attempt to repeal and replace Obamacare because it didn’t repeal and replace it enough, and although he’d have had a good enough case that Strange or Moore couldn’t refute it would have still been scored another loss for both the party and its president. Brooks’ enthusiastic endorsement of Moore, along with all the polls, suggests that Alabama Republicans prefer the ten commandments to Trump, which seems about right to us, but it’s still hard to see this ending well for anybody. From our far away from Alabama perspective we’re hoping for Strange, as weird as it feels, and we’re still hoping that in any case Moore won’t be all that bad.

— Bud Norman

Disasters and Normality

Nature has gone on a destructive rage lately in our hemisphere, and now the entirety of Puerto Rico is without power, the same hurricane caused it is headed toward the U.S. Virgin Islands that had already been largely wiped out by last week’s hurricane, and at least 250 people died in the second major earthquake in Mexico City in the past two weeks. After the devastation wrought on Texas and Florida from two other unusually large and intense hurricanes this month, catastrophe is starting seem commonplace.
The media are still all over it, complete with scary radar images, heartbreaking footage of downed buildings and bandaged people, and heroic stories of rescue and sacrifice, but by now they’re making more room for yet another Republican attempt at repealing and replacing Obamacare, the numerous noteworthy developments in the “Russia” story, and whatever else President Donald Trump might be up to. All sorts of historic disasters, both natural and man-made, are quickly becoming normalized.
One reason the latest natural catastrophes have been somewhat downplayed is that they happened in Puerto Rico and the Virgin Islands, which are part of America but not among the 50 states, and in Mexico, which is not part of America at all. Americans have always tended to take scant interest in anything that happens beyond our borders, and in the age of “America First” and a clamor for building a giant wall along the southern border that tendency is stronger than ever. The country is still obliged to pay its share of the costly recovery efforts in its territories, though, and would do itself a much needed public relations favor by chipping in something to help out the Mexicans, so some attention should be paid.
Eventually nature will settle down for a while, although probably not for so long as those 12 blissful years North America enjoyed without any hurricanes at all until lately, and at that point all the man-made disasters will retake their rightful places on the front page and the top of the hour. We’ll hope that the recent disasters are not forgotten, that a few of the reporters will stay on the long enough to scrutinize both the recovery efforts and the preparations for the inevitable next time, and that no one regards it as normal for two of America’s most populous cities to be underwater and two its territories wiped out altogether. Here’s hoping, too, that people don’t start to regard all those man-made disasters as at all normal.

— Bud Norman

Two Tales of One Speech

President Donald Trump delivered a speech to the entire world from the podium at the United Nations on Tuesday, but as always he seemed to be speaking mostly to his fans. As always the fans loved it, even if the UN-bashing was watered down somewhat from the campaign speeches, and the rest of the world was less enthusiastic.
After opening the speech with some self-congratulatory talk about the American stock market and unemployment rates, both of which have indeed lately improved at a slightly better pace than before he took he office, Trump welcomed the UN’s general assembly to his home town of New York City as if they had recently arrived solely to hear him speak. After that he got to more substantive matters, including a threat to completely annihilate North Korea, a warning that America will no longer share its traditional burdens in enforcing world order elsewhere, a promise that America would no longer attempt to impose its values of freedom and democracy on an unwitting world, some harsh criticisms of certain countries that are unfree and undemocratic, some more subtle criticisms of certain other countries that are also unfree and undemocratic but more formidable foes, and a full-throated announcement of the “America First” policy he successfully ran on.
The fans surely loved almost all of it, and the rest of the world will have a hard time arguing with much of the speech.
A threat by an American president to utterly annihilate another nation is unusual in a UN speech, but that has long been the unavoidable American policy in response to a nuclear attack, which North Korea has lately been threatening in clear terms, so Trump might as well have said so. Using the taunting “Rocket Man” nickname for the nutcase North Korean dictator that Trump had previously “tweeted” was unnecessary and probably not helpful, and we along with most of the rest of the world would have preferred some added lines about our hopes for a peaceful resolution to the crisis, but Trump is still on the same solid ground as any other American president would be in vowing a devastating response to a nuclear attack against America. He also seemed to leave room for a preemptive nuclear attack based on intelligence reports of an imminent threat, though, and given Trump’s past remarks to the world press about the unreliability of America’s intelligence community and his harsh criticisms of its previous preemptive military actions that’s a more complicated matter.
Trump is also on solid ground with his complaints that America has borne an unfair share of the burden of enforcing the world order, along with the implicit argument that the UN is charging us too much for its small role, but right now is probably not the best time to be making that argument. Trump’s savvy UN ambassador Nikki Haley has recently convinced both the Chinese and Russian members of the Security Council to sign on to harsh sanctions against North Korea, which might prove helpful if either country is as good as their word, and there’s still a chance that a peaceful resolution worked out in the UN will make our outsized bills to the usually worthless organization well worth the cost. Trump did tamp down his past criticisms of the UN and didn’t threaten a complete withdrawal, though, so the disappointment of his fans should be well compensated by the relief of the rest of the world.
By now both the American left and right and all those Trump fans who fit somewhere in that spectrum agree the country shouldn’t be imposing all of its values on the rest of the world, and the rest of the world surely won’t argue with that, but Trump’s oration leaves plenty of room for other arguments. He spoke of each nation’s sovereign right to settle its own domestic squabbles, but singled out North Korea and Iran and Venezuela for scorn about they’re handling it, and didn’t make clear what standards he expected from the rest of the world. North Korea and Iran and Venezuela well deserve America’s scorn, and whatever pressure America can apply, but so do China and Russia and other more formidable foes that Trump left largely unmentioned, and at this point a Trump Doctrine seems vague.
Trump made it clear that his guiding principle is “America First,” and he rightly noted that every American president has had the same priority and that every other world leader has also put his nation’s interest first, so the rest of the world has only self-interested arguments about that. Still, those Americans who aren’t fans of Trump, along with the rest of the world, can argue Trump doesn’t espouse an enlightened view of America’s self-interest. That “America First” slogan always bothered us, given its historic association with the pre-World War II isolationists who were sure America would fare just fine in a world dominated by the Axis powers, and it doesn’t sound any better coming from Trump.
It could have been a lot worse, though, and we’ll take some solace in our longtime and old-fashioned Republican conviction that the United Nations isn’t really that big a deal. Our reading of the English language  editions of the foreign press suggests that the rest of the world mostly regards Trump as a boastful and boisterous buffoon, so we’re left wondering how they’re taking the speech, and worrying if Trump cares about that so long as the fans are pleased.

— Bud Norman

Another Twist in the “Russia” Story

President Donald Trump has had a couple of relatively good weeks of news coverage, to the point we were all set to write about his so far so good performance at the United Nations, but at the last moment we noticed The New York Times’ scoop about the office of the special counsel into “Russia” informing Paul Manafort that he’s about to be indicted. If true — and to those who have been following the “Russia” story closely it seems all too plausible — that means many bad weeks of news coverage for Trump no matter how well everything else might turn out.
Even if you haven’t been following the “Russia” story very closely you probably know that Manafort was once Trump’s presidential campaign chairman, and has long boasted of his lucrative lobbying efforts on behalf of some of the world’s worst foreign leaders, including the Ukrainians tied to their country occupying Russian government. You might also know that as campaign chairman he sat in with Trump’s son and son-in-law in a meeting with a Kremlin-tied Russian lawyer and another Russian long suspected of laundering Russian mob money through American real estate holdings and a couple of other shady Russians, a meeting Trump’s son has acknowledged he arranged with the clear understanding that it would involve the transfer of information from the Russian government’s ongoing efforts to assist the Trump campaign. It was also widely reported that the special counsel had enough dirt to convince a federal judge to issue a rare “no-knock” search warrant on Manfort’s home to seize evidence relevant to an ongoing counterintelligence investigation, so unless you haven’t been paying any attention at all an imminent indictment shouldn’t come as a surprise.
Still, it’s a significant development in the “Russia” story. Former Trump press secretary Sean Spicer once described Manafort as “someone who played a limited role in the campaign for a short time,” but Manafort’s title in that limited role was “campaign chairman” and he served in that capacity until the press revealed his undisclosed business dealings with the Russkies themselves, and Spicer was last seen at the Emmy Awards doing a comedy routine that basically admitted he outright lied about the size of the crowd at Trump’s inauguration. Unless you’re the most strident sort of supporter of Trump, the imminent indictment of a former Trump campaign chairman on charges related to “Russia” isn’t the “nothing burger” that Trump’s most strident supporters always claim. At the very least, Trump will have to explain why he ever hired the guy as a campaign chairman in the first place, given all the bragged-about dirt already known about him.
At this point we guess Manfort’s high-priced lawyers are advising him to spill whatever beans he has on the Trump son and son-in-law who were also indisputably in on the meeting with the Kremlin-tied lawyer and suspected Russian-mob-money-laundering Russian and the other two shady Russians, and whatever he might have on the even higher-ups. Given the loyalty Trump has shown to him, we don’t expect that Manafort will go too far out of his way to be loyal Trump or any of his kinfolk.

— Bud Norman

Hoping for the Best, Contemplating the Worst

President Donald Trump and top officials from his administration are warning that time is running out for a peaceful solution to North Korea’s recent provocations, which might very well be the best thing to be saying, but there’s no denying that every other sort of solution will be very bad. Accepting the fact of the nutcase North Korean dictatorship as a nuclear power with intercontinental ballistic capabilities is also an intolerable outcome, though, and there’s no denying that past efforts at a more conciliatory diplomacy have failed to prevent the North Koreans from recent tests of a nuclear bomb capable of destroying a major city and missiles lobbed over Japanese air space that could reach American territory.
Tough talk hasn’t proved any more effective over the past many decades of dealings with the nutcase North Korean dictatorships, and has failed spectacularly in recent weeks, with their latest and most worrisome round of tests coming after Trump threatened “fire and fury like no one has ever seen” in case of any further provocations, but it might best to keep it up. One fact that the nutcase North Korean dictatorship has to accept is the fact that if it does come down to a nuclear war there won’t be much of North Korea left, as a devastating response to a nuclear attack against the United States has been American policy through every president since Truman, and one this administration might actually relish implementing, and that’s a strong hand to play with even the most nutcase dictators.
As United Nations ambassador Nikki Haley, who has proved quite adept at the job, put it in an interview with the Cable News Networks’ “State of the Union” program on Sunday, “If North Korea keeps on with this reckless behavior, if the United States has to defend itself or its allies, North Korea will be destroyed.” She was quick to add that “None of us want that. None of us want war. But we also have to look at the fact that we are dealing with someone who is being reckless, irresponsible and is continuing to give threats not only to the United States but to all of its allies.” Which strikes us as some very savvy diplomatic speech. It warns of the dire consequences of making America defend itself or its allies, leaves carefully unsaid what level of provocation would provoke that result, signals a willingness to continue negotiations on reasonable terms, and allows room for peaceful and tolerable solution.
National security advisor H.R. McMaster, a lieutenant Army general who served admirably in three wars and holds a doctorate in American history and is regarded by even the mainstream press as one of the wise hands of the Trump administration, took a similarly strong but precisely worded stand on the American Broadcasting Company’s “This Week” program, saying of the nutcase North Korean dictator that “He’s going to have to give up his nuclear weapons,” noting the president has been very clear about that, but quickly adding “all options are on the table.” Softly spoken but carrying the aforementioned big stick, with a metaphorical also dangled, and a resume to back up both the tough talk and the clear yearning for a peaceful solution, it also seemed as right a diplomatic statement as we could think of.
Trump himself spent the morning “tweeting,” including an apparently newsworthy video of of the president hitting a golf ball and former Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton being knocked down by it, which Trump’s fans reportedly found hilarious, but he also “tweeted” a couple of taunts against the nutcase North Korean dictator. One boasted that the United Nations sanctions on North Korea had led to “gas lines,” and another nicknamed the nutcase dictator “Rocket Man.” We don’t doubt that the recent sanctions have hindered North Korea’s economy, but at this point it’s a rare North Korean who owns an automobile and the rest are pretty much accustomed to abject poverty, and it’s clear that nutcase dictator doesn’t care much about any of that. As for that “Rocket Man” zinger, we’re also doubtful that the nutcase dictator can be brought by down by a nickname the same way “Low Energy” Jeb Bush and “Little” Marco Rubio and “Crooked” Clinton were. It’s not at all the polished diplomatic speech we’re accustomed to, but we’ll hold out faint hope it’s so crazy it just might work.
If it doesn’t, and things comes to worst, we’ll trust that America still stands with or without Guam or San Diego and the nutcase North Korean dictatorship doesn’t exist at all, and hope that the damage to everyone is as limited as possible. The best case scenarios involve civilian casualties not seen since the darkest days of the World War II in Seoul, South Korea’s capital and most populous city, and the death toll in North Korea’s capital and most populous city of Pyongyan even worse, and maybe even the nutcase North Korean dictator getting a missile launched against Japan’s capital and most populous city, and perhaps China or the Russians or various other far more formidable nuclear powers getting involved.
Those worst-case scenarios seem unlikely, given that most of the parties involved aren’t nutcase dictatorships, and China has already stated that it won’t stop us from nuking North Korea if North Korea nukes us first, and Haley got both China and Russia on board with those UN sanctions, but there’s no denying it remains a worrisome situation. Should the United States’ intelligence community reach a consensus solution with high a degree of confidence that the nutcase North Korean dictator was about to launch a nuclear attack on America or one of it’s allies the right thing to do might very well be a pre-emptive attack, and there would be some very sound diplomatic explanations for that that, but we can’t shake a nervous feeling about Trump and his “tweets.” He’s told the world that the United States’ intelligence community is probably wrong about Russia’s meddling in the past election and was surely wrong about the imminent threat posed by the nutcase Iraqi dictator’s weapons of mass destruction, and that an American president had lied about it to justify a pre-emptive war, and there’s no telling what either China or Russia might make of that.
We hold out hope and fervent prayers that it all comes to some peaceful and tolerable solution, and aren’t worried by the more measured tough talk from those top administration officials, and feel reassured by those wise old hands who show up on the Sunday morning news talk shows. That dictator in North Korea strikes us as a real nutcase, though, and no matter what wise counsel America finds he’s going to have to some say in how it turns out.

— Bud Norman