Advertisements

The Un-Calm Before the Storm

So far as we can tell from his “tweets” and other public pronouncements, President Donald Trump is intent on some sort of military action against North Korea. The public pronouncements from the nutcase dictatorship of North Korea make clear that they consider Trump’s words a declaration of war, and the idea isn’t so nutty.
Trump has “tweeted” that Secretary of State Rex Tillerson was “wasting his time” seeking a peaceful resolution to North Korea’s nuclear provocations, adding “Save your energy, Rex, we will do what has to be done.” At a photo-op with the Joint Chiefs of Staff, Trump chided the generals for being slow in delivering him “military options,” later saying, as they all smiled for the pictures, “This is the calm before the storm.” Numerous questions about what that meant were answered with “you’ll see,” but Trump’s latest “tweets” said the past 25 years of diplomacy with North Korea have been “making fools of U.S. negotiators,” and “Sorry, but only one thing will work!”
That one thing clearly isn’t a negotiated resolution, and Trump is clearly impatient with the economic pressure that has lately been exerted on North Korea, by now even Trump doesn’t hold out much hope the Chinese can resolve the matter, so that doesn’t leave many non-military options. Trump and his most die-hard supporters appear quite confident that they’ll prevail in this game of nuclear brinksmanship, but it’s making the rest of us in pretty much the entire world rather nervous, and we can only guess at what that nutcase dictatorship makes of it.
If it does come down to a war America will win it, and Trump is right to emphasize that persuasive argument, but that’s no reason to start a war that could possibly be avoided. Any bar brawler can show you the scars and still-nagging injuries he got in the fights he won, cemeteries around the world are filled with the graves of soldiers from wars America won, and the best case scenarios for a quick win against North Korea include millions of enemy and allied deaths. We don’t advocate appeasement, as North Korea’s newly-upgraded nuclear capabilities are indeed intolerable, but we’d feel calmer if Trump heeded President Theodore Roosevelt’s advice to speak more softly as he wields a big stick, and didn’t render his Secretary of State’s efforts at a peaceful resolution a waste of time.
We’d be calmer yet if we thought that America had an effective Secretary of State on the job, or a cohesive foreign policy and an effective foreign service to go with it. Some of those southeast Asian allies Trump is making very nervous don’t have American ambassadors or fully staff embassies, key State Department positions have gone unfilled, and it’s not clear who’s advising Trump that calling the nutcase North Korean dictator “Little Rocket Man” and ruling out talks is sound diplomacy. Trump has some solid foreign hands around with his Defense Secretary and Chief of Staff and national security advisor, all multi-starred generals with hard-earned first-hand knowledge of how horrible even won wars are, all far more knowledgable about military realities in general and on the densely populated Korean peninsula in particular, but we notice they’re all striking a less bellicose tone in the very rare public pronouncements.
Trump’s grousing about the all the generals who have been slow in providing him military options suggests to us that the entire military is less enthusiastic about war with North Korean than is Trump, and we assume there are some relatively sane functionaries in the nutcase dictatorship that have reached the same conclusion. They’ve probably also noticed Trump’s dysfunctional relationship America’s foreign policy establishment, with the nutcase dictator amused that Trump’s own Secretary of State called him a “moron” and didn’t get summarily executed, and they’re probably less impressed with Trump’s bluster than his die-hard supporters.
The nutcase dictator probably pays even less attention to his sanest advisors than Trump does, though, and he might decide that so long as Trump has already declared war he might as well get it started with a strike on South Korea or Japan or the American territory of Guam or, if the most alarming claims are true, the west coast of America. At this point even the most sane advisors won’t advise him that Trump hasn’t already more or less declared war, and even if the nutcase dictator realizes somewhere in his deranged brain that he’ll lose the war he’ll figure that if he’s already lost he might as well get a few licks in along the way. So far as we can tell from the news reports he’d get a lot of licks in, and the generals and the military in general seem to agree, and with anything short of outright appeasement we’d rather put that scenario off to very last possible moment.
Perhaps this is the grand strategy that Trump and his die-hard supporters believe, and we have to hope so, although we wonder with  how Trump came to know more than generals or any previous head of state in history during his real estate and reality show career. If it comes to war, we hope it’s only because it was waged to avert an immediate threat to American lives, could not have been avoided otherwise, and that the Commander in Chief who ordered it could convincingly explain that to his countrymen and our allies and the rest of the nervous world.

— Bud Norman

Advertisements

Grand Old Party Poopers

With a solid Republican majority in the House of Representatives, a slight Republican majority in the Senate, and a slightly Republican president in the White House, the Grand Old Party should be having a grand old time about now. Alas, things haven’t yet worked out that way,, and after the slightly Republican president sided with the Democrats Wednesday on the latest debt ceiling debate it’s hard to see how they ever will.
These all-too-frequent debt ceiling increases are complicated affairs even in more normal circumstances, so of course this time around it’s all the harder to make sense of it. As always a debt ceiling increase is much needed to keep the government operating and avoiding a federal default that would have far more catastrophic economic consequences, everyone is eager to avoid that politically suicidal fate at any cost, yet everyone is trying to take advantage of the situation to get pet causes included. The usual result is some scary brinksmanship followed by yet another desultory compromise that pleases no one, and we’ll hold out hope for another similarly happy outcome this time.
Democrats typically use this all-too-frequent game of chicken to get further exorbitant spending for all sorts of crazy social engineering regulations, Republicans always try to win severe spending cuts and argue that even though they’re voting for another debt ceiling increase they don’t think we can keep this up forever, and we’ve always been more inclined to the Republicans on the issue. We’re as disappointed as any snarling caller to your local talk radio station that the Republicans always wind up voting for another debt ceiling increase, but we have to admit that at least the annual federal deficits have been halved since the Republicans took over the House and then the Senate back in the ill-remembered days of President Barack Obama, and we guess they’d have doubled if not for all those congressional Republicans who came to the rescue before Trump joined the party.
This time around the debate is complicated by all sorts of things that don’t even involve Trump. An historic natural disaster has lately occurred in America’s fourth-most populous city, another bad storm might be headed for the densely populated east coast of Florida, and a significant down payment has to be made on the budget-busting cost of all that lest a political disaster bear down on both Democrats and Republicans alike. That’s not to mention all the complications caused by Hurricane Donald, who had already threatened to veto anything that didn’t include full funding for his crazy and unpopular idea of a tall and translucent wall across the entire border with Mexico, long been “tweeting” schoolyard taunts against both the Republicans and Democrats in Congress, and had won office by railing against the establishments of both parties and promising no entitlements and balanced budgets.
So far as we can tell the latest congressional negotiations had come down to a difference of opinion about how long the latest desultory compromise which pleased no one would last. The Democrats wanted a mere three-month extension, the Republicans preferred a year-and-a-half before they had to go through all this again, everyone was willing to cough up the necessary funds for all those natural disaster victims, and in normal circumstances a Republican majority Congress and Republican president would have at least granted a weary nation that slightly longer respite.
On Wednesday, though, Trump met with the Democrats’ Senate minority leader Sen. Chuck Schumer of New York and House minority leader Rep. Nancy Pelosi of California, gave them both videotaped hugs,  and agreed to back their side, which complicated things beyond comprehension. Both Schumer and Pelosi are longstanding villains in the Republican narrative of the way things are, Trump had previously “tweeted” that Schumer was a “clown” and taunted him as “Cryin’ Chuck,” long been at least as unkind to the long-hated-by-Republicans Pelosi, so it came as something of a surprise.
Less surprising if you’ve been following how a certain segment of the talk-radio-listening Republicans have come to hate House Speaker Paul Ryan of Wisconsin and Senate majority leader Mitch McConnell of Kentucky with a nearly as red-hot hatred, and how Trump tapped into that anti-establishment mood to win the Republican nomination and eventually the presidency. Trump more or less vowed to vanquish the Republican establishment, kept up the feud from his election up to now, and his most die-hard supporters probably like it.
We can’t see what satisfaction they’ll get out of it, though, except for seeing Ryan and McConnell and their establishment Republican types properly irked. The Democratic offer that Trump is backing doesn’t come closer to what every sort of Republican has long wanted from all these all-too-frequent debt ceiling increase debates, and any old Republican should be irked by the satisfaction than the even more loathsome Schumer and Pelosi surely feel. Trump’s staunchest defenders will dutily explain that it’s another master move by The Art of Deal, being played out on a 3-D chess board we cannot comprehend, but that’s harder than ever to believe. The Democratic side basically means that they’ll have all their leverage back in a mere three months, when there’s no telling what disarray the Republicans might be in, the Republican side at least gives them a year and a half to perhaps right ship, and conceding such leverage might work in New York real estate deals but we can’t recall the last time it worked in these complicated legislative negotiations.
It might be for a mere three months or a whole year and a half, but we expect the government will ultimately stay open and continue paying its bills over either span. That grand old time for the Grand Old Party and its long promised balanced budgets seems further away than ever, though, and in the meantime there’s a lot of other very complicated messes to be figured out, We’ll keep following the news, and hoping for the best.

— Bud Norman

The Latest Contretemps and the Coming Deadlines

The fallout from President Donald Trump’s response to the deadly violence that ensued from a white supremacist rally in Virginia over the weekend continued on Wednesday. Several more Republican congress members announced their objections to Trump’s statements, and the Fox News network reported that it couldn’t find any who were willing to speak on camera in the president’s defense. The Joint Chiefs of Staff issued a statement that was clearly an implicit rebuke of their Commander in Chief’s comments, and several administration officials were anxiously leaking that they had nothing to do with any of it. Also, the mayor of Phoenix asked Trump to cancel an upcoming rally in the city, and Trump had to shutter two advisory panels comprised of the nation’s top business executives and labor leaders rather than accept the mass protest resignations that were soon coming.
Sooner or later the news will move on to something else, including fresh twists on the old stories about “Russia” and White House in-fighting and the Republicans’ stalled agenda of unpopular legislation, but Trump will wade into all of them as a weakened president. The opprobrium of everyone from the leaders of the Democratic and Republican party to the nation’s top military brass to the chief executive officer of Campbell’s Soup will only shore up Trump’s “anti-establishment” credentials with his most stubborn base of support, but although they’re still numerous enough to fill an arena in Phoenix he’s going to need more help than that to start winning.
That stalled agenda of unpopular Republican legislations was already stalled and unpopular largely because of Trump’s low poll numbers, which are lower than any previous presidents’ had been at this point in a first term, and its hard to see how Trump’s past few days will win any new supporters. Trump’s past feuds with his party’s congressional leadership and his own cabinet members and the military’s top brass and the economy’s most successful executives were also largely responsible for the Republican agenda being both stalled and unpopular, which is what’s mostly driving those low poll numbers, and heightening the hostilities seems a questionable strategy.
An unpopular and defiantly anti-establshment president is going to have muster some some pretty ubermensch-ian will to power to prevail against the established order and the popular consensus that sustains it in the more consequential stories that are bound to soon come. The world is at least a troubled place as ever, with more than usual number of hot spots that have lately been forgotten, and it’s worth noting that many of our democratic allies Trump had already been feuding with also stated their objections to his statements on that white supremacist rally in Virginia. The Republicans’ stalled and unpopular agenda is coming up against some very hard deadlines next month, too, and some unifying presidential leadership is going to needed to avert all sorts of catastrophes.
By the end of September the Congress needs to pass some sort of convoluted continuing resolution or some such congressional gobbledygook to keep the government open for business, as well as yet another debt-ceiling increase to pay for it, lest the government suspend many services and perhaps even default on its debt. Both Trump and the more usual sorts of Republicans ran on a promise of a return to good old days of budgets bills that went through committee and got passed by both chambers of congress and were signed into law by the president, as well as promises of a quickly balanced budget, but at this point they’re highly unlikely to keep those promises right away, and even that convoluted continuing resolution and another round of borrowing is going to be hard to achieve.
The mild political consequences of a partial government shutdown and the far more dire economic ones of a default on the national debt give every Republican member of Congress some leverage in the upcoming negotiations on that convoluted continuing resolution, none of the Democratic members will have motive to offer the majority party any help, and Trump’s reputation as a master deal will be tested more severely than it was in any of his real estate or casino negotiations. When Trump’s casinos went bankrupt he came out many millions ahead while his creditors lost collective billions, and during the campaign he temporarily roiled the world’s markets by suggesting that American could win with the same methods, so we wouldn’t be surprised if the next dreary round of continuing resolution and debt-ceiling debates involves more than usual amount of brinksmanship.
We’ll hold out hope that most dire circumstances will somehow be forestalled, just as the more-than-usual-amount of brinkmanship with the North Koreans seems to have provided a brief respite from that round of news, and we’ll count on some sort of established order prevailing at least a little while longer. If the president could be please refrain from picking any more fights with the growing majority of Americans who aren’t among his most stubborn fans we’ll feel better yet.

— Bud Norman

An Awful Deal and Its Political Implications

Anyone who’s been paying the slightest attention to the Republican presidential nomination race has by now noticed that the party’s rank-and-file are in full tar-and-feathers revolt against its elite leadership. The big budget deal that newly-fledged House Speaker Paul Ryan has negotiated is not like to sooth things.
Although Donald Trump’s latest “tweet” is probably getting more attention, the deal is just awful by any rock-ribbed standard of Republicanism. There’s $1.1 trillion dollars of spending, which is bad enough, and it includes full funding for Planned Parenthood despite revelations of its baby-parts business, continued contributions to the Green Climate Fund that pays American penance for the country’s alleged global warming sins, no reins on the Environmental Protection Agency’s power-grabbing “clean waters” regulations over the puddle in your backyard, and money for all those “Syrian” “refugees” that the Obama administration wants to import from the most crazed areas of the Middle East. Even the big business wing of the party is betrayed by the deal, with provisions to spare some financial institutions from the burdens of the Dodd-Frank monstrosity dropped and Sen. Elizabeth Warren’s bossy Consumer Financial Protection Bureau still exempted from any congressional control, so it’s hard to imagine any portion of the party outside of Washington that will find it acceptable.
Part of the deal is another deal that extends about $600 billion of business tax breaks, which is fine by traditional Republican thinking but only of immediate importance to the affected businesses and their employees without any commensurate spending cuts is not likely to satisfy the rest of the part. There’s something about allowing the export of American oil and a couple of other reasonable provisions that have enraged some of the more far-left Democrats, enough for Ryan to make the strange boast that nobody is happy with the deal, but we can’t help but noticing that House Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi and Senate Minority Leader Harry Reid seem very eager to get it passed. Our fellow Republicans will like notice as they warm their tar and pluck their feathers, too.
This might bolster the front-running Trump, who will surely have something scathing to “tweet” about it, and it could play to his strength as a legendarily tough negotiator, which even such strident critics as ourselves cannot dispute, but it’s more complicated than that. His surging rival is Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who has earned a reputation as one of the few congressional Republicans willing to engage in the government shutdown brinksmanship that this deal was clearly intended to avert, and Trump has lately criticized Cruz for being a “a bit of maniac” in his opposition to similarly awful deals in the past, although he backed off that after his talk radio pals who had cheered Cruz on each time stopped gushing, so if Cruz is deft he could also easily benefit from the party’s outrage. There’s a case to be made that the current deal isn’t so awful for the party as the fall-out from another round of government shut-down brinksmanship, which would bring down such opprobrium from the press that even Trump’s “tweets” could not drown it out, and if the more-or-less “establishment” candidate Florida Sen. Marco Rubio can successfully make that case he might wind up the beneficiary. That’s a tough case to make to the typical Republican primary voter these days, however, and Rubio already has a tough case case to make regarding his past heresies on the all-important illegal immigration issue.
The deal isn’t entirely done yet, with crucial votes awaiting in Cruz’ and Rubio’s Senate, so we’re eager to see how it plays out. The deal itself should be the big story, and there should be some way of working out something better within the current political arrangement, but that doesn’t seem very likely. At this point we’re only hoping that it will help an enraged Republican party make better choices in the future, and if Ryan’s lousy deal at least makes that possible we’ll at least give him and that creepy new beard of his some scant amount of credit.

— Bud Norman