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Last Friday’s Awful Spending Bill

Here at the Central Standard Times we write our Friday posts on Thursday and then take a couple days off from the news, but since then the Republican majorities in the House and Senate passed a $400 billion spending bill that suspended the national debt limit for two whole years and Republican President Donald Trump quickly signed it. Being the grumpy old-fashioned Republican sorts that we are, we spent much of the weekend grousing about it.
The deal includes a couple of hundred billion bucks to bolster America’s military, and while we’re generally in favor of that we have our worries about what the failed casino mogul who is currently Commander in Chief might do with it. The other couple of hundred billion bucks goes to various and usually counterproductive Democratic bleeding-heart programs, and although we’re generally opposed to such nonsense we’ll hold out hope it at least temporarily placates them. The deal at least keeps the government running for another couple of years, which our old-fashioned Republicans sensibilities suppose has some benefit, and it puts off that messy illegal immigration for another few days, which gives us a few days off from worry about that, but it does so with an enormous swelling of the federal deficit, which we cannot abide without becoming craven hypocrites.
The big Republican tax-cut bill that was all the big news a few news cycles ago might yet bolster economic growth enough to result in a net increase in tax revenues — and that corporate tax cut seems especially promising — but in the meantime it’s going to add a few hundred billion of decreased revenues to the added $400 billion in spending and result in one of those trillion dollar deficits last seen in the darkest days of the early administration of President Barack Obama. Those eye-popping digits inspired the Tea Party revolt in the Republican party, which wound up wresting control of the House and then the Senate and ultimately resorting the fiscal sanity of the mere half-trillion dollar deficits of the President George W. Bush year, but since then the party has changed.
Trump ran on on extravagant promises that with his managerial genius he could wipe out America’s $20 national debt within eight years, and offered his own several successful business bankruptcies as proof, but he also promised not to touch the entitlement programs that are mostly driving America’s debt, and far more than all that cold-hearted military spending or bleeding-heart domestic programs. Somehow most of the Tea Party types who hated those establishment Republicans who’d tolerated Bush’s half-trillion dollar deficits bought into Trump’s anti-establishmentarian rhetoric, after that even such stalwart establishment types as Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell and the once-redoubtable House Speaker Paul Ryan willingly went along with the next trillion dollar deficit, and at this point we figure were among the very last of those old-fashioned Republicans who are dismayed by it all.
Our own Republicanism goes back to good ol’ President Dwight D. Eisenhower and his obsessively budget-balancing ways, and oh how we still like our fellow Kansan Ike, but we also remember when the wage-and-price-controlling President Richard Nixon proclaimed that “we’re all Keynesians now,” and even after such long experience none of the current Republican policies make any sense. It seems clearer than ever that America’s finances should be on more solid ground than a Trump casino and strip club, and the latest budget deal doesn’t make any sense even according to the convoluted but occasionally useful thinking of John Maynard Keynes. Trump continually boasts of the low unemployment rate and high growth of the overall economy he has wrought in a mere year, yet insists on a double amphetamine injection of tax cuts and a trillion dollars of stimulative tax spending, which has lately legitimate inflation concerns that have scared the Federal Reserve Board into threatening interest hikes that have lately spooked the stock markets that Trump was recently bragging about. When the next inevitable recession comes around, and we hope it’s later rather than sooner, it will be a more indebted federal treasury that is called on to bail it out.
Kentucky’s Republican Sen. Rand Paul called his party out on its hypocrisy, and even managed to shut the government partially down for a few inconvenient moments while doing so, and there’s somewhere between 20 and 30 Republican House members in the “Freedom Caucus” that sprang from the “Tea Party” movement who also resisted, so God bless ’em for their stupid and futile gesture. The putative Republican yet anti-establishment president and the rest of the party, including such erstwhile establishment types as McConnell and Ryan, were all on board. The Republican party also seems wavering from long held positions on wife-beating and cheating with porn stars and and dissing the federal law enforcement and intelligence agencies, which also bodes ill to our old-fashioned Republican sensibilities.
Of course those darned Democrats and their profligate bleeding-heart ways aren’t helping the fiscal and general economic things at all. Say what you want about that budget-busting deal to avert another so-what government shutdown, we’ll wager you’ll get more bang for your buck out of that couple hundred billion spent on defense than you will out of that couple hundred billion spent on social programs. The current Democratic indignation about Republican deficit spending is at least as hypocritical as the past Republican indignation about Democratic profligacy, and offers no solution to the problem.
Ah, well. We had a heartening church service on Sunday, and hold out hope that despite all those newfangled Republicans and forever darned Democrats the rest of us will somehow work this out.

— Bud Norman

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The Ongoing Campaign’s National Insecurity Statement

Ever since the Reagan administration — and oh how we miss those days, by the way — the congress has required that presidents provide a general statement of their foreign policy objectives and plans to achieve them. Every president has complied, always with a low-key and little-noticed publication carefully written to avoid antagonizing any adversaries or alarming any allies, but of course President Donald Trump seized the opportunity to deliver yet another campaign speech on Monday.
There was some good stuff in the official written statement, we must admit it, despite that “America First” slogan that always reminds us of the pre-World War II era.. Trump vowed that America’s foreign policy would be back up by an ever-more muscular military, and warmed our old-fashioned Republican hearts by quoting President Ronald Reagan’s philosophy of “peace through strength,” although without attribution. He spoke of “rallying the world” to confront North Korea’s nuclear provocations, which holds out some hope of a diplomatic solution, and of reaching a better deal than the current deal to deal with Iran’s nuclear ambitions, although he didn’t get very specific about what it would be or how he might get it. One sentence promised “gradual reform, not radical change, should be our guiding objective” in the Middle East, and there were other allusions to international alliances and American leadership that had a similarly reassuring steady-at-the-helm sound about them. He mentioned Russia as one of America’s more troublesome countries, but was vague about their interference in the past presidential election.
There was also a lot of nonsense from past national security statements that was left out, we must admit. Climate change wasn’t among the national security threats mentioned, no apologies were offered for pursing American interests, and didn’t describe the obvious threat of radical Islamist terrorism as “religious extremism.” On the whole, the brief written statement wasn’t half-bad by Trump standards.
The much longer campaign speech Trump delivered was far worse, though, for all the usual reasons. It began with his characteristic boasts about the tens of thousands of miles he’s travelled and the hundreds of world leaders he’s met as president, which reminded of us vanquished Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton’s similar campaign boasts about her tenure as Secretary of State, and it was quickly followed by some flattery about how the American people have been “among the greatest forces for peace and justice in the world.” That was followed by the characteristic boast that “just one year ago, you spoke out loud and clear. On Nov. 8, 2016, you voted to make America great again.”
Notwithstanding his three-million-or-so-vote loss in the popular vote, Trump then took the opportunity to criticize at least five of his most recent predecessors, although without mentioning any names. He criticized pretty much all of America’s current trade deals, which date as far back as Reagan, and he blasted “nation-building abroad while they failed to replenish our nation at home,” which clearly means President George W. Bush and the rest of the Bushes and the rest of the Republican establishment. He also spoke of how “they put American energy under lock and key” and “imposed punishing regulations and crippling taxes,” which can only mean Democratic Presidents Bill Clinton and Barack Obama, and lamented how “they” had neglected to solve the North Korea problem, with the “them” presumably stretching back to the administration of President Harry Truman.
All of those darned “them” also negotiated all of the worst-ever trade deals that have done so much damage to the American economy, which Trump frequently brags is humming along better than ever, but Trump made his usual vague promises to set that right. Trump also blamed them for letting a lot of illegal aliens into the country, which is a fair enough point, but followed it up with the usual crazy talk about building a big beautiful wall along the Mexican border, even if he didn’t add the long lost crazy talk about making the Mexicans pay for it. Much of the speech was devoted to boasting about America is stronger than ever and standing up for itself like never before, but overall it struck as strikingly whiny.
Trump is quite right that pretty much of the entirety of American history, the past several presidential administrations included, have left him in a rather tough spot. Every president could say the same, though, as could any other world leader about his country and its past several governments. The best of them have never disparaged the past leadership of their countries or the people who put them in power and instead moved forward with steady-at-the-helm leadership, and the worst them have always made vague promises to set things right.
Back in the campaign Trump promised he would never apologize for America, despite a few missteps it has undeniably made, and he would do well to acknowledge that the entirety of its history has also left him a position most of history’s world leaders would have envied. America’s military does need a boost, but it had been the world’s mightiest for more than 75 years before Trump office, despite all those Democrats. The past decades of free trade have driven innovations and increased prosperity not only in America but around a relatively placid globe, and the past 11 months of Trump haven’t much changed that trajectory.
Trump’s campaign speech probably got about as much attention as those low-key and little-read previous national security statements did, but it probably got the usual scrutiny from our anxious allies and recently emboldened adversaries. If they glean the same impression we gleaned of a megalomaniacal yet desperate politician pandering to his base rather than conducting a steady at the helm of American foreign policy in the country’s interests, all the good stuff will be for naught.

— Bud Norman

Two Down, Forty-Eight to Go

Another football season is in the books, basketball won’t begin its all-important post-seasons for a few more frigid weeks, and baseball’s spring training seems an eternity away, so at the moment the only scores a sports fan has to pore over are from the New Hampshire presidential primaries. Although it’s still early in the long political race, the results are already intriguingly different from all those pre-season predictions.
Over at the Democratic league, the senior circuit in more ways than one, the presupposed long-shot, self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, was a blow-out winner over former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, the once-presumptive First Woman President of the United States. Following her minuscule margin of victory in the season-opening Iowa caucus, which by now everyone knows was officiated as fishily as the 1972 Olympic basketball finals, Clinton’s long-assumed coronation suddenly seems very much in doubt. All the bettors in the party and the press who went big on her candidacy seem panicked, all the big news and entertainment media are begrudgingly obliged to acknowledge the existence of a self-described socialist called Sen. Bernie Sanders, all the kids are acting like they’re at the Ed Sullivan Show when The Beatles were playing, and all those federal agents are still snooping around her e-mail accounts and fishy family foundation donations, so the race is at least more interesting than was promised.
Next on the schedule is South Carolina, and any objective sportswriter might resort to an old cliche and say Clinton is in desperate need of a win there to salvage her season. In her last failed season Clinton lost badly in South Carolina, following a much-needed win in New Hampshire, but this time around she’s assumed to have a home field advantage. The more polite press are embarrassed to explain exactly why, but it’s implied that it’s something to do with the fact so many of state’s white people are Republicans that the Democratic party is largely comprised of black people. Last time around Clinton was running against Sen. Barack Obama, the presumptive and sure enough First Black President, but this time she’s running as Obama’s personally-chosen Secretary of State and the wife of the first First Black President, and she’s running against a guy from the whitest state in the union that anyone who’s ever seen a “Seinfeld” episode will immediately recognize as not only New York but Jewish, and even we hesitate to imply how that will play with an average South Carolina Democrat, so if Clinton doesn’t win there it will probably mean that the establishment team is forced to make one of those messy early-season quarterback changes.
There was a blow-out win in the Republican contest, too, but to the discerning eye of a veteran political sports fan it was not so significant. Real-estate-and-gambling-and-reality-show mogul Donald J. Trump more than doubled the numbers of his nearest competitor, Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who is merely  one of the Congressmen who delivered the last more-or-less-balanced budgets and a twice-elected chief executive of a bellwether swing state, which should tell you something about how very different this season of Republican politics has already been. This is enough for the headline writers, and will allow Trump the end-zone dance that was so cruelly denied the showboating quarterback Cam Newton in last Sunday’s Super Bowl, but it doesn’t have the same effect on the standings. The Democrat race is already down to two teams, but the Republicans still have a crowded field of contenders, and although we wouldn’t compare it to the Masters we will analogize that there are a lot of holes left to be played. A full 66 percent of the voting went to someone other than Trump, who continues to suffer downright Clintonian levels of disapproval in the same public opinion polls that show him leading the race nationally, New Hampshire is a crazy state that goes for Pat Buchanan one year and Mitt Romney in another, and the guys who were hanging around in the round are all capable of shooting high scores.
Still, it’s a win for Trump, the end zone dance will have to be indulged, the headlines will be all that anybody reads, and those who of us who are lustily booing his professional wrestling shtick will have to get used to it for a while. The early result will likely shake out a few of the bottom-tier candidates, and their cumulatively important number of supporters will likely be distributed among the remaining candidates who are someone other than Trump, but it leaves in place all the jockeying for inside lanes that have caused all those campaign pile-ups Trump has somehow always raced past, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush will still be sniping at one another and everybody will be sniping at Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, who won Iowa and had a good-enough showing in New Hampshire, for some reason known only to 16 percent of New Hampshire’s Republican voters Kasich will also be sticking around and acting above the fray. All in all, a good night for Trump.
Next on the schedule is South Carolina, though, which is a different course with different ground rules and extended three-point lines or whatever sports analogy you might prefer. Like New Hampshire it is an open primary, which allows the independents and Democrats that Trump seems to be drawing to participate in the Republican election, but the white folks and the few few black folks who predominate in the party’s voting tend to be Christian and capitalist and traditionally conservative, earning it a reputation as a “firewall” against insurgent candidacies, so it could prove unfriendly for Trump. Our best guess is that he’ll get his usual sizable chunk of the electorate, but our hope is that someone will be able to garner a competitive share of the more sizable-not-for-Trump vote. Cruz would seem a possibility, but retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson might still be around to take away some much-needed evangelical votes, and with Kasich still around to steal votes from Rubio and Bush, who are for some reason known only to themselves still squabbling with one another rather than leading a full-on assault against Trump, there’s little likelihood of whatever’s left of “the establishment” playing any role in this race.
It’s still early in the season, as already noted, but so far it looks to be a memorable one.

— Bud Norman

On the Day After Opening Day

For such avid fans of the blood sport of American politics as ourselves, the quadrennial Iowa presidential caucuses are like the opening day of a once-every-four-years baseball season. Some youthful enthusiasm left within us wants to extrapolate the rest of the reason from the season from the first day’s statistically insignificant scores, some more sober sensibility acquired over the years reminds us that are plenty of games left to be played in what is always an up-and-down season, and we always wind up indulging in the obligatory speculation.
Over on the Democrats’ senior-in-more-ways-than-one circuit we note that former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State and long-presumed Next President of the United States Hillary Clinton is still going into extra innings as we write this against self-described socialist and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders, which bolsters our pre-season suspicion that it’s going to be a long and hard-fought contest. In a far more crowded field the upstart Republicans’ winner was controversial right-fielder Texas Sen. Cruz, who had a plurality of 28 percent, with real-estate-and-gambling-and-reality-show-and-professional-wrestling mogul Donald J. Trump coming in from way out in the metaphorical left field to take an unaccustomed second place with 24 percent, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, now cast as the party’s steady center-fielder, just behind with an intriguing 23 percent, which at least provides hope for another long and hard-fought race.
Of course, one needs to keep in mind the peculiar ground rules that govern Iowa’s opening games. The Democrats require caucus-goers to spend all night standing with their fellow rooters in the corners of various frigid high school gymnasiums and senior centers spread across the state, staring one another down to attract the rooters from the candidates disqualified in the first rounds, which should have given her opponent’s more youthful and fired-up supporters an edge, so even a slight win will still count as a win even by pliable rules of politics. The next game will be played according to more traditional primary rules in New Hampshire, but that’s right next door to Vermont and Sanders has held a comfortable lead in the polls there for some time, so a win in Iowa means at least Clinton won’t get off to that 0-for-2 start so many formerly front-running candidates have never recovered from. Still, those bettors who put their chips on Clinton a full four years ago are likely in for a nervous season. Veteran political sports fans will recall that a similarly spirited far-left candidacy by Sen. Eugene McCarthy knocked sitting President Lyndon Johnson out of the race with a win in New Hampshire way back in the memorable ’68 season, and although those with more reliable memories will more accurately recall that Johnson eked out a victory it was close enough it was still enough to convince Johnson that he wouldn’t make it to the general election finish line, which makes it a potentially worthwhile analogy.
Cruz only won eight delegates to Trump’s and Rubio’s seven, and long-shot retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson got three, with even longer shots libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul and erstwhile starting center fielder Jeb! Bush of the erstwhile Bush dynasty getting one apiece for finishing fifth and sixth, respectively, so with 1,114 delegates needed to clinch the pennant there’s still plenty of race of left. It’s still a crucial tally in the win column for Cruz, however, and although he’s starting from behind in New Hampshire the Iowa winner has traditionally picked up a few points in other contests. Veteran political sports fans will also recall how little-known Georgia Gov. Jimmy Carter got a sudden amount of name-recognition-generating publicity from an upset win in Iowa and rode it to the Democratic nomination back in that sub-.300 year of ’76, and although those with more reliable memories will recall that Carter actually finished second to “undecided,” which ultimately proved poetically appropriate enough, the point still obtains. For someone running against a reality-star with almost unlimited free publicity and near-universal name recognition, it’s an especially important point.
In an ordinary season an ordinary candidate could claim more than seven delegates from a second-place finish in Iowa, but Trump is no ordinary candidate. The most likely explanation for the front-running Trump’s second-place finish is that Iowa’s Republican caucus is largely dominated by evangelical Christians who prefer a Baptist minister’s son such as Cruz to a thrice-married gambling mogul who publicly boasts of the billions he made by buying off politicians and all the married babes he’s bagged along the way, but we don’t think even Trump will attempt that spin and we don’t think New Hampshire voters would buy it even if they are next door to Vermont. Much of Trump’s appeal is based on his argument that he always wins, and that Americans might even get bored with all the winning he’s going to do for America, making it hard for him to spin an actual vote where he not only came in second but a full 76 percent of the voters went for someone else. He wisely declared himself “honored” by a second-place finish, noting only obliquely how many observers had thought Iowa an unfriendly field, and he’s still got the lead in New Hampshire before getting back on evangelical turf in South Carolina, but to mix the sports analogies somewhat at least he won’t be getting that early-round knock-out.
Rubio’s close third-place finish, on the other hand, should be worth more than just seven delegates over the coming weeks. It represents a significant bump in his previous poll standings, will merit enough mention to up his name recognition a few notches, and will likely even knock out some of the other players vying for the centerfield position. When the fourth-place Carson sooner or later bows out we suspect most of his support will flow to Cruz, so Rubio will need all the meager votes scattered about the rest of the soon-to-drop-out candidates, and when Bush makes his inevitable exit Rubio will at least be spared the millions of dollars of negative advertising that have been aimed him, so in this game opening day does matter more than in baseball.
Both leagues might wind up battering themselves into a sorry state for the eventual general election World Series, but that’s way too far away to speculate about now.

— Bud Norman

A Rip-Roarin’ Fight, and No Result

Thursday night’s episode in the Republican presidential mini-series was the most entertaining yet, and for those interested in issues it was also the most informative, but it did little to advance the plot. Everyone did well, everyone took a few blows, and no one scored a clear victory.
Even the bit players did well, although not well enough to matter. Former computer executive Carly Fiorina managed get some attention on the undercard debate with jabs at Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton’s marital problems and rival Republican Donald Trump’s crony style of capitalism, but at this point it seems unlikely to get her back on the main stage. Ohio Gov. John Kasich wasn’t an annoying scold, representing a vast improvement over past debate performances, but that won’t make any difference for a candidate who is far too centrist for the party’s pugnacious mood. Retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, who was briefly a front-runner in the race, was as always affable and admirable but couldn’t quite overcome the concerns about his policy chops that have caused his drop in the polls. Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, whose calm and presidential demeanor only emphasizes that he is also too centrist for the moment, did well enough to hurt some of the other candidates but not enough to help himself.
There’s still an outside chance of New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie contending for the nomination, what with the first primary being held in friendly New Hampshire, and that chance was probably improved by another strong performance. Being governor of a northeastern blue state has left Christie with some dangerously centrist positions of his own, but he defended his record on guns with vigor and even had a few achievements to cite, and at least his famously pugnacious style suits the fighting mood. Christie also tried to make up for his past literal embrace of President Barack Obama by calling him a “petulant child” for trying to impose gun regulations by executive action, and for the most part he was spared attacks by the others.
That’s probably because at this point the main players are Trump, a real estate mogul and reality television star, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, and Florida Sen. Marco Rubio, who were mostly saving their jabs for one another.
The first clash came when Trump was asked about his recent insinuations that Cruz’ birth in Canada makes him constitutionally ineligible to become president, a lame reprisal of Trump’s unsuccessful “birther” arguments about Obama, and in his half-hearted stab at the issue Trump carelessly quoted the notoriously left-wing Harvard Law School professor Laurence Tribe. Cruz, who had already done a fine job of jabbing back at a New York Times hit piece over a long-ago loan that he reported on one form but not another, seemed to relish the fight. He shrewdly quoted Trump’s September assurances about his lawyers being satisfied that Cruz is indeed eligible, getting a good laugh by noting that the constitution hadn’t changed since then but the poll numbers have — a point Trump later laughingly conceded — and of course by noting that his former professor Tribe is a notorious leftist. When the former United States Attorney and Texas State Solicitor with a solid winning record in court cases waved off Trump’s suggestion that he take the matter to court, saying “That I won’t be taking legal advice from Donald Trump,” which got another big laugh, only the most died-hard Trump supporter or eastern bloc Olympic judge wouldn’t have scored the round for Cruz.
Trump got some points back when Cruz was asked about his statement that Trump represents “New York values.” Cruz initially got the applause by telling the noisily Republican South Carolina audience that people understand the term, which got a knowing a laugh, and he recalled a past interview when Trump admitted that his positions on a host of social issues are in line with the New York City rather than the Republican consensus, but he didn’t make much the needed clarification that he wasn’t talking about the hard hat worker riding the subway home to the Bronx, but rather the hipsters and university faculties and media grandees and ward-heeling socialists and blow-dried crony capitalists and creepy celebrities and everything else about the city that even those hard hat workers riding the subway home to the Bronx hate. This allowed Trump to speak with an uncharacteristic quietness about the city’s many undeniable virtues, and warm even our hearts by noting that the great William F. Buckley was a New Yorker, and eloquently recall its resilient response to the country’s most deadly terror attack, so even the eastern bloc Olympic judges will give him that round. He also effectively blunted what could have been a pretty good line, because people really do know what Cruz was talking about, so we give him a few extra points as well.
Cruz and Rubio also clashed, with both taking a few blows. At one point Rubio packed an 11-or-12-point litany of attacks at Cruz in a few brief bursts of sound, and even a former national collegiate debate champion such as Cruz couldn’t speed-talk fast enough to answer them all. Cruz later responded with Rubio’s past defection on the all-important issue of illegal immigration, which is pretty much the sole reason Rubio is stuck in third place rather than running away with this race, and once again Rubio had no defense other than mostly ineffective counter-attacks. On the whole, we’d say that Cruz got the better of it but that Rubio showed the aggressive style that Republicans seem to favor.
We note that Rubio used everything from Planned Parenthood to Common Core against Christie, who is widely perceived as his remaining competition as “the establishment candidate,” as if any sane candidate in either party would want that title in this particular election year, and also against Cruz, whose Senate insurgencies have made him as unpopular with the hated establishment as any of the candidates and thus endeared him to the party’s base, but he didn’t seem to have anything to say about Trump. That’s likely because Trump has lately been more concerned with Cruz and thus has had little to say about Rubio, so we credit both with tactical shrewdness, but we would have like to have seen two figuratively if not literally mess one another’s hair a bit.
Trump mostly did well, too. Aside from from the nice rendition of “New York, New York” he scored well with a question about South Carolina Gov. Nikki Haley’s response to the president’s State of the Union address, in which her comments about not heeding the siren call of the angriest voices was widely understood as a criticism of Trump. Haley had already gotten a huge round of applause from her home state audience at the beginning of the debate, and he deftly praised her but admitted that he is indeed angry. An angry nation will surely understand, even if it can’t quite understand what Trump plans to do about it other than hire the best people and make America great again, and by the end of the evening Trump didn’t even seem the angriest man on stage. We think Trump got roughed up pretty well by all the candidates and even the otherwise disinterested and generally very good Fox Business News moderators on his proposal for punitive tariffs on Chinese goods, and trade matters in general, which is supposed to be the master negotiator’s strong point, but we suspect that went unnoticed by the large portion of the audience that was more interested in who got off the best insult.
Happily, though, we notice these debate audiences, if not the audiences at Trump’s rallies, seem to be tiring of his shock jock shtick, and that even he seems to be noticing. We counted three occasions when Trump was roundly booed for either boasting about his popularity or insulting the character of another candidate. After he called Bush a “weak man,” the boos were louder than Bush’s dwindling number of supporters could have possibly generated. On each occasion Trump appeared genuinely chastened, and we think he much preferred the warm applause from his more generous remarks about his hometown and South Carolina’s governor.
All in all, we still have no idea who’s going to win this thing.

–Bud Norman

The Latest Episode of the Perils of the GOP

The Republican presidential race is quickly becoming our favorite television show, almost to the point that we wish it were already over and we could “binge watch” the entire season to to its cliff-hanging conclusion on Netflix. Tuesday night’s installment was the best yet, with some intriguing plot twists and a refreshing focus on some fascinating but previously minor characters, and some travails of the formerly featured players, as well as much better production qualities.
Our cheapskate ways and aversion to popular culture preclude us from purchasing cable television, so we give thanks to the Fox Business Network, which is obviously the business news affiliate of the notoriously capitalistic and greedy Fox News organization, for making it available for the free on the internet, unlike the previous debate producers at CNBC, where the “C” stands for cable or capitalism and the “NBC” stands for the righteously anti-capitalist and pro-share-the-wealth National Broadcast Company, which insisted that everyone pay for its product. We further thank for them asking actual questions of the candidates, rather than spewing sneering diatribes ended with a question mark, because as much fun as it was to watch the Republicans bash the moderators in the last debate this episode was even better.
Previous episodes had somehow established two political neophytes, blustery real estate billionaire Donald Trump and soft-spoken neurosurgeon Ben Carson, as the frontrunners, but this time both seemed relegated to supporting roles. Another non-office-holder, former high-tech executive Carly Fiorina, seemed to get more air time and to make more of it. When the questions veered from economic issues to foreign affairs, Trump started talking about letting Russian President Vladimir Putin run the Middle East, Carson rambled in his efforts to reconcile his past dovishness in Afghanistan and Iraq with a more popular hawkishness, and Fiorina got the biggest applause of the three with some very tough talk about the need to project American power. Of the three candidates untainted by previous positions in government, which voters suddenly seem to find very attractive, we’d rate her performance the best.
Trump was conspicuously less prominent than in past debates, and his bully boy persona seems to be wearing thin. Much of his ire was aimed at former congressman and current Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who otherwise would have gone entirely unnoticed, and Trump’s argument that Ohio’s recent economic rebound was merely a matter of “striking oil” was easily rebutted, and his sneer that “I don’t need to listen to this man” was booed by many people who certainly never had any intention of supporting the recently mushy Kasich but feel that his long record of public service at least entitles him to have his say in a Republican debate. His complaint that Fiorina too often interjected herself into the debate was briefly cheered by his supporters with their usual pro-wrestling fan enthusiasm, but it surely gave his feminist and other female critics another reason to hate him, and there were enough old-fashioned chivalrous males and less aggrieved women in the audience at a Republican debate that he endured another round of boos. His best moment came when he criticized the Obama administration’s Trans-Pacific Partnership boondoggle, emphasizing that he supports free trade but credibly claiming that he could have negotiated a better deal, but even that didn’t get much applause.
Carson’s more polite presentation fared somewhat better. He stumbled badly when the discussion ranged into foreign policy, noting how darned complicated it all seems to be, but he had good moments talking about capitalism and entrepreneurialism and risk-taking and the economic anxieties of the middle class. At not point was he booed for his boorish insults, and the phony-baloney scandals about him that the press have lately concocted went unmentioned even by Trump, and the first wave of punditry raved about his performance, so our guess is that he didn’t suffer so much as Trump.
Among the candidates who are tainted by previous public service, we’d say that Sen. Marco Rubio of Florida and especially Sen. Ted Cruz of Texas seemed the likely winners. Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul had a good moment talking about the Democrats’ hysteria over climate change, as befits a Senator from a coal-mining state, but his isolationist views and stubborn insistence that a hefty military budget is not conservative made him a whipping boy for the rest of the candidates. Cruz got the best of it by noting that the defense of America is expensive but not nearly expensive as not defending it, Rubio got in a couple of good lines about the necessity of America being the world’s greatest military power, Fiorina also got some licks in, and even the most weak-kneed of the candidates made clear that the Republican party and conservatism still stand for a stronger national defense than any Democratic candidate might prefer.
There was some hearteningly radical talk about abolishing the Internal Revenue Service and other sensible tax reforms from all the candidates, with Cruz going the furthest, and even Trump was forced to concede that all the plans put forth were preferable to the status quo or any adjustments the Democrats were considering. Another big topic was illegal immigration, and although Trump and the obviously irrelevant Kasich had a sharp exchange about the feasibility of deporting every illegal immigrant it was clearly that even of the mushiest of the lot would be more strident than even the stiffly-spined Democratic on the issue. All the candidates came off more stridently capitalist than any of the Democrats, as well, and still sounded more authentically populist in their opposition to crony-capitalism than even the most ardently socialist can claim to be. On most of the poll-tested push-button issues, the eventual Republican nominee will be positioned.
The latest debate gave more time than the previous ones to Kasich and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, and they made less of it. Bush’s closing statements had something to do with the Veterans Administration and not much else, according to our admittedly bored notes, and we expect that Kasich’s strong stand as the least strident of the candidates in his opposition to illegal immigration was surely the death knell of his candidacy. There’s no telling how the installment will go, but for now our best guess is that that Bush and Kasich are out, Trump is trending downwards, Carson stays steady, Fiorina retains an outside chance, and that Rubio gains but Cruz does even better, whoever emerges will be better than the Democrat candidate, whose identity remains a mystery, and that there’s no telling how that might turn out.

— Bud Norman

Webb Withdraws and the Democrats Lurch Leftward

Former Virginia Sen. Jim Webb never did have a chance to win the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, so his withdrawal from the race on Tuesday won’t much affect the race. The reasons for his early departure say much about the current state of his party, however, so we do find it noteworthy.
Once upon a time, not so long ago that we can’t recall it clearly, Webb would have made a formidable candidate and an even more formidable nominee, but his parting speech frankly acknowledged that at this particular moment in history “my views on many of the issues are not compatible with the power structure and the nominating base of the Democratic Party.” This should have been apparent to Webb even during his little-noticed campaign announcement speech, but it simply could not go unnoticed after the party’s first presidential debate. Webb was forced to defend his past support of the Second Amendment and his past opposition to race-based affirmative action policies, was the only candidate to voice any commonsensical skepticism about the last seven years of foreign policy in general and that awful Iran nuclear bomb deal in particular, and even as he went along with the rest of the candidates he was clearly the least enthused about providing subsidized health care and other expensive government benefits to the untold millions of illegal immigrants that the Democratic Party is intent on inviting to the country. Throw in a few other heresies against the latest Democratic orthodoxy he uttered during his few minutes of airtime, and Webb was the glaringly obvious answer to one of those “which one of these does not belong” questions on all the standardized tests.
Webb was even so gauche as to note that he not only fought in Vietnam but had also served his country as Secretary of the Navy during the Reagan administration, which one liberal Politico “tweeter” immediately characterized as “Jim Webb admitted he killed people.” We don’t remember any liberals being so critical of John Kerry, who “reported for duty” as the Democratic nominee on the basis of his dubious war record rather than the more indisputably documented anti-war activities that launched his career at another radical point in Democratic party history, or raising any objections to President Barack Obama’s boastful claims about killing Osama Bin-Laden, as if he’d rappelled down from the helicopter and done the deed with his own bare hands, but with Webb the reaction from the debate audience and the attending press was plainly apoplectic. We found ourselves almost liking the guy, despite his unenthused support for expensive benefits to untold millions of illegal immigrants and his many other heresies against conservative orthodoxy, but of course that only further confirmed his unsuitability to the current mood of the Democratic Party.
Our liberal friends love to repeat that old cliche about how the Republicans have lurched so far to the right during the past decades that even Ronald Reagan could no longer win its nomination, and we’re sure it seems so to them as they lurch ever further to the left. From our perspective, which has admittedly been fixed here in the middle of the country at the same rightward spot ever since we started reading National Review back in junior high, it is hard to see how GOP’s nominations of George H.W. Bush and Bob Dole and George W. Bush and John McCain and Mitt Romney demonstrate any rightward lurching since Reagan, and we don’t see anyone in the current field that’s likely to lurch it the right of that sweet spot, and yet all that leftward lurching on the Democratic side seems apparent.
Our beloved Pop still likes to recall how President Harry Truman stood firm against the Commies, we were raised on tales of PT-109 and that John F. Kennedy speech about bearing any burden and paying any price to ensure the ultimate victory of democracy, and from our childhood we recall how President Lyndon Johnson had the hippies outside the White House chanting “Hey, hey, LBJ, how many kids did you kill today?” despite all his Great Society liberalism. From our own adulthood we still remember when Washington Sen. “Scoop” Jackson and a few other hawkish Democrats had prominent standing in their party, not to mention the Bosnian-bombing President Bill Clinton and peacenik war hero Kerry and Bin-Laden-killing Obama among other recent Democratic warmongers, so the sudden Democratic repulsion to Webb’s much-decorated martial spirit strikes us as a significant development.
Webb’s admitted support for the right to self-defense and opposition to affirmative action policies that favor Obama’s Sidwell Friends-educated children over some Appalachian coal miner’s more promising kid were also respectable opinions within the Democratic circles of our relatively recent recollection, too, and even that unmistakable hesitancy about giving expensive benefits to untold millions of illegal immigrants and the rest of his unforgivable heresies he uttered would have easily been forgiven by the power structure and nominating base of the Democratic Party. At this particular point in the party’s history, though, the putative front-runner Hillary Clinton is running against her husband’s record of tough-on-crime measures and defense of traditional marriage and insouciance about sexual assault while the self-described socialist and surging insurgent and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders is arguing that even after seven years of Obama the economy is horrible because we jut haven’t lurch far enough left yet, the party seems to agree that Black Lives Matter and others don’t,  and from our fixed position seem awfully far left at the moment.
Although admittedly situated to the right, we suspect that our position and Webb’s is closer to the center than his former rivals. There are still an awful lot of white people and even among the Democrat kind of them there’s bound to be some resentment that Obama’s Sidwell Friends-educated children have some legal advantage over their own kids, and Americans of all colors and party affiliations have become accustomed to the right of self-defense, and a commonsensical appraisal of the past seven years of foreign policy in general and that awful Iran nuclear in particular will be skeptical, and it takes a certain sort of Democrat to be sufficiently enthused about paying expensive benefits for untold millions of illegal immigrants, so Webb’s departure does not seem to bode well for the Democratic Party’s general election fortunes. The Republicans seem intent on screwing up such a golden opportunity, of course, but it still does not bode well.
Webb’s much-decorated martial spirit was still on display as he retreated, saying that while his party is not comfortable with many of his policies “frankly I am not comfortable with many of theirs.” He hinted at a third party-challenge, a one-in-a-zillion shot that seems his best bet for the presidency at this point, and we’d like to think it might drain a few votes from Democrats who still believe all the traditional Democratic nonsense but aren’t so leftward lurched that they buy into all the latest nonsense. We’re not sure how many Democrats fit this projection, though, and he might wind up stealing a few Republican votes if Donald Trump wins the nomination, so at this point we’re not sure how noteworthy is withdrawal really is.

— Bud Norman

Are You Serious? The Bad Guys Are

The pull-out quote of the day belongs to one Jassem Mohammed al-Bayati, a member of the Iraq parliament’s ruling coalition. Explaining to The Washington Post why his government has recently joined “a substantial and serious coalition” with Russia, Iran, and Syria in the fight against the Islamic State, he said: “Iraq has had enough of the unserious support and procedures of the international coalition.”
That unserious international coalition that al-Bayati refers to is the Obama administration and whatever partners it still has on board, so it’s hard to dispute his characterization of their efforts in the region. The administration’s apologists will note that the administration has spent a congressionally authorized $500 million to train and equip 5,400 Syrian good guys to get in on the fight against the Islamic State yet not on the side of Russia, Iran, and Syria, but after days of denial the Pentagon finally apologized last week for the fact that only 54 of them actually took the field, and that at the moment only four of five of them are still in the fight, and that one of them and his 70 or so ragged troops had recently surrendered all their equipment to a group backed by al-Qaeda, which has now reportedly put aside any theological quibbles and allied itself with the Islamic State in the ongoing troubles. Meanwhile, the once formidable fighting forces of the more or less moderates Kurds are getting pounded, largely due to a lack of support from their former American friends, erstwhile allies ranging from Israel to Saudi Arabia are also making plans for a post-American era in the Middle East, and everywhere from Ukraine to Japan people are figuring out that America’s amity has no benefits and America’s enmity brings no consequences. This is bound to strike any Middle Eastern observer as unserious, even in the unlikely event they share Obama’s assessment of the ascendant Islamic State as the “jayvee team” of terrorism.
Russia, Iran, and Syria, on the other hand, must appear quite serious to anyone with an existential stake in the situation. Russia is consolidating its recent gains in Eastern Europe as it assumes a new role as the power broker in the Middle East, Iran is gloating over a deal that gives them an easy path to a nuclear bomb along with a $150 billion signing bonus it can spend on terrorism against the country it continues to call “the Great Satan,” and Syria continues to feel free to cross any red lines that the administration might threaten. The Sunni monarchies that are threatened by both the Shiite Iranian-Syrian axis and the more radical Sunni Islamic State-al-Qaeda axis might yet team up with the Jewish state of Israel, which faces the same threats and suddenly finds itself with some very strange bedfellows, but any alliances that might occur will be made with the clear understanding that the Americans they once counted on are no long serious.
How this might improve America’s standing in the world remains to be seen, but we’re sure the administration’s apologists are already working on some explanation. If the combined might of Russia, Iran, and Syria were to defeat the Islamic State, or at least hold them in the current stalemate through the next election, it will surely indicate the Islamic State really was a “jayvee team” after all. That three of the world’s worst governments would hold sway in a key part of the world, where once valued allies and essential national interests are at stake, well, that can be blamed on George W. Bush or some other manifestation of America’s racist and Islamophobic and imperialist hubris. The vice president once boasted Iraq was a “stable government” and “one of the administration’s greatest achievements” when American troops were pulled out, in keeping with a campaign promise made long before the resultant catastrophe, but that shouldn’t stop him from stating the argument in a presidential campaign.
These are serious times, but we can’t argue with any Iraqi parliament member who thinks we have an unserious administration. We worry that he and a lot of other influential people around the world share our suspicion that the administration was elected and re-elected by an unserious country.

— Bud Norman

As Long as You’re Looking Good

By happenstance we found ourselves chatting with a most affable Venezuelan fellow the other night at a local bistro. We don’t mean to pretend we’re so cosmopolitan as this atypical evening at a West Douglas hipster dive in Wichita would suggest, but there was also a delightfully bawdy Englishwoman and a couple of polite but circumspect Poles in attendance. At any rate, we commiserated with our newly-fledged Venezuelan friend about the political and economic woes in his homeland, which are even more socialistic and screwed-up than the situation here, and he shrugged his shoulders and waved his hands and said it had been a bad 14 years for his country. We joked that we were surprised President Cristina Kirchner had proved so awful, given that she was kind of hot when the country elected her, but he seemed to take our jest in earnest as he sighed the same disappointment.
From our conversation we had gathered that the fellow has made something of a success of himself in our ruthless local capitalism, and he seemed quite sensible, so it was surprising to surmise that he had apparently expected the stark raving left-wing Kirchner to lead his country anywhere but bankruptcy just because of her past comeliness. Although we’ve long been enamored the sultry appeal of the Latin bombshells, from Lupe Velez and Dolores Del Rio to the invariably naked Sonia Braga of ’80s and the latest offerings from multi-cutural Hollywood, but we’d like to think we’re not such suckers for a pretty face that we’d entrust any of them with a head-of-state position, especially if they were stark raving left-wingers, as most of the probably are. By that point in the evening we were starting to overlook the tattoos on that delightfully bawdy Englishwomen, though, and we had to admit that personal appearance plays a disproportionate role even in our own politics.
In vain we tried to remember the last American major party presidential nominee who was outright ugly. Nixon, maybe, although we expect that in ’68 a still-significant silent majority of the country foun his receding hairline and ski-slope nose somehow reassuringly seasoned, and that in the hirsute year of ’72 it didn’t matter what he looked like against such a grizzled old hippie freak as George McGovern. We got a lot of laughs back in ’04 by asking “Why the long face, John Kerry,” but even he was rescued from outright ugliness by a certain Boston Brahmin quality to his visage. Kerry still lost to the good-old-boyish looks of George W. Bush, Nixon got edged out by the more photogenic John F. Kennedy, and the most physically appealing candidates have usually prevailed in almost every election as far back as we can remember. The buff young fighter pilot that was once Sen. John McCain might have stood a fighting chance against the smooth-skinned Barack Obama and his ivy-covered Afro-cool, but the war-wounded old man who ran instead never had a prayer. Mitt Romney’s wholesome handsomeness was too redolent of those corny old ’50s sit-coms, and were thus trumped by the grayness and wrinkles that four years of fruitless administration had gadded to his opponent’s already ivy-covered Afro-cool. Lincoln is generally regarded as the great of all presidents, even by the egomaniacal current occupation of the office, and he was widely derided for his ugliness at the time of his administration, but that was a pre-electronic age of media that will unfortunately never be recovered.
This disturbing human tendency toward superficiality might yet provide our collective rescue, however. The conventional wisdom’s horrifying conclusion is that Hillary Clinton will be the next President of the United States, and it is reassuring to think we might spared that eventuality by her increasingly haggard and harridan looks. There are ample other reasons to oppose this awful woman’s ascendance to the presidency, but in her case we’ll take whatever we can get. It would be nice if the country could up with a majority for some bland-looking but high-performing chief executive such as Texas Gov. Rick Perry or even better yet but less-handsme Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, but we’ll be hoping for an outright ugly Democrat to oppose them.

— Bud Norman

Of Espionage and Press Releases

We’ve watched a lot of cloak-and-dagger movies in our day, and like to think ourselves savvy to all the conventions of the espionage genre, but we’ve never encountered a plot twist where a Central Intelligence Agency operative’s top secret cover was compromised by his name and position being included on a White House press release. Such broad farce is too far-fetched for even most the irreverent spy-movie spoof, and can only occur in real life.
Yes, a White House press release handed out during President Barack Obama’s recent photo-op with the troops in Afghanistan did indeed identify the CIA chief of station who has been running the intelligence-gathering and drone-warfare the enemy has found so vexing. The top-secret spook was apparently among the guests of honor at the photo-op, no doubt conspicuous by his black tie and tuxedo among all the camouflage and the president’s butch bomber jacket, and somebody in the White House thought he therefore deserved mention to the press. A Washington Post reporter thought this odd and potentially dangerous, but only after his story had been filed and quickly published on the internet, and by the time he drew the government’s attention to the matter the name was available to any of the vexed enemy with a working internet connection. Another White House spokesman assured that the White House chief of staff had asked the newly installed White House counsel to look into the matter and make recommendations on “how the administration can improve processes and make sure something like this does not happen again,” and anyone screenwriting yet another spy-movie spoof will be hard-pressed to improve on that.
That Post reporter deserves some credit for his belated realization of his security breach and bringing it to the government’s attention, and his paper redacted the operative’s name from subsequent editions and most American publications have also properly declined to repeat the name, but otherwise most of the media have done their usual dreadful job on the story. Almost none have given it the same outraged attention that was given to the naming of CIA worker Valerie Plame, who wasn’t a covert agent at the time and who was named by an associate of Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only Bush administration official that the media didn’t want to destroy, in an apparently innocent effort to explain why Plame’s husband had been sent off to the Middle East to file a much-publicized and highly-dubious report about his half-assed investigation into charges that Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein had tried to acquire yellowcake uranium. The press went wild for the story, hoping it would lead instead to the revelation that the administration had deliberately endangered a brave spy’s life in order to discredit a noble whistle-blower, and they kept telling it even after it fell apart. The Washington Post even revived it in the account of the Afghanistan press release, falsely recalling “when former CIA operative Valerie Plame was exposed as officials of the Bush administration sought to discredit her husband, a former ambassador and fierce critic of the decision to invade Iraq.” The Los Angeles Times got it even more wrong, stating that Plame was identified by Scooter Libby, a former assistant to the vice-president who was convicted of a lie about the non-crime during the multi-million dollar investigation of the matter.
A desire to revive even false memories of the bad old Bush days is understandable, though, given how very inept the current administration looks. The naming of the CIA operative ruined the fine optics of the president looking so very Commander in Chiefy in that butch bomber jacket, so the press was almost obliged to throw in some compensatory Bush-bashing, no matter how inaccurate, and we expect the story will fade away before that special counsel fellow makes any recommendations. The bigger story is the president’s latest schedule for bugging out of Afghanistan, which will have the boys back home just in time for the next presidential election, and no one seems especially concerned that it might be handled just as ineptly as the administration’s public relations. Even such friendly publications as the aforementioned Los Angeles Times are starting to a notice a pattern of incompetence by the administration, from shovel ready jobs that aren’t quite shovel ready to crashed web sites to bankrupt solar panel companies to a gun-running operation for Mexican drug gangs to misspelled “reset” buttons that were going to charm the Russians into good global citizenship, not to mention Benghazi and the Veterans Administration and countless other examples, so a suddenly-endangered CIA operative is another embarrassment the press would rather not dwell on.
We wish that compromised CIA spook well, and hope he fares at least as well as Valerie Plame. She got a glamorous Vanity Fair photo spread and a Hollywood movie out of it, but this fellow will be lucky to get a book deal. His story is too far-fetched for a movie, even if you could get Will Ferrell or some other over-the-top comic to star, and it makes the wrong president look bad.

— Bud Norman