The Ongoing Trials of Sessions

President Donald Trump is still tormenting his former Attorney General Jeff Sessions, which is entirely unsurprising but the biggest non-coronavirus story we could find in the news this week.
Then-Alabama Sen. Sessions was the first senator to endorse Trump’s seemingly quixotic campaign for the Republican party’s presidential nomination, and a time when the rest of the party’s elected and officials and other establishments were desperately hoping to nominate almost anyone else. His campaigning on Trump’s behalf helped win over a lot of the fiscal and religious conservatives who had been suspicious of the former Democrat and outspoken abortion rights advocate from New York City, and when Trump somehow won the general election Sessions was rewarded with the Attorney General gig, despite a lack of any apparent qualifications other than his loyalty.
Not long after Trump took office, though, the Justice Department announced an investigation into possible ties between the Trump campaign and the Russian government’s apparent attempts to hack e-mails and sponsor internet information in order to help Trump. Because Sessions ha been a prominent member of the campaign, and he and other campaign staff had some arguably innocent interactions with Russians that he denied during congressional testimony, he recused himself from any role in the investigation. it was the ethical thing to do, and probably smart politics given the doubts that any decisions he might have would prompted, but Trump was furious.
Trump wanted the investigations quashed at the beginning, and believed that an Attorney General’s job is to protect him rather than pursue justice without favoritism, and made Session’s life as miserable as possible. Trump “tweeted” schoolyard taunts against Sessions, pilloried him during televised news conferences, and in private conversations with other administrations likened sessions to the diminutive and nearly-blind and constantly blundering cartoon character Mr. Magoo. Although he had neither the guts nor a plausible reason for outright firing Sessions, who was pursuing White policies diligently, Trump was clearly intent on forcing a resignation.
That’s what eventually happened, and Sessions was replaced by Attorney General William Barr, who has proved more willing to protect the president at all costs.
Sessions was still popular in Alabama, where he probably could have held his Senate seat until his dying day if he hadn’t loyally accepted Trump’s offer of the Attorney General job, so he went back to the welcoming arms of his home state and bided his until the next senatorial election. All of Trump’s “tweeting” and pillorying had somewhat weakened Sessions standing, though, and after a crowded primary election Sessions wound up in a run-off against former Auburn University football coach Tommy Tuberville slated for July 14. Sessions campaigned on the argument that he’d been an early supporter of Trump — who is also quite popular in the state — and remained a loyal advocate for the “Make America Great Again agenda, but Trump values loyalty to himself more than loyalty to his ever-shifting policies, and he endorsed Tuberville, who was also fully on board and already had a sizable following in the football-crazy state.
Sessions has continued to campaign as “Trump’s #1 supporter,” but the the Trump reelection has campaign has sent him a cease-and-desist letter about it, saying the claim is “delusional.” This looks bad to us, as it seems quite petty on Trump’s part and clearly implies that any true Trump supporter would have gladly obstructed justice on the president’s behalf, but a majority of Alabama’s Republican voters might well see it differently. When Alabama had a special election to fill the state’s Senate after Sessions left for the Justice Department, a majority of Alabama’s Republican voters nominated Roy Moore, an unabashed theocrat who had been kicked off the Supreme Court of Alabama for defying federal and had a number of women coming forward to describe his very creepy behavior when he was in his 30s and they were in their teens. He was such an awful candidate despite Trump’s endorsement and ardent campaigning and ample campaign contributions the Red Sea parted and a moderate Democrat named Doug Jones won a statewide election for the for the first time in decades.
Alabama is still as red as the Crimson Tide, though, and Jones is considered the Democrat’s most vulnerable incumbent in November. Tuberville might or might not have much going for him except a winning record at Auburn and Trump’s endorsement, as we don’t follow Alabama politics closely enough to say, but from this distance he doesn’t seem nearly so awful as Moore, so he’d likely be the frontrunner in a general election. Sessions would be, too, though, as Alabamans has long considered a good public servant who put principle above politicians, and although it goes against off his prideful instincts Trump would be wise to support a Sessions nomination if it happens.
These days every story has a coronavirus angle, however, and at this point it’s not clear if Alabama will be able to have a run-off election on July 14. The Alabama Republican Party could decide to postpone it until hopefully happier days, or have everyone vote by mail or on-line or some other socially-distanced, or just have the party establishment pick a nominee, and there’s no telling which candidate that would benefit.
The other coronavirus angle is that such a petty and impetuous and unprincipled president as Trump is in charge of that horror show. Even in Alabama, Jones might be able to make some hay of that by Election Day, if that happens.

— Bud Norman

Election Season is Over, Let it Commence

They do things differently down in Louisiana, including the unusual practice of holding statewide election on the Saturdays of odd-numbered years. Over the past weekend the state narrowly reelected a damned Democrat as its governor, which is just the different sort of thing they routinely do down in Louisiana, but it is nonetheless considered a political setback for President Donald Trump.
Trump won Louisiana’s electoral votes by a landslide and campaigned hard for Republican nominee Eddie Rispone, holding two of his sold-out rallies to argue that a loss baby Rispone would be a loss for Trump, so incumbent Gov. John Bel Edward’s victory in a Deep South state is embarrassing to to Trump no matter how narrow the margin. You could blame it on the anomalies of Louisiana, but it comes shortly after another damned Democrat won a gubernatorial election in usually reliably Republican Kentucky despite Trump’s best efforts, and it concludes what has undeniably been a disastrous run of mid-term and off-year elections for the Trump-era Republicans.
Which of course complicates all of our politics from now until the First Tuesday in November of 2020. The damned Democrats are pursing an impeachment inquiry that seems to be building a very solid case abused his foreign policy powers for personal gain, Trump is trying ta rally unified Republican support no matter what they come up with, and the setbacks in the Deep South and the suburbs of almost everywhere are worrisome for Trump and the rest of his Republican party. Maybe it’s the vulgarity and venality and divisiveness of the current administration and the utter implausibility of its conspiracy theories and explanations for its behavior, but we expect Trump to double down on that, and the rest of the party will have to decide how far to to distance themselves.
Maybe it’s because the damned Democrats nominated sane and centrist and well-credentialed candidates in those suburban districts and southern states, such as the Democrat governor show got elected here in Republican Kansas and so far has not brought the state to noticeable ruin to our state. The damned Democrats in all the big cities and college towns probably won’t notice this winning formula, though, and might well nominate someone for so far left that Trump can beat him or her or whomever.
In any case, we wish Kentucky and Louisiana well, as we love their food and music and very fine people.

— Bud Norman

The Sanders Series Comes to an End

The strange saga of Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders’ quixotic presidential campaign came to its inevitable inglorious end on Tuesday, and we have to admit that we’re sorry to see the series finale of such a compelling reality show. Sanders is a self-described socialist and an absolute kook whose policies would surely be the Venezuelan-style ruination of America, and it’s slightly discomfiting to our red-in-tooth-and-claw capitalist souls that his campaign went so far into the July of an election year even in the Democratic Party, but there was a certain endearing quality to his kookiness and it was always great fun to see him bedevil that awful woman who had been picked by the party bosses before the battle even began.
All kids dug the balding and white-haired 70-something throwback to an Old Left that they didn’t even know had been supplanted by a New Left, even the gray-haired New Left throwbacks we know from the local arts and hipster scenes were “Feeling the Bern,” and our atypically homosexual and Democratic neighborhood here in an otherwise reliably Republican city in a reliably Republican state has long been sprouting “Bernie 2016” yard signs like dandelions, and even we found something endearing even if discomfiting about him. The best explanation in every case is that Sanders is indeed “authentic,” something that both parties and much of the rest of the country seems quite enamored of after so many years of politicians reading from poll-tested and focus-grouped texts, and neither we nor any of our more liberal friends ever once doubted that he quite sincerely believed all that nonsense he was shouting. He’d long been poor and never been conspicuously rich, despite a long career in politics he was so cleanly outside the party system he wasn’t even a Democrat until he sought the party’s nomination, and despite all the wacky anecdotes about his dirt-floor days and a family history that used to be considered scandalous and of course those ruinous policies no one has come up with anything on him that smacks of hypocrisy.
Which we’d like to think is the main reason he so long bedeviled that awful woman whose victory was already determined when Sanders started tilting at those Democratic windmills. Presumptive Democratic nominee and former First Lady and Senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton is the epitome of a politician reading from a poll-tested and focus-grouped text, and she’s never been as poor as she likes to brag about and she’s become very rich from her long tenure in the political process, and at this point even most Democrats will admit she might or might not believe any of that slightly-more-mainstream kookiness she’s spouting. It endears us to our Democratic friends that they still take such character issues in account, even as if discomfits us that they prefer a self-described socialist.
We can well imagine our Democratic friends’ pain as they watched their anti-establishment hero formally endorse the nomination of the establishment’s pre-ordained candidate on Tuesday, siding with a woman he had rightly denounced as aligned with the nefarious Wall Street sorts at the uppermost tier of every Democrats’ demonology, and accurately pointed out had voted for the Iraq War that the arch-demon George W. Bush had lied us into, and so far they seem rather sore about it. The “comments” section on our former employer The Kansas City Star’s story features people so miffed about it they’re vowing to vote for presumptive Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, and other media have logged similar threats by the rank and file, and for the now the storyline even in the most Democratic outlets is that there’s party disunity afoot. Trump is already talking and “tweeting” about the undeniably rigged process that handed Clinton the nomination, even if she did win a majority of the primary and caucus votes, and making explicit appeals to the disgruntled supporters of a self-described socialist. He can legitimately make the case that he’s on board with that storyline about Bush lied and people died and sticks to his illegitimate claim that he knew better, but the self-described billionaire will be harder pressed to make an economic case to a bunch of kids who liked all the free stuff that Sanders was offering to be paid for by awful billionaires without exacerbating the disunity in his own formerly conservative party.
Our best guess is that some of those Sanders supporters will wind up voting for the Green Party’s admittedly authentic and scandal-free-except-for-being-a-kook Jill Stein, some will wind up voting for Libertarian Party candidate Gary Johnson, whose economic platform is the antithesis of the self-described socialist’s but is for legalized marijuana, which is likely to come in handy during the coming years no matter how this all turns out, few will vote for Trump and most will wind up glumly voting for Clinton. Sanders has volunteered his efforts to Clinton’s campaign, and if his fans aren’t so loyal that they’d vote for him even if he shot someone on Fifth Avenue they’ll probably follow him to the polls to vote against Trump. The possibility of a Trump presidency strikes the same terror in the soul of a Democrat that the possibility of a Clinton presidency does in a Republican soul, and that’s how the race is shaping up despite Sanders’ best efforts.
Even in the abject defeat of that awkward appearance with Clinton Tuesday, Sanders’ quixotic campaign has slewed a couple of windmills along the way. He’s dragged Clinton and the rest of the party to the left on such kooky ideas as free college education, the by now bi-partiasan consensus for protectionist trade policies, ever more profligate deficit spending, and henceforth being a self-described socialist and admitted agnostic won’t be immediately disqualifying traits in at least one of the country’s two major parties. It’s not much of a legacy, but it was interesting to watch.

— Bud Norman

Jeb Bush Goes on the Dole

Former Kansas Sen. Bob Dole was briefly back in the news Wednesday with his endorsement of former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s presidential candidacy, and we were reminded of a long ago era of Republican politics. The Bush campaign is apparently hoping that the party is nostalgic for those old times, which largely explains why it hasn’t a chance.
At age 92 Dole is about as a senior a statesman as the Republican Party still has around, and his long and noteworthy career entitles him to some standing. He was a bona fide hero of World War II, overcame the lifelong wounds he suffered to start a distinguished career in the House of Representatives and then the Senate, was his party’s vice presidential nominee in the ’76 election, and after serving as Senate Majority headed the ticket headed in the ticket in the ’96 race. Except for the war record, though, none of it is likely to impress the average Republican primary voter of today. The party’s mood at the moment is angrily anti-establishment, and Dole is by now the epitome of the establishment.
Dole talked a tough conservatism when he first started rising through the ranks of Kansas politics, and in a gravelly prairie voice that made it all the more convincing, then he earned reputation for die-hard partisanship when was one of the last congressional Republicans to abandon the sinking ship of the Nixon presidency. In the wake of that disaster he was chosen as President Gerald Ford’s running mate to placate the right-wing crazies and employ his famously acerbic wit in the role of “hatchet man,” and he was so widely reviled by the left that for many years his conservative credentials weren’t questioned. In retrospect his early conservatism was just common sense opposition to all the Great Society nonsense of the Johnson administration, his devotion to the Keynesian wage-and-price-controll and Environmental Protection-agency-founding Nixon administration was ill-advised, and Ford’s nomination win over an insurgent Ronald Reagan still rankles the average Republican primary voter.
Dole was still a left-wing bogeyman and right-wing icon in the summer of ’78, when we served as interns in his Senate office, but his presidential ambitions had already started him on a more mainstream path. He was also careful to keep the Kansas constituents happy, and was a reliable friend of the farmer, especially the big agribusiness ones who were generous donors to his perfunctory re-election campaigns, and his hawkish stands on defense spending played well at the local air force base and the airplane factories that always had a friend when seeking a government contract, and his press releases would alternate between the latest pork being brought home to Kansas and the Senator’s tough stands on big government and reckless spending, but he also cultivated a national reputation as a pragmatic deal-maker and not one of the scary and unelectable conservative ideologues. When Ronald Reagan at long last won the presidency in ’80, proving that those scary conservative ideologues aren’t so unelectable after all, at least not after four years of Jimmy Carter, Dole was never able to get a good seat on the bandwagon and his positioned himself as a reasonable middleman.
Which was enough to get him easily re-elected in Kansas back in the day, when the Democrats had long since given up any hope of a very rare Senate win and started nominating their looniest liberals as sacrificial lambs so that base would have some reason to feel self-righteous as they went to the polls. As reporters at the local newspaper we got to cover the campaign of one hippy-dippy young woman whose name was drawn out of some threadbare hat to run as Dole’s Democratic opponent, who we found endearingly loopy and hilariously similar to every popular stereotype of left-winger, and who gave us the greatest drunken interview after her landslide defeat, and even the most anti-establishment Republican had to admit that Dole wasn’t one of those. We also covered Dole’s office in the early ’90s, which was quite a chore given his press office’s far greater interest in returning phone calls to The New York Times and The Washington Post, as well as the Senator’s prickliness about even the most polite and even supportive questions, but there were never any stories that hurt his popularity within his party.
Deal-making and bi-partisanship and big money agribusiness donors and all the rest were accepted as business as usual in a party placated by the Reagan economic boom, as even it stretched into the otherwise-hated Clinton years, and it was sufficient for a candidate to claim that at least he wasn’t one of those loony Democrats. It worked well enough to give George H.W. Bush what was hoped to be third Reagan term, but neither Bush nor Dole could stave off eight years of Clinton. Another Bush managed to stave off Al Gore and John Kerry, which even the most anti-establishment Republican must admit is a public service, but he wound up ushering eight years of Barack Obama, with the possibility of another eight years of a Clinton, with all sorts of deals made and trillions of dollars of debt racked up, and by now even the mushiest sorts of Republicans are in an angrily anti-establishment mood.
Yet another Bush is trying to buck this anti-establishmentarianism, which isn’t going to happen, and the support of an even older establishment figure such as Dole won’t help.

— Bud Norman