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If It’s Doomsday, This Must be Belgium

President Donald Trump’s die-hard fans probably loved his performance Wednesday at the North Atlantic Treaty Organization meeting in Brussels, as he gave all those freeloading Euro-trash leaders the tough talk that always goes over so well at the endless campaign rallies, and Russian dictator Vladimir Putin probably enjoyed it as well. Most of the rest of the world, though, shuddered.
All but two Republican Senators and every single Republican in the House of Representatives preemptively voted for resolutions that affirmed America’s commitment to the NATO alliance Trump was once again criticizing on the way to the summit. When Trump started the meetings off with a rambling breakfast rant about Germany being “captive to Russia” because of a natural gas pipeline project, Secretary of State Mike Pompeo and NATO ambassador Kay Bailey Hutchinson and chief of staff John Kelly sat next to him with the same embarrassed look and awkward posture of the wife of a drunken husband spoiling an otherwise cordial  cocktail party. Unless you really relished the video of Trump socking it to the Euro-trash, it’s hard to see what America got out of it.
Trump did get the rest of the NATO members to reaffirm their commitment to increase defense spending to 2 percent of their gross domestic product in the coming years, which they’d all be working toward since Russia’s invasion of Ukraine long before Trump was elected, and the NATO general secretary generously gave Trump all the credit, but then Trump insisted they immediately start spending 4 percent, which is even more than the 3.58 percent that America spends on defense. Trump is probably right that the pipeline deal between Germany and Russia was a bad idea, but of course he vastly overstated Germany’s reliance on Russian energy, and it’s unlikely he’ll convince German Chancellor Angela Merkel, who was a literal captive of Russia when she grew up in East Germany, to back out during the NATO summit. We figure it’s even more unlikely that he’ll press the issue with Putin during an upcoming summit with the Russian dictator that he never seems to criticize.
All of the NATO members except for Turkey are bona fide democracies, except for Turkey, whose autocratic leader Trump never criticizes, and we doubt those country’s leaders will persuade their voters to accept the tax hikes or cuts in other government services to pay for an immediate quadrupling of defense to mollify Trump, who is widely reviled around the world as a bully and the very embodiment of an ugly American. Trump has some legitimate grievances with the the NATO arrangement, but every sane observer in the western world still acknowledge its existential importance, and his tactless style of diplomacy makes it harder for the essential alliance to reach a satisfactory resolution of these longstanding squabbles.
The die-hard fans and the Russian dictator love it, though, and we’re not sure which explains Trump’s rants. Despite the fissures in an alliance that won the Cold War and has mostly resisted Russia’s revanchist ambitions Trump’s rhetoric somehow delights those Americans who resent those smarty-pants Euro-trash countries, and we don’t doubt that figures in his calculations. There’s an ongoing special counsel investigation into the Russian meddling in America’s past presidential election that pretty much only Trump and his most die-hard fans and the Russian dictator accept as an actual fact, and we’d hate to think that past shady dealings with the Russkies is why Trump seems intent on undoing a post-war world order of trade relations and diplomatic alliances.

— Bud Norman

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The Losses Mount

We had hoped that the Republican majorities in both chambers of Congress would restore some constitutional order and common sense to the federal government, but so far it doesn’t seem to be working out that way. This week Democratic discipline and Republican defections doomed an effort to block the president’s executive orders on illegal immigration, and despite a few defections of their own the Democrats were able to sustain a presidential veto on bill to at long last allow construction of the Keystone XL pipeline. If the Republicans can’t win on these issues, it’s hard to see how they’ll ever score a victory.
There is little public enthusiasm for offering amnesty and work permits and government benefits to millions of illegal immigrants, thus inviting millions to cross the border, and even less for the unprecedented presidential power that is bringing it about. The only opposition to the Keystone XL pipeline comes from a relatively small group of radical environmentalists, who seem to believe that the planet will somehow be better off if Canada’s oil is refined in China rather than America, and the president’s veto of the project is part of a broader effort to raise energy prices that is also unpopular. Two better opportunities to confront the president might not come along soon, even if the president does have a knack for proposing unpopular policies and seems to grow even less concerned about public opinion the nearer he gets to the end of his second term, so the losses are especially discouraging.
Buoyed by public opinion and prodded by his party’s conservative base, the usually timid House Speaker John Boehner managed to pass a bill that would deny funding to the Department of Homeland Security to carry out the executive orders, and the usually timid Majority Leader Sen. Mitch McConnell made an effort to get it passed in the Senate, but it all came to naught. The Democrats used the same filibuster rules they had decried until the Republicans took control of the Senate, threatening a shutdown of the entire department, and although one would expect the Democrats to be blamed for making such a dire threat, especially for the sake of an unpopular policy being enacted through unpopular means, enough Republicans panicked to force capitulation and cough up a full year of funding. The Republicans’ nervousness is understandable, given the scathing press coverage that always accompanies the word “shutdown,” and some of the ones who bolted represent districts that include a large share of Latino voters, or simply pay too much attention to the newspapers that are still peddling the notion that inviting in millions of illegal immigrants to sign up as Democrats is a smart political move for the Republicans, but the issue was worth some risk and might even have been winnable. That House bill would have funded all the department’s necessary work against terrorism, and it was the Democrats who would have shut it down rather than refuse funding for the executive orders, and it’s always possible the public would have been made to understand that despite the best efforts of the press.
Alabama’s stalwart Sen. Jeff Sessions has vowed to continue the fight by whatever legislative means present themselves, and we’re sure that at least he will do so, and there’s always a chance that the court ruling against the executive order will be upheld, although we’re not at all sure the courts will ever again do the right thing, so perhaps some sort of victory can be achieved down the road. For now, though, the president wins again.
He managed to win on the Keystone veto, too, although seven Democrats who are facing re-election in states where the oil industry is prominent felt more responsive to public opinion and joined the Republicans. Even when they’re vote the Democrats were able to muster the 35 votes needed to sustain the veto, which is a testimony to the party’s ability to keep members in line. When the Democrats are willing to back their president on even such a damned fool idea as blocking the Keystone XL pipeline, the chances of overriding any other vetoes are not good. There is some speculation that they might do it with a bill imposing economic sanctions on Iran, but we wouldn’t bet against the president winning yet again. There is great public support for Israel, whose Prime Minister just this week defied the president by asking Congress to impose the sanctions as a means of ending its nuclear weapons program, but Israel will never be as popular as cheap gasoline.
The Republicans’ conservative base is once again clamoring for new leadership in both the House and Senate, and they’re probably right to do so, but the Democrats should also be getting some pressure from the public. President Barack Obama need no longer care what the people think, but almost everyone in Congress will eventually be up for re-election can’t afford to be so openly disdainful of public opinion. Whoever the Republicans choose for their leaders, they’ll need to be a bit more persuasive to at least a few more Democrats who are bound to be at least a bit nervous about where the president is leading them.

— Bud Norman

The Parties in Retreat

The Republicans and the Democrats are both in retreat, at least in the sense that they have adjourned to separate locations to discuss their strategies for the current legislative session. At the Democratic gathering President Barack Obama was vowing to “play offense,” while the reports from the Republican meeting suggest they’re in retreat in every sense of the word.
It remains to be seen how offensive Obama can be, even after all these years, but there’s no doubting that his boast to the Democratic congressional caucus’s confab at a Baltimore Hilton is more than just bluster. Leaks from the closed-door session indicate the president plans to veto an inevitable bill that would at long last allow construction of the XL Keystone Pipeline, as well as expected legislation imposing new economic sanctions on Iran to protest its continued efforts to acquire nuclear weapons, and both threats further confirm that Obama is in the “what the heck” stage of his presidency. Nixing the pipeline eliminates jobs, inhibits the oil boom that Obama has long resisted but now claims credit for, further annoys a Canadian government that will eventually wind up selling its oil to China, and will only compound any environmental damage to the earth when that carbon-emitting communist country gets its hands on the stuff. Obama would clearly prefer to continue the endless negotiations with Iran on a friendly basis while it builds a nuclear arsenal, and would reportedly rather impose sanctions on Israel on for building apartments to accommodate all the new arrivals from France and other increasingly Islamist countries, but the previous round of economic penalties was the only reason Iran even bothered to indulge the administration in its fanciful notions of a negotiated settlement of the issue. Both positions are so obviously wrong that even the general public can see it, which will matter more to the Democrats running for re-election or higher office in ’16 than it does to Obama, but we expect that the party’s usual discipline will prevail.

The Republicans, who have met in the charming little chocolate-making town of Hershey, Pennsylvania, are reportedly trying to work out their well-publicized intra-party squabbles. They seem sufficiently unified on the XL Keystone and Iran, and have a shot at prying enough poll-watching Democrats away to override a veto, but even if they fall short of the needed 60 votes at least they’re willing to inflict the political damage on the opposition with these and other popular proposals. The potential to set the party up for more significant victories down the road is there, and we are heartened to see the Republicans willing to seize it, but there’s also a worrisome possibility they will squander other opportunities.
On the immigration issue, where the House of Representatives has also challenged the president’s constitutionally dubious executive order to grant temporary amnesty to five million or so illegal immigrants, the most hopeful word from the summit is Majority Leader Mitch McConnell saying that “We’re going to try to pass it, we’ll see what happens, if we’re unable to do that, we’ll let you know what comes next.” Even by McConnell’s standards of equivocation, this is not reassuring. Allowing five million illegal immigrants to stay and inviting a few million more to try their luck is also unpopular, but shutting down the Department of Homeland Security and allowing the mainstream media explain why entails significant political risks for the Republicans, so it is a tricky proposition to win a showdown. The Republican leadership has already pledged that it won’t resort to any drastic measures such as a partial temporary shut-down of the government, however, and it’s hard to see how anything less could pose a sufficient threat to the president’s rapidly expanding power.
We note that the Republicans’ retreat will include religious services, and find no mention in any of the press reports of such activities planned at the Democrats’ retreat, so at least the Republicans have a prayer.

— Bud Norman

Pipeliner Blues

Politics is often puzzling, but the Obama administration’s decision to nix the Keystone XL pipeline leaves us feeling downright nonplussed.

Looking at it strictly as a matter of public policy, which may well be a waste of time, the project seems a good idea. Construction of the $7 billion, 1,700-mile pipeline from Canada to Texas was expected to require thousands of workers at a time when millions of workers are in need of a job, and would no doubt have created many more economic benefits over the coming years by increasing the nation’s supply of gasoline and thus limiting its price. The pipeline also would have facilitated the flow of oil from Canada, a nation we have some suspicions about because of its single payer health insurance system, dubious commitment to free speech, and a weird habit of punting on third downs, but one that isn’t prone to terrorism and the other dysfunctions of most oil-exporting countries. Despite its generally friendly disposition toward the United States, Canada will end up selling its oil to China if the pipeline isn’t built, giving an advantage to America’s main economic competitor.

On the other hand, the arguments against the project are not persuasive. The State Department cited concerns about the pipeline’s possible effect on the “uniquely sensitive terrain of the Sand Hills in Nebraska,” but the risk of environmental damage to that gloriously rough and empty region is likely overstated, and we see no reason they couldn’t have found an alternate route. Some environmentalist have more frankly objected to project on the grounds that it will result in gasoline, which they regard as the leading cause of an impending apocalypse, but they can offer no reason to believe that the use of gasoline in China is less harmful to the planet than its use here.

Looking at it as a political issue, which usually provides some explanation for a politician’s conduct, only leaves us more perplexed. Republicans in congress and on the presidential campaign trail have charged that Obama’s decision was politically motivated, but we can’t see how it will benefit him in the coming election. Stopping the pipeline pleased environmentalists such as Bill McKibben, who told Reuters that “The knock on Barack Obama from many quarters has been that he’s too conciliatory, but here, in the face of a naked political threat from Big Oil to exact ‘huge political consequences,’ he’s stood up strong,” but he and any like-minded voters will end up pulling the lever for Obama in any case. We also wonder how many like-minded voters there are, as the vast majority of Americans, including Obama’s supporters in the unions, love the planet but prefer their jobs, and are “green” enough to sign a petition or slap a “Save the Earth” bumper sticker on their sports utility vehicle but draw the line at paying $4 for a gallon of gasoline.

Most confusing of all, though, is that the Republicans who wanted the pipeline are responsible for it not being built, and that the president who is once again a hero to his environmentalist supporters for not building it should also get credit for wanting to build it. Administration officials told the National Journal that the 60-day deadline imposed by congress as part of that convoluted tax payroll cut extension last year forced the White House to say no, and that the company backing the project is welcome to start the whole review process all over again. The National Journal calls this “trying to thread a needle between two segments of the base split over the pipeline,” and we have no idea what to call it except maybe audacious.

Then again, we’re still trying to figure out why the conservatives who didn’t want the country to go another trillion dollars in debt were responsible for America’s credit rating downgrade. This politics stuff is darned puzzling.

— Bud Norman