The Scary People

Someone will run against Donald Trump and now New Hampshire is over. Bernie won. He’s not that scary, and Pete is cool, and Amy is pretty damned impressive. And it seems that Biden is toast. He just didn’t have the magic any longer, after all these years. He looked like a man running on empty, a fine fellow, a good man, but a man of the past, who often seemed to be wondering what was going on. What’s this latest fuss? Was it something he said?

He’ll hang on a bit, but the past, as good as it was at times, is past. And maybe Biden knows that. And that’s not so bad. Someone else will be handling the future, so let them. Offer encouragement and support and all the help you can, in that future, as you graciously step aside, now. Relax. Become an éminence grise like François Leclerc du Tremblay, the right-hand man of Cardinal Richelieu. Be the quiet old man who knows how things actually get done, who whispers what to do in the Cardinal’s ear and actually shapes events.

That might be cool. And what would Rudy do with his time now? But all of this is moonshine. Nevada is next, and then South Carolina, and then Super Tuesday, and so on. No one knows how this will work out, so all analysis of what just happened in New Hampshire, and what didn’t happen in Iowa, is now arcane and a bit pointless. Michael Bloomberg could be the one the Democrats put up against Trump, or Biden might wake up. Who knows? It’s still early. The search will continue, for someone who can laugh off Trump’s Tweets of Death™ and his nicknames and his sneers and his insults, and his threats of jail or of violence from “his” people, and his periodic well-rehearsed theatrical full-Mussolini rages, someone with the cool to turn that against Trump, as something actually comic in a way, and quite entertaining, but a bit pathetic, like a child throwing one more wearisome tantrum, again. No one has done that yet. No one since Obama at that big dinner long ago has actually laughed at Donald Trump, as a preposterous man. And he does hate that.

So, Democrats need someone proudly cool and calm and collected, to provide contrast to Trump, to smile, slyly, and raise one eyebrow, and say nothing. Let him continue. Let him make a fool of himself. He will. But that’s not going to happen. Trump is too dangerous, so Democrats have decided that they need someone with passion, and Bernie Sanders has that. And he’s scary as hell. He’s always called himself a democratic socialist, like the folks in Norway and Sweden and Germany. His economic thinking is basically Canadian, simple universal healthcare, as much free education as possible, and a place for everyone in the system.

But there’s that word “socialist” stuck in there. He wants to turn America into Venezuela! He says no, Sweden, or Canada, but the argument is already over. He wants Medicare for all. And that polls well even though that would be absurdly expensive. And then someone mentions Venezuela. We can’t have that. The man is a radical. Everyone’s income would be taxed at one hundred percent. That’s communism! And so Bernie Sanders is too scary to too many people, and that scares too many Democrats. He could stand up to Trump. He could smile in Trump’s face and show the world that Trump is a jerk, or worse – but Bernie is too scary. Trump is scary. Bernie is scarier.

Matthew Yglesias says that’s nonsense:

Bernie Sanders’s win in New Hampshire following his quasi-win in Iowa dashes the Democratic Party establishment’s big hope of the past four years – that he’d just fade away.

Alarm, clearly visible in a range of mainstream Democratic circles over the past several weeks, is now going to kick into overdrive.

But this frame of mind is fundamentally misguided. For all the agita around his all-or-nothing rhetoric, his behavior as a longtime member of Congress (and before that as a mayor) suggests a much more pragmatic approach to actual legislating than some of the wilder “political revolution” rhetoric would suggest.

On the vast majority of issues, a Sanders administration would deliver pretty much the same policy outcomes as any other Democrat.

So there’s only that damned word, but that word might not matter:

The specter of “socialism” hangs over the Sanders campaign, terrifying mainstream Democrats with the reality that when asked about it by pollsters, most Americans reject the idea. Given that Sanders himself tends to anchor his politics in Franklin Delano Roosevelt and the New Deal, it seems as though everyone involved would be better off if he labeled himself a New Deal Democrat and let us revert to the normal pattern where Republicans call mainstream liberals “socialists” and liberals push back rather than accepting an unpopular label.

All that said, in current head-to-head polling matchups with Donald Trump, Sanders does well and is normally winning.

In short, people aren’t that knee-jerk stupid. They hear FDR and the New deal, and see Canada and Sweden, not Venezuela, and that’s always been the case with Sanders:

Skeptics worry whether that lead will hold up against the sure-to-come cavalcade of attack ads from Trump. It’s a reasonable concern.

But it’s worth underscoring that Sanders’s actual electoral track record in Vermont is strong. Winning elections in Vermont is not, per se, incredibly impressive. There are plenty of left-wing Democrats who win elections while underperforming simply because they run in such blue states (Elizabeth Warren fits that mold), as well as plenty of moderate Democrats who over-perform in tough races even while losing (former Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill is a good example).

Sanders, however, over-performs in his easy races. He consistently runs ahead of Democratic presidential nominees in his home state, which suggests he knows how to overcome the “socialist” label, get people to vote for him despite some eccentricities, and even to peel off some Republican votes.

And he’s done just fine in the Senate too:

The policy area in which Sanders has had the most practical influence is veterans-related issues, as he chaired the Senate Veterans’ Affairs Committee for a two-year span, during which Congress enacted substantive reform to the veterans’ health system.

Given the objective constellation of political forces at the time, this required bipartisan support, so Sanders (working mainly with Republican Sen. John McCain) produced a bipartisan bill that, in exchange for a substantial boost in funding, made some concessions to conservatives in creating “private options” for veterans to seek care outside of the publicly run Department of Veterans Affairs.

It’s fine if you want to be annoyed that Sanders’s self-presentation as a revolutionary who will sweep all practical obstacles aside is at odds with his reality as an experienced legislator who does typical senator stuff in a typical way. But there’s no reason to be worried that Sanders is a deluded radical who doesn’t understand how the government works.

And there’s this:

It’s important to understand that on the vast majority of topics, the policy outputs of a Sanders administration just wouldn’t be that different from those of a Joe Biden or Pete Buttigieg administration. Whether a new president promises continuity with Obama, or a break with neoliberalism, the constraints will realistically come from Congress, where the median member is all but certain to be more conservative than anyone in the Democratic field.

On foreign policy, by contrast, the president is less constrained, and Sanders’s real desire to challenge aspects of the bipartisan foreign policy consensus makes a difference. He’s much more critical of Israel than most people in national politics, he’s a leading critic of the alliance with Saudi Arabia, and he’s generally skeptical of America’s expansive military posture.

These ideas are coded as “extreme” in Washington, where there’s significant bipartisan investment in the status quo. But polls show that most voters question the narratives of American exceptionalism, favor a reduced global military footprint and less defense spending, and are skeptical of the merits of profligate arms sales.

That makes him normal, not a part of that defense industry world, so there’s nothing that’s really scary here:

A Sanders presidency should generate an emphasis on full employment, a tendency to shy away from launching wars, an executive branch that actually tries to enforce environmental protection and civil rights laws, and a situation in which bills that both progressives and moderates can agree on get to become law.

That’s a formula the vast majority of mainstream Democrats should be able to embrace.

Lots of moderate Democrats nonetheless find it annoying that Sanders and some of his followers are so committed to painting mainstream Democrats in such dark hues. And it is annoying!

But annoying people won’t stop being annoying if he loses the nomination. If anything, they will be more annoying than ever as some refuse to get enthusiastic about the prospect of beating Trump.

So think of it this way:

If Sanders wins, partisan Democrats who just want to beat Trump will magically stop finding Sanders super-fans annoying – the causes will be aligned, and the vast majority of people who want Trump out of the White House can collaborate in peace.

So yes, calm down:

Most likely, a Sanders presidency will simply mean that young progressive activists are less sullen and dyspeptic about the incremental policy gains that would result from any Democrat occupying the presidency. It’ll also mean a foreign policy that errs a bit more on the side of restraint compared with what you’d get from anyone else in the field, as well as an approach to monetary policy that errs a bit more on the side of full employment.

That’s a pretty good deal, and you don’t need to be a socialist to see it.

So, do not be afraid of Bernie. He’s really not that scary. But this guy is:

Four prosecutors abruptly withdrew on Tuesday from the case of President Trump’s longtime friend Roger J. Stone Jr. after senior Justice Department officials intervened to recommend a more lenient sentence for crimes he committed in a bid to protect the president.

In an extraordinary decision overruling career lawyers, the Justice Department recommended an unspecified term of incarceration for Mr. Stone instead of the prosecutors’ request of a punishment of seven to nine years. The move coincided with Mr. Trump’s declaration on Twitter early Tuesday that the government was treating Mr. Stone too harshly.

The development immediately prompted questions about whether the Justice Department was bending to White House pressure.

These four prosecutors know the law. Trump said, no, he knows the law. The attorney general said well, maybe he does. He declared the work of his four prosecutors, his employees, just worthless, because his boss said so. He wasn’t going to stick up for them. These four prosecutors quit the case and one of them resigned from the government:

The gulf between the prosecutors and their Justice Department superiors burst into public view the week before Mr. Stone was to be sentenced for trying to sabotage a congressional investigation that had posed a threat to the president.

The prosecutors – one of whom resigned from the department – were said to be furious over the reversal of their sentencing request, filed in federal court late Monday. The Stone case was one of the most high-profile criminal prosecutions arising from the nearly two-year investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election by the special counsel, Robert S. Mueller III.

The development added to the sense of turmoil in Washington that has followed Mr. Trump’s acquittal by the Senate six days ago on charges of abuse of power and obstructing Congress.

Of course it did:

With the impeachment case behind him, Mr. Trump fired an ambassador while his national security adviser dismissed an aide. Both had testified against the president in the impeachment hearings.

To some, the surprising reversal in the politically sensitive Stone case underscored questions about Attorney General William P. Barr’s willingness to protect the department’s independence from any political influence by Mr. Trump.

On the other hand, Trump was angry:

A friend of Mr. Trump for decades, Mr. Stone, 67, was convicted in November of obstructing an inquiry by the House Intelligence Committee into Russian interference in the 2016 election, lying to investigators under oath and trying to block the testimony of a witness who would have exposed his lies.

In a message on Twitter early Tuesday, Mr. Trump criticized the sentencing recommendation of seven to nine years as “horrible and very unfair.” As he did after the jury’s guilty verdict, he attacked federal law enforcement officials, saying “the real crimes were on the other side.”

“Cannot allow this miscarriage of justice!” Mr. Trump added. He later denied to reporters that he tried to influence the case in any way, but described the Justice Department’s initial sentencing request as a disgrace.

But wait, there’s more:

The president assailed the prosecutors directly, asking on Twitter who were the lawyers “who cut and ran after being exposed for recommending a ridiculous 9 year prison sentence” for Mr. Stone, who he said “got caught up in an investigation that was illegal, the Mueller Scam.”

In yet another Twitter message, he attacked Judge Amy Berman Jackson of the Federal District Court in Washington, who is presiding over Mr. Stone’s case. He asked whether she had ordered solitary confinement for Mr. Trump’s former campaign chairman, Paul J. Manafort. The president said Mr. Manafort suffered worse treatment than “even mobster Al Capone had to endure.”

This was a tantrum, but the child in this case runs the government, and Josh Marshall sees this:

I want to note a pattern, which seems critical. Famously, the day after Robert Mueller testified before Congress Trump was on the phone with President Zelensky of Ukraine, trying to bully him into opening those investigations. The plot had been going on for months – but Trump was largely in the background, letting his henchman speech for him. It was on July 25th when Trump grabbed the plot with both hands and communicated directly to Zelensky. He followed up by shutting down the military aid pipeline.

The day after he finally felt he was free and clear, that his allies had shut the investigations down, he was back at it and upping the ante. He learned that he absolutely could get away with it and he went right back to it.

In recent days we’ve seen a striking replay of the pattern. The moment Trump was acquitted he started firing most or all of the public officials who had obeyed congressional subpoenas. Today he mused that he might have the Pentagon further punish LTC Alexander Vindman. And now we have this direct, brazen interference in the Roger Stone case.

We keep hearing these risible claims from acquitting Republican Senators that, well, sure he must have learned his lesson. This impeachment was no fun. But each time he learns the obvious lesson. All the “adults in the room” who said he absolutely, positively couldn’t do that … well, they were wrong. Morally and practically. He did it and he was 100% fine.

And every Senator who called privately and said you absolutely can’t do that … well, they were wrong too. Because he did it and when they sat in judgment of him, they agreed it was fine. A perfect phone call.

He keeps doing anything he wants and getting away with it. The lesson is really clear.

And the New York Times’ Peter Baker adds detail to that:

As far as President Trump is concerned, banishing Lt. Col. Alexander S. Vindman from the White House and exiling him back to the Pentagon was not enough. If he had his way, the commander in chief made clear on Tuesday, the Defense Department would now take action against the colonel, too.

“That’s going to be up to the military,” Mr. Trump told reporters who asked whether Colonel Vindman should face disciplinary action after testifying in the House hearings that led to the president’s impeachment. “But if you look at what happened,” Mr. Trump added in threatening terms, “I mean they’re going to, certainly, I would imagine, take a look at that.”

That’s an implied direct order from the commander-in-chief. That’s not subtle, and this will escalate:

More axes are sure to fall. A senior Pentagon official appears in danger of losing her nomination to a top Defense Department post after questioning the president’s suspension of aid to Ukraine. Likewise, a prosecutor involved in Mr. Stone’s case has lost a nomination to a senior Treasury Department position. A key National Security Council official is said by colleagues to face dismissal. And the last of dozens of career officials being transferred out of the White House may be gone by the end of the week.

The war between Mr. Trump and what he calls the “deep state” has entered a new, more volatile phase as the president seeks to assert greater control over a government that he is convinced is not sufficiently loyal to him. With no need to worry about Congress now that he has been acquitted of two articles of impeachment, the president has shown a renewed willingness to act even if it prompts fresh complaints about violating traditional norms.

The dozens of career officials being transferred out of the White House are staffers at the National Security Council, subject matter and area experts. Such people will be shown the door. Trump doesn’t need that detail, or Presidential Daily Briefings. He has Fox and Friends each morning, and he can call Putin to find out what’s really going on in the world. But there is some resistance:

The president’s involvement in Mr. Stone’s case generated vigorous protests and calls for an investigation into whether he improperly sought to skew the prosecution in favor of a longtime associate and adviser…

The Justice Department rejected any link to the president’s tweets, while Mr. Trump insisted that he had nothing to do with the case. But the withdrawal of the four career prosecutors working on the case left the unmistakable impression that they thought something improper had happened.

“The American people must have confidence that justice in this country is dispensed impartially,” Senator Chuck Schumer of New York, the Democratic leader, wrote in a letter asking the department’s inspector general to investigate. “That confidence cannot be sustained if the president or his political appointees are permitted to interfere in prosecution and sentencing recommendations in order to protect their friends and associates.”

But this is what it is:

Mr. Trump has long suspected that people around him – both government officials and even some of his own political appointees – were secretly working against his interests. His impeachment for trying to coerce Ukraine to incriminate Democrats by withholding $391 million in security aid has only reinforced that view as he watched one official after another testify before the House.

Witnesses like Colonel Vindman testified under subpoena compelling them to talk, but Mr. Trump blamed them for his dilemma. In the Oval Office on Tuesday, Mr. Trump complained at length about Colonel Vindman, accusing him of misleading Congress about the president’s July 25 phone call with his Ukrainian counterpart. In fact, Colonel Vindman’s version of the call closely tracked the written record released by the White House, but he did testify that he thought it was inappropriate to ask a foreign country to tarnish the president’s domestic political opponents.

“We sent him on his way to a much different location, and the military can handle him any way they want,” Mr. Trump said. “General Milley has him now,” he added, referring to Gen. Mark A. Milley, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff. “I congratulate General Milley. He can have him. And his brother, also. We’ll find out. We will find out. But he reported very inaccurate things.”

The second highest-grossing movie in America in 1954 was The Caine Mutiny – Humphrey Bogart as the unstable and periodically paranoid Captain Phillip Francis Queeg, brought in by the Navy to restore discipline on the Caine, a minesweeper in our Pacific war with Japan. The previous captain had been too loose and goofy.

Queeg was supposed to fix that but it turned out he was incredibly thin-skinned and saw conspiracies everywhere. When a crate of fresh strawberries go missing from the officers’ mess, Queeg is convinced that some sailor has made a duplicate key to the food locker and orders the crew strip-searched to find it. That’s the final straw. Queeg wasn’t that good at the actual Navy stuff anyway – so the officers, led by Fred MacMurray as Lieutenant Tom Keefer, relieve him of his command under Article 184 of Navy Regulations – mental incapacity.

The rest of the film is their court martial. Or it’s Trump’s presidency, an ongoing court martial from the start. But this isn’t a movie. Jennifer Rubin says it’s this:

This is an egregious perversion of the rule of law. The president, like a tin-pot dictator, now uses the Justice Department to shield his criminal cronies, putting his finger on the scale in a way no other president has done in the modern era.

As he did in spinning the Mueller report and refusing to consider seriously the criminal implications of the whistleblower’s report, Attorney General William P. Barr has refused to defy the president or defend the reputation of his department…

In the absence of a principled attorney general, the Justice Department has become an instrument to abuse power. What, if anything, might slow Trump down?

Ah, that might be Bernie Sanders. They say he’s scary. Donald Trump is scarier. Why not have an election about that?


About Alan

The editor is a former systems manager for a large California-based HMO, and a former senior systems manager for Northrop, Hughes-Raytheon, Computer Sciences Corporation, Perot Systems and other such organizations. One position was managing the financial and payroll systems for a large hospital chain. And somewhere in there was a two-year stint in Canada running the systems shop at a General Motors locomotive factory - in London, Ontario. That explains Canadian matters scattered through these pages. Otherwise, think large-scale HR, payroll, financial and manufacturing systems. A résumé is available if you wish. The editor has a graduate degree in Eighteenth-Century British Literature from Duke University where he was a National Woodrow Wilson Fellow, and taught English and music in upstate New York in the seventies, and then in the early eighties moved to California and left teaching. The editor currently resides in Hollywood California, a block north of the Sunset Strip.
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