Not the first, nor the last…

Politics is one of those wonderful lands where how it looks is far, far more important than what it really is. As much as we like to think of our presidents as paragons of health and virtue, our history is filled with examples of dire medical conditions that were kept from the public because admitting the seriousness of their various conditions would have been an admission of weakness. 

President Trump’s forging ahead to return to the White House despite ongoing treatment for COVID-19 is hardly an exception to the age-old rules of American politics. Wilson’s debilitating stroke was hidden from the public through the last year of his presidency. While campaigning for a 3rd term, Theodore Roosevelt was literally shot in the chest, but refused to surrender the podium. Jack Kennedy was regularly jammed full of painkillers to relieve a chronic backache. Franklin Roosevelt was dying of heart disease when he was elected to his 4th term. 

There’s nothing new going on here, with the obvious exception of 24-hour professional and social media coverage that the American president receives day in and day out. Donald Trump might like to sell himself as the businessman president, but in the end he’s as much just another professional politician as the rest of them now… and in the last 30 days of an election, in a tight race, you’d be hard pressed to find a professional politician who wouldn’t rather die on the trail than stay in the hospital.

This isn’t the first time a president has pushed their health way past the breaking point in pursuit of their brass ring and I dare say it won’t be the last.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Two parties. If the last two general election cycles have shown us anything, I think it almost has to be that he two party system has failed us in a pretty spectacular way. I mean here we are, a continental country of 300+ million people and the winnowing process arrived at Donald Trump and Joe Biden as the best candidates we could muster for the office of President of the United States. The 2016 campaign didn’t offer better results. Both ended up being contests between people representing each party that half of the electorate couldn’t stand and that some large part of the electorate would never accept as “legitimate.” We’ve collectively poisoned the damned well and gotten exactly the kind of government we deserve.

2. Reports. For the last seven months, I’ve spent a day or two of most weeks updating various reports. It’s a simple process of adding on new entries, marking off old ones, changing some color coding, and shipping them off to various destinations. The catch, of course, is that no time in the last eight months has anyone so much as asked about the content of these reports. In fact, the only feedback I’ve ever gotten from any of them is “received, acknowledged.” It’s theoretically possible that these are, in fact, tremendously important bits and bytes of information… but based on the distinct lack of feedback being generated, it’s hard to shake the notion that it’s just another exercise in pushing paper.

It turns out there’s no third thing this week since I’ve spewed most of my bile in previous posts. I should probably take this as a win, though if I find myself becoming too satisfied, I fear that Thursdays here will get awfully dull. Somehow, I can’t imagine that really being a problem.

That’s not how any of this works…

This morning, President Trump suggested via tweet that the general election in November should be delayed. Dude, seriously. That’s not how any of this works.

The United States has held its regularly scheduled elections through the Civil War, through the depths of the Great Depression, through two globe-spanning world wars, and yes, through past pandemics. 

Notwithstanding the fact that suspending elections is not among the powers of the president, the suggestion that doing so is necessary or proper flies in the face of both history and common sense. Suggesting that we as a country are somehow incapable of electing a leader in times of adversity defies the reality of the American electoral experience.

Let us assume for a moment that the election is delayed (something that would require changing current law that establishes election day as “the Tuesday next after the first Monday in the month of November”) – past November – past December – past January. Even in the absence of an election, an inauguration will take place on January 20th, so it’s not as if President Trump simply stays in office. His term expires on January 20th at noon. The office and powers of the presidency would then devolve to the next duly elected official in the line of succession – in this case that would most likely be the President pro tempore of the United States Senate since he’s in the middle of his term of office. We’ve skipped over the Speaker of the House of Representatives since her term would have expired along with President Trump’s on January 20th.

A suspended election doesn’t create an eternal Trump presidency, but it does make the creaking machinery of our Constitution work much harder than it needs to. Suggesting that such a thing is even a possibility belies both a tremendous lack of understanding of how elections in this country work and a fundamental disregard for the foundational institutions of the republic.

Towards a new federalism…

Change is coming. It’s so palpable that if you’re not too fried by the endless stream of immediate and pressing news you can almost feel it. In the long history of this republic, huge, sweeping change has never come in the good times. There’s no incentive towards structural change when the good times roll.

Over the last hundred years, the biggest changes in this country occurred following economic catastrophe and war, specifically the Great Depression and World War II. It’s probably too easy to assume that once we come out on the other side of the Great Plague we’re likely to see considerable changes coming to how healthcare is delivered and a host of changes surrounding the financial sector – strengthening unemployment insurance (and associated processing systems) at a minimum. Some of the changes will inevitably be of such scope and scale that 30 days ago they’d have been laughed out of the room rather than rushed through implementation. What would have seemed radical under the old version of normal could fairly easily become the new normal of the near future.

Those changes are coming – and no politician who’s interested in reelection will dare to stand against many of them.

Where the social compact that undergirds the republic regularly changes over time, the bigger change I suspect we may see is an unprecedented whipsaw in how we view the “federal” aspect of our federal republic. Since the Civil War, the government in Washington has increasingly centralized the powers of government. The pendulum swung so far that direction that some even argued that we had evolved beyond the need for states; Perhaps that we would best be governed in super-state, regional arrangements. 

What we’ve seen on the last three weeks in New York, California, and my native Maryland (among others), is activist governors leading the response to a health emergency in the absence of clear guidance from the federal government. In some ways, they’re the governors who understand the basic theory of emergency management – Local response is supported by the state while the states draw resources from the federal government when their own resources are exhausted. In this case, though, the federal resources barely seemed to get off the ground and governors were left to coordinate between themselves and directly with industry in an effort to fill requirements – while shaming what resources they could out of the administration. 

I wonder if this isn’t the first step towards a new federalism – one that reverses some of the 160-year long aggregation of authority to officials along the banks of the Potomac. There’s plenty of examples of state governors getting their response to this thing exactly wrong, though, so management at the state level is no guarantee of better results. Still, there’s part of me that thinks anything that reduces the authority of the federal government outside the scope of its “core business,” the better off we’re likely to be in the long run. I’ve been confounded lately by the people who with one breath screech “Trump lies” and then with the next weep bitter tears that the president hasn’t issued a nation-wide order confining citizens to their homes. Personally, I get a little nervous when any president or chief executive – puts on the mantle of “emergency powers” only to be laid down again when he or she decides the crisis has passed. History tells me that rarely ends well. 

In any case, there are changes coming. I’m not smart enough to tell you exactly what they’re going to be… or where the law of unintended consequences is going to jump up and bight us in the collective ass.

Taking it on the chin…

A few months ago I, somewhat tongue in cheek, told a coworker the best thing that could happen for my hopes of eventual retirement would be a few years of a bear market to suppress prices and let me “back up the truck” to buy shares at deep discount prices. As long as I can keep working and manage not to drop dead of the Andromeda Strain or whatever the appropriate name for this bug is, I suppose I’m technically not wrong… but boy is it a great big case of be careful what you fucking ask for.

The US economy is currently suffering through a system-level shock the likes of which almost no one alive has personally experienced. For those of us above a certain age, the closest we’ve come is listening to grandparents or family elders tell their stories – and wonder uncomprehending about why all those years later they still saved their soap slivers in a mason jar or insisted on getting three cups of tea out of each bag.

I like to think this isn’t the start of Great Depression 2.0. The fact that the economy was roaring along at breakneck speeds just a couple of weeks ago gives me enormous faith that it can be resuscitated… eventually. Once they’ve exhausted all other options, Congress will push through bailout plans to pour trillions of dollars through the front door of the Treasury. The Federal Reserve has committed to buying government debt with reckless abandon.

Even with herculean efforts, a host of businesses will fail. No economic recover package ever passed through government can prevent that. Cash flow is the life’s blood of business and with that flow stopped, even temporarily, many won’t have the deep reserves it will take to emerge once we’ve arrived at the new normal. The best we can manage in the moment is likely following a “harm reduction” strategy – of propping up what we can and finding as soft a landing as possible for those in the workforce who are displaced.

It seems that President Trump is determined to take a short cut through the amount of time science says we need to keep the clamps on the economy. That’s a foolish and stupid take, but in some ways, I can understand the instinct. Even those who get through the pandemic with little or no ill effects will feel the unnatural consequences of an economy gone to hell in a handbag.

There’s a point where declaring business as usual will make sense. I don’t think that’s this week. I don’t think it will be next week. If you believe science, and you should, it’s not even likely to be in the next month.

As you know, I despise the media obsession with calling this the “war against COVID-19.” Even so, I take a degree of comfort in knowing that historically, the United States almost always loses the first battle of every war we’ve ever been in. We take a punch right to the chin, get knocked down, and then get up off the ground angry and looking for payback.

Today we’re still on the ground, but we’re going to get up, and when we do, we’re going to be collectively pissed the hell off and ready to do what needs to be done.

On being final…

It will come as a surprise to no one who really knows me that I stayed as far away from math and science as possible during my four years as an undergrad. I could muddle through the work and scrape through with C’s, but I had no aptitude for it, no talent. Turn me loose in Dunkle Hall for History of Whatever or Guild for political science and I was in my element.

Increasingly it feels like many of the old maximums of political science I learned 20+ years ago don’t really apply to the study of politics in 21st century America. Despite the formal education and a few decades of reading I find myself feeling like a stranger in a strange land more and more often.

Still, though, some of the old truisms were true for a reason. While lecturing on the role of the Judiciary, Dr. Simpson was fond of reminding us that “the Supreme Court isn’t final because they’re right – They’re right because they’re final.” It’s one of those deeper truths wrapped in a easy to understand package. For good or bad, short of amending the Constitution, there’s simply no mechanism to allow for appeal beyond the Supreme Court.

Listning to the talking heads today, many of them seem to forget that the same is true when the Senate sits as a court of impeachment. That body has sweeping latitude to set the terms of the trial and the outcome belongs to them alone to decide. What the House thinks, or the president thinks, or what the latest polls show is a bit of interesting, but not particularly relevant detail.

In cases of impeachment, the Senate is right simply by virtue of being final. If you don’t like the results, if you don’t like how you’re being represented in this republic of ours, then the onus is on you to secure different representation at the ballot box… but running around whimpering that “the Senate got it wrong” makes you sound like a schmuck.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. President Trump. Say what you want about Europe and the NATO alliance, but they represent most of our oldest and strongest allies. Maintaining strong working relationships there is a key element of American national security. If ever there was a moment for the president to reign in his normal impulse to ratchet up the drama, it would have been this week’s London summit. Pitching a hissy fit in the face of mean words isn’t a good look internationally.

2. Impeachment. The House of Representatives seems to have the votes to move forward with articles of impeachment against the president. The Speaker is a good enough politician not to bring the vote if she didn’t have the numbers. Soon enough the whole thing will be thrown over to the Senate for trial… where I can only assume the Majority Leader will manage the case every bit as politically as the Speaker has done laying the charges. Prediction: The president remains in office while Republicans and Democrats retrench and emerge more divided than ever.

3. Lyft assault accusations. About a million years ago when I was growing up, we were all consistently warned about the dangers of getting into cars with strangers. Now, here in the oh so advanced 21st century we’re suddenly surprised when bad things happen when you get into cars with strangers. It’s the kind of thing we use to call having some goddamned common sense.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Lack of attention to detail. Someone on post is advertising a very nice, newly renovated town house for rent at $1700 a month in the Bel Air school district. It looks like a lovely place to live. The only problem is whoever is trying to rent it out has fat fingered my office phone number onto their flyers and I’m now fielding more calls about real estate than I am actual things related to my job. If I were trying to get $1700 a month for something you can be damned skippy that I’d make sure I had the right number… as it is, now I have to tell a lot of disappointed people that the place has already been rented. After enough of those, I’m assuming someone will start wondering why they still don’t have a tenant.

2. Policy matters. I read an article this week that urged voters to remember that the 2020 election is a referendum on President Trump and reminding them that “policies don’t matter” as long as someone else wins. I think it strikes exactly the wrong tone. See, I’m not some kind of moralistic crusader from the right wing. I don’t care if you’re on your third wife and like screwing porn stars. I do care if you support a strong national defense, preserving the Second Amendment, and enforcing law and order on the border. I care if you want to explode income tax rates upwards to pay for a grab bag of “free stuff” promises. Implementing policy and enforcing the law are precisely why we elect a chief executive in this country. Pretending that policy doesn’t matter because you’re desperate to unseat someone who says mean things doesn’t pass my common sense test. Want to win my vote? Start talking about policies I can get behind. It really is that simple.

3. Waking up. I’m mostly over the crud that victimized me for the last three weeks. Everything is back to near normal… except the very tail end of my sleep schedule. Instead of the usual and customary 5AM, my internal clock is now waking me pretty consistently between 4:15 and 4:30. Another few days of it and it may just be easier to start going to be earlier and living with it as the new normal.

Rejected topics for Monday…

I have long suspected that what ultimately drives this blog – what makes for the most interesting content – is largely the angst that annoyance that comes from one or two major sources. The first, of course, is anything at all that relates to traveling to, enduring the day at, or coming back from the office. That’s a shitshow that is near universal and provides an endless well for new posts – or maybe it’s just the same fifteen or twenty posts repeating over time. The other main driver, one that’s more general, comes from any time that I’m required from dealing with the general public. My thoughts about people as a group are well known by now… like the office, though, they are an bottomless source of things to comment on.

Spending four or five days mostly ensconced at home with books and animals significantly decreases the number of things I feel the need to bitch and complain about. Sure, I guess I could ry my hand at writing some happy, uplifting shit, but that doesn’t strike me as anything close to speaking with my authentic voice… and I suspect it would be far less entertaining for anyone who happened to read it. If people really liked good news stories, the cable news channels would be filled with them rather than with the regular mayhem and chaos that they know puts eyes on advertising.

So what’s the point here? I’m not sure I have one beyond wanting to share what, I jotted down today and promptly rejected as topics for today:

  1. Earthquakes. Why the hell do people live in California? It burns down regularly and the damned earth shakes. I don’t care how nice the weather is, that seems like a bad tradeoff.
  2. Women’s World Cup. Team USA is getting hectored for “too much celebrating.” Fuck all the way off with that noise.
  3. 4th of July “military parade.” So the left decried the “military trade” in DC on the 4th of July… that turned out to be something like 4 vehicles put on static display near the Lincoln Memorial. Somehow I think the republic will endure.
  4. Jeffrey Epstein. If I were a billionaire, I’m 100% sure I’d find something to do with my time and money that’s way less likely to send me to prison than sex trafficking of minors. Money can buy a lot of things, but even giant honking piles of cash can’t fix stupid.

Sigh. I hate to admit it, but it’s probably best that the holiday is over and it’s time to get back to work and people. I’ll be annoyed as hell, but the writing will be better, so there’s that.

What Annoys Jeff this Week?

1. Data mining. Every time I start thinking that data mining is becoming too invasive and privacy becoming too fragile, the interent reminds me that it’s still pretty far away from going Skynet and killing us all. You see, I know this because companies that specialize mining “big data” keep feeding me ads about how to find and finance the “perfect engagement ring.” I’ll admit to having a passing interest in gemstones, but I can’t claim a need or interest in actually buying them. I have neither the inclination or reason to do so… and I’ve never once searched the internet for one. The cloud might know our reading tastes and hold the secrets to our collective perversions in our search results, but in many ways it doesn’t feel like the interent knows me at all.

2. Domestic enemies. All newly hatched federal employees take an oath of office. The one I took isn’t too far different from the one taken by a typical Army officer or even the one sworn by members of Congress. Unless I missed an unprinted annex or codicil, though, my oath to support and defend the Constitution didn’t include an oath of poverty and it certainly wasn’t an oath of unpaid servitude. That there are near on 400,000 people who swore an oath to support and defend the Constitution against enemies foreign and domestic currently fulfilling their oath without pay is an embarrassment – made all the worse because each day they bring back more an more “unpaid help” in order to avoid inconveniencing anyone. Excuse me? It seems that if you’re going to have a shut down of something the whole point is to make it as inconvenient and painful as possible. And these twatwaffels are sure as blue hell “inconveniencing” the people they expect to pay out of their own pockets for the privilege of coming to work. I blame President Trump. I blame the leadership in both the House and the Senate. I blame every single member of Congress who uses this as an opportunity to grandstand. And I increasingly think I know who the “domestic” enemies are that our oath featured so prominently. 

3. Blood. Blood as a rule doesn’t bother me. I can see people bleeding and not flinch. The rivers could run thick with the stuff and I’m not sure I’d notice… but let me be strapped into a chair at the local doctor’s office and have someone start sucking vials of my own precious life-sustaining fluid from my veins and I’m apt to go all cross-eyed and pasty. I just feel like medical science should do us a favor and step beyond the age of leeches here.