Sometimes the Right Thing Can Look Wrong

We’ve had a signifiant couple of days, and I’m a bit under the weather (but my covid test was negative). But here goes an attempt at blogging …

Ezra Klein wrote, “Everything about the Afghanistan withdrawal is tragic. But that tragedy is the result not of the withdrawal, but the occupation, and America’s profound misjudgment of its own power and limits.” That’s as succinct a summation of the Afghanistan situation as I’ve found.

Most of the commentary on Afghanistan is coming from a place of deep denial about what a mistake it has been to remain in Afghanistan all this time. There was never going to be a glorious moment at which we could brush off our hands and say “our work here is done.” Juan Cole argues that Afghanistan is facing war between the Taliban and ISIS-K, and President Biden is right to just get our troops out of the way.

Republicans are screaming for President Biden’s head. Do read William Saletan, The GOP’s Phony Complaints About Afghanistan, at Slate. Hell, I’ll just be lazy and reproduce most of it here.

On Feb. 29, 2020, the Trump administration signed a deal with the Taliban to pull all American troops out of Afghanistan by May 1, 2021. The deal also required the Afghan government to release 5,000 imprisoned Taliban fighters. Hawks called the agreement weak and dangerous, but Kevin McCarthy, the House minority leader, advised them not to speak out against it. In March 2020, at hearings of the House Armed Services Committee, some lawmakers worried about the deal, but most, including Reps. Jim Banks and Matt Gaetz, said nothing about it. Another Republican member of the committee, Rep. Mo Brooks, expressed his impatience to pull out, noting that American forces had long ago “destroyed al-Qaida’s operational capability” in Afghanistan.

In July 2020, the committee took up the National Defense Authorization Act, which would fund the military for the next year. Democratic Rep. Jason Crow presented an amendment that would make the Afghan pullout contingent on several requirements. These included “consultation and coordination” with allies, protection of “United States personnel in Afghanistan,” severance of the Taliban from al-Qaida, prevention of “terrorist safe havens inside Afghanistan,” and adequate “capacity of the Afghan National Defense and Security Forces” to fight off Taliban attacks. The amendment also required investigation of any prisoners, released as part of the deal, who might be connected to terrorism. In short, the amendment would do what Trump had failed to do: impose real conditions on the withdrawal. Crow told his colleagues that he, too, wanted to get out, but that Afghan security forces weren’t yet “ready to stand on their own.”

Gaetz dismissed these warnings. The Taliban was already taking over the country, he argued, and imposing conditions would just get in the way of the pullout. “I don’t think there’s ever a bad day to end the war in Afghanistan,” he said.

Eleven members of the committee, including Banks, Brooks, and Gaetz, voted against the amendment. It passed, but Trump refused to accept it. In December, he vetoed the whole defense bill, complaining that it would, among other things, “restrict the President’s ability to withdraw troops from Afghanistan.” Steve Scalise, the minority whip, voted to uphold Trump’s veto. McCarthy, who had to miss the vote for medical reasons, said he, too, stood with the president. Congress overrode the veto, but Trump essentially ignored the amendment.

Eight months later, Biden is completing the withdrawal, and Republicans have done a 180. They act as though they had nothing to do with the pullout or its consequences. “It’s humiliating that the Taliban now controls not just Afghanistan’s presidential palace,” but the U.S. embassy, says Banks, “and it’s all happened on Joe Biden’s watch.” Having voted not to hold Trump accountable for the withdrawal’s execution in last year’s defense bill, Banks vows to hold Biden accountable in this year’s bill. Gaetz now says Biden pulled out prematurely.

To cover their hypocrisy, the Republicans are rewriting history. Brooks says the Taliban’s triumph “would never have happened under President Donald J. Trump.” In reality, Trump guaranteed it by removing as many troops as he could. McCarthy says he knows “for a fact” that Trump wouldn’t have let the Taliban advance from “city to city,” though Trump allowed just that. Scalise says Trump “made it very clear with conditions he put in place that he was not going to let the Taliban take control of the country,” but Trump continued to withdraw troops regardless of conditions, making clear that the Taliban would take control.

See also After negotiating with the Taliban, Trump officials criticize Biden for negotiating with the Taliban.

Republicans are screaming for Biden to resign or be impeached or be removed from office via the 25th Amendment. Philip Bump writes that the GOP anti-Biden rhetorical arms race is already at Defcon 1; where can it go from there?

The problem Republicans may soon face is the one Greene is dealing with in the moment: Now what? Where do you go from here? If a terrorist attack in Afghanistan warrants resignation or removal by impeachment or the Cabinet, what might some more significant situation demand? There’s no obvious way to descend from this position, barring an actual resignation, which won’t happen, or Republican views of Biden softening, which also won’t happen. So is this just the temperature at which we’ll operate forever, a political boil that never spills over?

Isn’t that pretty much what they do when a Democrat is in the White House? Going back to the Clinton Administration?

Anyway, I think we can count on Republicans to try to make the midterm elections about Afghanistan. And if Republicans take back the House next year, expect the rest of President Biden’s administration to be buried under endless House hearings and investigations into Afghanistan that will be limited to only what happened on Biden’s watch.

“Moderate” Troublemakers Still Threaten to Derail Biden Agenda

The Nine Moderate House Democrats have been slapped down, for now. The Nine intended to force a vote on the bipartisan infrastructure bill this week, way ahead of any vote on the reconciliation bill. They didn’t get that. Yesterday they did get a promise that the reconciliation bill would be voted on by September 27. House Democrats then adopted a budget resolution that was needed to unlock a filibuster-proof $3.5 trillion package of domestic spending and tax breaks.

This leaves the two-track plan to pass both bills together in place, for now. However, the end of September deadline may not leave enough time to get the reconciliation bill to the Senate before time is up. See Gottheimer’s Suicide Squad Hurt Their Party But Gained Nothing by Jonathan Chait. Josh Gottheimer (D-NJ) is the leader of the Nine.

Now, what is Gottheimer’s Suicide Squad trying to accomplish? Probably they don’t care that much about the bipartisan bill, formally called the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act (IIJA). Their real intention is to gain leverage to change the reconciliation bill. David Dayen, The American Prospect:

The real but unspoken reason the Gottheimer Nine (which became ten on Monday when Florida’s Stephanie Murphy joined the club) wanted the IIJA passed first is that they wanted to direct the path of the $3.5 trillion package, which some of them outright oppose. If the infrastructure bill, which they favor, was put to bed, then they could make demands to water down the reconciliation bill’s tax increases on the rich, or ensure that it includes repeal of the state and local tax deduction cap. By delinking the two bills, Gottheimer’s gang could gain leverage over both.

However, de-linking the two bills would probably mean neither would pass, destroying the President’s agenda. And House Democrats especially need a big, robust win to run on in next year’s midterms.

It won’t surprise you to learn that Josh Gottheimer is an old Clinton acolyte. Gottheimer’s entire political career has depended on the Clintons. See Clintonism’s Zombie by Alexander Sammon at The American Prospect.

At first glance, Gottheimer’s current sabotage of the Democratic Party may look curiously like self-sabotage, since his stated policy priority is repealing the cap on state and local tax deductions, a tax cut that will benefit overwhelmingly wealthy Americans, especially those in high-tax, largely Democratic states. But the SALT repeal is part of the reconciliation bill, and his attempt to imperil that bill would also imperil his most sacred proposal.

But it’s also, crucially, a bit of self-promotion, and donor services to boot. New Jersey’s Fifth District, a suburb of New York, is awash with private equity money, and Blackstone has long been one of Gottheimer’s top donors, which makes it easier to understand Gottheimer’s motivations. Not incidentally, the reconciliation bill is where all the actual “pay-fors” come in, and most of the paying-for comes in the form of higher taxes on the rich and corporations, a closing of the carried interest loophole, and a beefing up of IRS enforcement, all anathema to the private equity sector and Wall Street more broadly. Meanwhile, his show of obstruction has raised his national profile, and landed him softball interviews from D.C. media shops like Punchbowl. “2022 should be a tough year for House Democrats. You have $10 million on hand, so I’m not sure it’s gonna be a tough year for you specifically,” laughed Punchbowl’s Sherman in a recent Q&A. The joke being, of course, that Gottheimer doesn’t need the Democratic Party to succeed. …

… “So many of his constituents in NJ-05 are baffled [about] him threatening to torpedo Biden’s agenda to shore up power for himself, to the detriment of the whole Democratic Party,” said Arati Kreibich, who ran against Gottheimer in a primary in 2020.

Gottheimer’s retrograde politics are similarly reflected in his recent launch of Team Blue, a political action committee co-founded with New York Rep. Hakeem Jeffries that seeks to protect incumbent Democrats from progressive primary challenges. That move, according to sources, was not received warmly by Nancy Pelosi. And as Jeffries strives to position himself as Pelosi’s successor, his embrace of Gottheimer portends a different vision for the Democratic House than current leadership’s. Pelosi, in response to the Gottheimer campaign, said, “This is no time for amateur hour.”

Gottheimer seems to be the most zealous holdover of a bygone era of the Democratic Party, one that opposes expanding the welfare state, celebrates high-dollar fundraising through close proximity to Wall Street, and cares little for the overall well-being of the party as a whole. While Bidenism struggles to renew New Deal democracy, Gottheimer is working to reinstate a version of Clintonism that many presumed to have passed.

That has been richly rewarding for Gottheimer himself, but it remains a lonely campaign. The Congressional Progressive Caucus has a substantial voting edge over Gottheimer and his eight disciples, and Pelosi has given no indication she’ll cave to his demands. But it’s a rough reminder of the persistence of Clintonism’s sway over some Democratic politics and some Democratic pols—largely gone, but not forgotten.

See also Igor Derysh at Salon, Big money behind band of Democrats looking to torpedo Biden’s agenda:

The group of centrist Democrats, who did not get their initial demand, has the backing of several deep-pocketed groups that promote big business interests. The Chamber of Commerce, one of the biggest pro-business dark money groups in D.C., is running ads praising the group for their stance.

The centrist group No Labels, which funnels big donor money to conservative Democrats and moderate Republicans, has also launched a six-figure ad campaign describing the centrist group as “real-life heroes.”

You might remember that No Labels also owns Joe Manchin.

The one gratifying this about this nonsense is that, for a change, most commentary I’ve read blames the Nine (or Ten) for threatening the Biden agenda, not the Squad or the Progressive Left. Philip Bump, WaPo:

It seemed fair to assume when Democrats regained unified control of the federal government earlier this year, the party would suffer the same fate as the Republicans did in 2017: an agenda that was constantly at the mercy of the party’s far flank. …

…Instead, the first rebellion from within the Democratic caucus — 10 members who’ve obstructed House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s (D-Calif.) plan for simultaneously passing measures targeting infrastructure and other government spending — came from the political middle. Or, considered in the context of the Democratic caucus, the rebellion once again is coming from the right.

Meanwhile, the No Labels web site is lauding the “Unbreakable Nine” for pulling off a miracle. There will be opportunities for a lot more mischief from this crew, I’m sure.

 

Afghanistan: A Bipartisan Mess 20 Years in the Making

Afghanistan is a bipartisan mess. Yes, the Bush Administration initiated the military intervention there, but people accross the political spectrum supported it, you might recall. And a surgical strike at al Qaeda in Afghanistan was justified at the time, but the Bushies went in half-assed and let al Qaeda slip away. The Taliban were still entrenched in Afghanistan, however, and I guess one set of Muslim extremists is as good as another.

“By spring of 2002, the Taliban were roundly defeated,” wrote Juan Cole. “Opinion polls showed that their favorability rating was good only among 5 percent of the population.”

By spring of 2002, congressmen visiting Centcom head Tommy Franks were bluntly told that Afghanistan was no longer the mission, and the Bush crime gang had clearly decided to set up Iraq as a fall guy for 9/11 and break the country’s legs.

The US in 2002-2003 had a good outcome in Afghanistan. We should just have left then. I can’t imagine why we didn’t. I think then Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld wanted to surround Russia so it couldn’t reemerge as a peer power. It had nothing to do with Afghanistan.

The US lost Afghanistan in part by trying to occupy it militarily. In 2005 US troops used flamethrowers to burn poppy crops of Afghan farmers, who had nothing else to live on. One in 7 as a result had to sell a daughter. I doubt they have forgiven the US.

The occupation continued, and the U.S. tax dollars that poured into Afghanistan mostly funded bombs and corruption. And this continued through the Obama Administration and the Trump Administration.

Last Friday, Paul Waldman reminded us of why the U.S. gets itself into messes like this.

Back in the early 2000s, the term “Very Serious People” was coined to refer to those who were wrong about Iraq but nevertheless were treated with great deference and respect because they were mouthing conventional wisdom and taking a position that the media and the broader Washington culture treated as hardheaded and rational.

In contrast, the people who were right about Iraq — who said there was no real evidence that Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction, or was in cahoots with al-Qaeda, or was about to attack the United States — were treated as silly, unserious and not worth listening to.

Then as now, the supposedly unserious people continued to be sidelined and ignored even after events proved them right.

It’s not just about who gets a platform in this debate. It’s also about what the limits of that debate are. As Matt Duss, a foreign policy expert and adviser to Sen. Bernie Sanders (I-Vt.), told me, the debate is shaped by “a general hawkish interventionist framing you see in the media and the foreign policy establishment.” It presumes that the deployment of U.S. military power overseas is nearly always justified and likely to accomplish its goals.

A long history of not accomplishing goals doesn’t seem to make a dent in the framing.

What gets left out of that discussion? For starters, the fact that we spent 20 years trying to create and sustain the Afghan government, and it remained so plagued by corruption that it didn’t have legitimacy with the country’s population. As one 2010 State Department cable reported a senior Afghan official saying, “corruption is not just a problem for the system of governance in Afghanistan; it is the system of governance.” You can read that and an endless catalogue of horrors in this report from the Special Inspector General for Afghanistan Reconstruction.

But the problem went deeper. “Even focusing on the failures of the Afghan government lets us off the hook,” Duss told me. “When we’re talking about corruption, the biggest beneficiaries are U.S. multinationals.” Indeed, another recent government report found that between 2011 and 2019 we spent nearly $100 billion on private contractors in Afghanistan.

The Very Serious People also tended to have connections to, and investments in, the military-industrial complex. We stayed in Afghanistan because powerful people were making a lot of money from it. That’s why. Juan Cole:

US officials sent out to Afghanistan knew that it was a Washington Ponzi scheme. Billions were disappearing into the pockets of contractors and warlords. Only the arms manufacturers were happy. The US was massively bombing the country every year, the only reason that it was still able to be there. US officials confessed as much to government watchdogs, and the Washington Post managed to get those interviews and publish them in 2019. Nobody believed in the mission. There was no mission. There was a morass of corruption and incompetence. Many of the regional warlords under the new government were not easier on women or minorities than the Taliban had been, and were fundamentalists of a different stripe.

This much needs to be admitted to, and understood, as media continues to clutch its pearls over “President Biden’s failures” in Afghanistan. Greg Sargent:

Let’s keep two ideas in our heads at the same time. The first is that President Biden deserves serious scrutiny over the withdrawal from Afghanistan, and congressional hearings should examine it.

The second is that no such accounting will be remotely complete if it doesn’t also examine how the current debacle is the outgrowth of 20 years of catastrophically wrongheaded thinking and decision-making spanning four administrations.

Going by the teevee news, one might assume that everything in Afghanistan was just rosy until President Biden decided to withdraw. And I confress I also have paid less attention to Afghanistan than to domestic politics. I give President Biden credit for doing the right thing to just withdraw. Why didn’t Barack Obama make that decision? I guess someday historians will sort that out.

But it’s also the case that the Trump Administration didn’t leave Joe Biden with much of a choice. Trump’s “deal” with the Taliban appears to have paved the road to the current debacle. See Scott Dowrkin at Newsweek:

In Afghanistan, President Biden got dealt yet another losing hand from the Trump Administration. Their Doha Agreement with the Taliban violated the most basic principles of self-government for the Afghan people. There was no way to enforce it or make sure the Taliban kept its word. There was no denunciation of al-Qaeda terrorists. Worst of all, the deal didn’t mandate the Taliban stop attacks against Afghan security forces.

All of this set the stage for the chaotic scenes we’re seeing on TV today.

Juan Cole:

In all the press pillorying of President Biden, which has barely mentioned Trump, I have seen no one mention that Trump once claimed that upon the US withdrawal the Taliban would take up the war on terror. Even while he was talking with them, the Taliban occasionally brought old al-Qaeda commandos to the parts of Afghanistan they controlled.

In the treaty, Trump promised to pull 8,500 troops out of the country in about 4 1/2 months. He pledged that the Afghanistan government of Ashraf Ghani would release 5,000 captured Taliban and al-Qaeda fighters. Ashraf Ghani at first resisted this provision, saying he was not party to the talks and thought it a horrible idea. But under strong Trump pressure, Ghani let the fighters go by the following October.

In return for these steps and for a promise that the U.S. would withdraw completely from Afghanistan, the Taliban pledged not to attack the remaining U.S. troops in the country by May 1, 2021. When you hear advocates of staying in Afghanistan forever say that US troops had not been attacked in the past 18 months, that is why. They stopped the attacks because Trump promised to leave. If Biden had reneged and stayed, then US troops would have been in the cross-hairs again.

The February, 2020, peace treaty was clearly rushed through by Trump in hopes it would add to his popularity and help him win the November, 2020 presidential election.

See also Trump’s Deal With the Taliban, Explained and Some former Trump allies say his Taliban deal laid the groundwork for chaos.

Mike Pompeo, then Secretary of State, meeting with the Taliban leader Mullah Abdul Ghani Baradar and Taliban peace negotiators in Doha, Qatar, in November 2020. New York Times photo.

A Polarized Nation Learns Polarized Lessons

Afghan commentary continues. At Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley points to other commentary that seriously suggests it would have been better to remain in Afghanistan forever and ever than to watch whatever is happening now.

The lesson that this part of the press seems to have taken, though, from the admittedly compelling image of a final helicopter taking off from the roof of the U.S. Embassy in Saigon, is that the United States should have extended its military engagement in Vietnam. These writers might not put it this way, given that they also know Vietnam was a “quagmire” in which regrettable things happened while “All Along the Watchtower” played on speakers mounted to the outside of a helicopter, but that’s the logical endpoint of the analogy: that Biden screwed up by ending the war because it associates him with images that might make Americans sad about “losing.”

Today I encountered someone wondering why we didn’t learn “the lessons of Vietnam.” I don’t believe we ever reached any consensus about what those lessons were. Once U.S. combat operations ceased in 1973, we stopped talking about it.

One lesson was that it’s unwise to begin a military operation without a very clear mission objective — an understanding about what would constitute “winning” or “losing” — and an exit strategy. But among the other “lessons” clanking around in people’s heads were “we could have won” (what, precisely?) or that Democrat’s were “soft” on the war and they paid a price. I took that last idea apart a few years ago. I propose that when you get to the place where the only way you avoid “losing” is to just not let the war ever end, you’ve already lost.

I agree with Geoffrey Skelley at FiveThirtyEight that it’s too early to know if there will be a significant political fallout from the withdrawal from Afghanistan. Joe Biden’s approval rating has just dripped below 50 percent, the low point of his presidency so far.

That said, it’s possible Americans won’t penalize Biden all that much for what’s happened in Afghanistan because, outside of some major conflicts, foreign policy doesn’t usually weigh heavily on voters’ minds. Foreign policy is a critical matter — events in recent days have reminded us of the serious implications of the U.S.’s decisions — but the reality is that for years Americans have paid very little attention to the U.S. presence in Afghanistan. Additionally, Americans’ perspectives on the Afghanistan conflict are mixed, with Gallup recently finding about an even split on the question of whether it was a mistake for the U.S. to send troops in the first place. After 20 years in Afghanistan and the unpopular war in Iraq, Americans are skeptical of intervening militarily in foreign countries — even for humanitarian reasons.

Skelley goes on to say that opinions on Afghanistan are polarized by party. Like everyone else these days.

See Paul Waldman, Could the American public learn the right lessons from Afghanistan? (Answer: Maybe) See also Joe Ferullo at The Hill, Beltway reporting of Afghanistan withdrawal a disservice to Americans. Good analysis.

I still say that by Fall, Afghanistan will be mostly out of the headlines and we’ll be refocused on domestic issues.

Afghanistan, Covid, and Political Prices

I like Josh Marshall’s take on Afghanistan news coverage.

If nothing else for media watchers there’s a fascinating dynamic developing over the last day or so in trying to define the US exit from Afghanistan. It’s not a new dynamic. In fact, it’s one I first saw a quarter century ago when DC’s establishment press got really, really upset that not only Bill Clinton but more importantly most of the country didn’t agree with their take on impeachment in 1998. Official DC was baffled when Democrats actually managed to pick up a few seats in the 1998 midterm that was entirely about impeachment. The specifics of the case are of course pretty radically different. But the dynamic of establishment DC press escalation is not. Politico’s morning newsletter this morning captures the dynamic. It starts quoting David Axelrod making clear that Biden messed up and has to admit he messed up but then notes that Biden didn’t get the message and said he had made the right decision. A sort of primal scream of “WTF, JOE BIDEN?!?!?!!?!” virtually bleeds through the copy.

I’m still where I was last week. Withdrawing from Afghanistan could have been done better, and it should have been done a long time ago by any of the past three presidents before Biden. But better now than later. And it was never going to be pretty.

As I’ve made clear repeatedly, it’s not like this is a big win for Biden, at least in the near term. American public opinion is never going to like seeing the people we spent twenty years and a trillion dollars fighting getting comfy in the presidential palace after the US-backed President hopped the first plane out of Kabul. That stings no matter what the backstory. But there’s also little question that the very strong consensus among establishment DC press opinion-makers is not in line with the mood or opinion of most of the country.

The MAGA crowd is no doubt delighted to see Biden perceived as failing at something, never mind that the MAGA-god himself left his own mess in Afghanistan. See, for example, Republicans delete webpage celebrating Trump’s deal with Taliban and Trump’s deal with the Taliban set the stage for the Afghan collapse.

However, I think the rest of the nation will shove Afghanistan aside relatively quickly once the nation’s schools open for fall for children and the Delta variant. We’re in for a rough winter. By politicizing masks and vaccines with their usual over-the-top screeching rhetoric, Republicans are gambling with the lives of children, and others. I don’t see them winning. If parents find themselves stuck back with virtual school, or worse — their children on ventilators — Afghanistan will not be a big concern.

I’m seeing a lot of commentary saying that Kabul 2021 is not Saigon 1975, and of course it isn’t, even though there are a damn lot of parallels. But one comment I keep reading is that poor Gerald Ford paid a terrible political price for Saigon. That’s not what I remember, and I remember the 1976 presidential election pretty darn well. Washington may still have been roiling over Saigon in 1976, but I don’t recall people beyond the Beltway being too wrapped up in it. Everyone wanted to forget about Vietnam. Frankly, had the Democrats not nominated a white southern evangelical, I bet Ford would have won another term. Carter won by only 2 percentage points over Ford, and he swept the Deep South (except for Virginia) as no Democrat has done since.

Many of the Kabul-is-not-Saigon coverage also insists that the U.S. did a much better job of evacuating vulnerable Vietnamese in 1975. Then why do I remember the boat people?

Anyway — it’s still possible Democrats will pay a price for Kabul, but I’m guessing not that much. We’ll see.

So what will drive the 2022 elections? If Democrats are worried about Kabul, they had damn well better pass both infrastructure bills. Nancy Pelosi is now engaged in an epic struggle with the Nine Moderate Democrats to accomplish this. They had also damn well pass a voting rights bill that blocks political gerrymandering, at least. That won’t be easy.

But Republicans could still screw the pooch. GOP anti-mask nonsense is stirring a backclash. We probably will still be fighting about covid and masks and vaccines and schools through the next few months.It’s too soon to say what’s going to shape the 2022 elections, but I don’t believe Afghanistan will be the most critical issue.

House Moderate Democrats Are the Bad Guys on Infrastructure

At Washington Monthly, David Atkins writes, A Few House Moderates Are on the Verge of Scuttling Biden’s Presidency On Behalf of Their Donors.

Most of the Beltway narrative around Democratic intraparty infighting pits supposedly beleaguered moderates loyally supporting Democratic priorities and trying to hold onto frontline districts, versus disloyal progressives in safe seats making irresponsible demands that threaten the caucus majority. Per the most self-described savvy insiders, Squad-aligned politicians make noise that hurts the caucus, while the Problem-Solving New Dems do the hard work to carry legislation and protect unsafe seats.

This narrative is rarely if ever true: progressives in Congress usually stake out the more popular policy positions, do much of the nitty-gritty legislative work, do not scuttle important bills, and in any case have every right to represent their districts as faithfully as any other.

But nowhere does this tired narrative crash more heavily against the shoals of reality than now, when a collection of 9 House “moderates” are threatening to scuttle the entire Biden agenda—including any hopes Democrats might have of maintaining the majorities in the face of a likely difficult 2022 midterm election.

Very briefly, the Nine are trying to smash the “two track” strategy through which Biden and congressional Democrats would pass both the bipartisan and reconciliation infrastructure bills. As part of this strategy, Nancy Pelosi is sitting on the bipartisan bill that passed in the Senate until the reconciliation bill, containing many Democratis Party priorities, also passes. “Nancy Pelosi has insisted on passing both together in order to keep the entirety of the Democratic caucus onboard and to prevent backsliding by either faction,” Atkins writes.

The Nine want the bipartisan bill to be voted on immediately, which — whether it passes or not — would probably mean that the reconciliation bill is dead, because the “moderates” would have no reason to vote for it. Greg Sargent explains,

The threat came in a new letter from nine centrist House Democrats to House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.), which lays out demands for how the process should unfold from here.

“We will not consider voting for a budget resolution until the bipartisan Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act passes the House and is signed into law,” reads the letter, which is led by Rep. Josh Gottheimer (D-N.J.) and signed by other members of the House Problem Solvers Caucus.

The “budget resolution” is what the House must pass to lay the groundwork to eventually pass the $3.5 trillion reconciliation bill that Senate Democrats are now assembling. The bipartisan bill is the $1 trillion in “hard” infrastructure that recently passed the Senate.

So this is a threat to scuttle the process needed to pass the “human” infrastructure bill — including big investments in combating climate change, supports for children and families, expanded health care, and much more — to force immediate passage of the “hard” infrastructure package.

This would completely disrupt the two-track process that Biden and Democratic leaders want. Under it, Pelosi will delay House passage of the bipartisan bill until the Senate sends over the reconciliation one, then hold votes on both. This locks in each side: Moderates back the reconciliation bill to get progressives to back the bipartisan bill, and vice versa.

This move by centrists makes zero sense. First, as a Democratic aide pointed out, even if the House did vote on the bipartisan bill today, it wouldn’t pass, because the votes are not there without completion of the reconciliation bill.

An immediate vote in the House on the bipartisan bill would kill both bills, in other words. It would also kill the Democratic agenda.

Why would the Nine do this? Because that’s what their sponsors want. See Jonathan Chait:

Notably, the moderate House Democrats have been loading up the reconciliation bill with a series of conflicting demands. On the one hand, they have been complaining about its overall size and pushing to shrink down the headline number. On the other hand, they have been making their own costly demands. Josh Gottheimer, one letter signer, has been crusading for a restoration of the state and local tax deduction, a benefit for some of his affluent constituents. Jim Costa, another signer, wants to protect the heirs to massive fortunes from any taxation on their windfall.

These demands, notably, are not designed to protect the Democratic Party from the left’s unpopular baggage. Most of the broader debate has focused on the toxic brand damage of slogans like defunding the police and Green New Deal, but the moderate Democrats are, in this case, threatening to tank a highly popular agenda of taxing the very rich in order to give broad middle-class benefits. The moderate Democrats are the biggest obstacle to making the math work, simultaneously complaining about the size of the bill while ordering more expensive goodies for themselves.

“The suicidal illogic of the demand may explain why only nine Democrats signed the letter,” Chait continues. Somewhere in their muddled heads they seem to think they have leverage to force passage of the bills as they want them, but in truth what they are trying to do would probably kill passage of both bills. And this would do irreparable damage to the Democratic Party and the nation.

I heartily recommend reading all of Atkins, Waldman, and Chait to get the whole picture.

On the Fall of Saigon, er, Kabul

First off, Happy Reinstatement Day, everybody. I’m sure the festivities will begin any minute now.

Tomorrow is a travel day for me, and today is a packing day, so I don’t have a lot of writing time. I just want to say something briefly about Afghanistan. This will not be an in-depth analysis, and if anyone wants to fill in the blanks, be my guest.

The Taliban are taking Afghanistan with astonishing speed. I get the impression that even the U.S. military brass are stunned by how quickly the Afghan military is crumbling. U.S. officials predict Kabul will fall within 30 days. I suspect it will be sooner. President biden still says we are leaving, bye. Naturally, President Biden is being pounded for his decision to pull troops of Afghanistan.

There is probably an argument to be made that this withdrawal could have been better planned and more skillfully executed. If someone wants to make that argument, I would not argue.

However, the failure of the Afghan millitary to defend Afghanistan is, to me, a big flashing neon sign saying that there was no point to the U.S. being there. Our troops have been there just short of 20 years, and most of that time we were supposed to be preparing the Afghan government to defend itself from militant terrorists on its own. It’s pretty clear now that this was never going to happen. Whenever the U.S. withdrew, this would be the result.

The Taliban is a regional threat, not a global one. Our troops were in Afghanistan because of a decision made 20 years ago, and then the target was al Qaeda. And whatever good we did in Afghanistan initially was thrown away because the focus shifted to Iraq, which was very stupid. President Obama refocused on Afghanistan, but by then IMO it was too late to do the right thing, and we should have bgone into damage control/withdrawal mode immediately, in 2009. Juan Cole believes we should have left Afghanistan in 2003, and he’s probably right.

Instead, the Afghanistan issue was handed off to that Great Incompetent Blob known as Donald Trump. Trump made noises about getting out of the region altogether, but notice he didn’t actually do it, and between his “policies” and Jared Kushner’s meddling the U.S. position in the region was even more befuddled than it was already. I wonder if Trump’s blunders in Syria might well have just emboldened all the extremists in the region.

Just read The Great Washington Ponzi Scheme in Afghanistan comes Crashing Down by Juan Cole. Explains it all better than I can. And let me also say I am very sorry for the people of Afghanistan. The Taliban are monsters. This is a genuine tragedy. But the fault of that is with the Taliban and the regional culture that grew them. There is only so much anyone else can do.

Will Biden pay a political price? I doubt it, since most Americans weren’t all that interested in staying in Afghanistan. Domestic issues will likely be front and center in the campaign next year.

I’ve been asking myself if anyone paid a price for the Fall of Saigon. Did they, really? Americans were much more emotionally invested in Vietnam than they ever were in Afghanistan, so you would think the infamous Fall of Saigon would have been a political watershed, but I don’t remember that it was.  President Ford lost his election in 1976, but I don’t recall that vast numbers of people were angry at him about Saigon. It probably did cost him some votes, but the sluggish economy and the pardon of Nixon were bigger issues. Likewise, I think next year Afghanistan will not be on people’s “top five issues of concern” lists.

In 1975 most Americans didn’t want to know anything about Vietnam; they were exhausted with it. I suspect all but the most hawkish feel about the same about Afghanistan now. We shouldn’t have stayed so long.

Taliban fighters in Afghanistan

 

Down the Rabbit Hole with Mike Lindell

I did not know before today that the My Pillow Guy, Mike Lindell, used to be a crack addict. Maybe everybody else knew that; I’ve never paid much attention to him. But here’s a CNBC story from 2017 that explains his rise from crackhead screwup to self-made millionaire.

Fast forward to today. Lindell may not be on crack any more — I assume he isn’t — but that doesn’t mean he isn’t self-destructing and throwing his self-made business away. A lot of retailers have stopped carrying his product. He’s had to suspend television advertising. He wasted least a million dollars this year trying to launch a new social media platform for conservatives called “Frank,” which by all acccounts is too glitchy to use.  He’s been named in a $1.6 billion lawsuit by Dominion Voting Systems.

Yet he pushes ahead to get the 2020 election overturned. Did I mention he also used to have a gambling addiction, according to Wikipedia? I wonder if he still does.

By all appearances, Lindell has given up reasonably honest business for running cons. Right now he is supposed to be hosting a “cyber symposium” for paying attendees in Minnesota. He promised to use this symposium to reveal proof that 2020 votes had been siphoned away from Donald Trump and given to Joe Biden. When the symposium was scheduled to start yesterday, Lindell instead threw a fit that Frank had been hacked (how can they tell?) and the symposium had to be postponed, but now it seems to be ongoing. This clip from yesterday provides a taste —

It was reported that Lindell walked off the stage a few minutes later. Maybe he got lunch.

And here’s the proof:

Really, that’s it. I’m serious. I got it from Philip Bump at WaPo, who explains,

Rob Graham, a technologist and author, went to the summit to evaluate what Lindell claims to have. During a “breakout session,” he and others were provided with access to what Lindell’s team claims to have obtained. Graham shared what they were given — a collection of files that consists of 1) a list of computer Internet protocol addresses and 2) gibberish like that above. Well, technically they were given rich-text format files, some of which were inexplicably converted to hexadecimal encoding. Graham, an expert on Internet data, described the provided material as “a bunch of confusing stuff they can’t explain,” and said that those running the symposium pledged to hand over the “real” information Tuesday night or Wednesday.

It’s now Wednesday afternoon; I’m not seeing any bombshell headlines about the “real” information.

Philp Bump:

But what if you’re not trying to prove it? What if you’re trying to make some cash and you stumbled onto a big, juicy mark? What if there were a millionaire desperate to prove something, a millionaire who’s not exactly an Internet savant but one willing to hand over loads of cash for data you made up — as some of the data previously released by Lindell pretty obviously was? For a while, you’re skating, cashing checks and sending along reports on occasion. Eventually, though, you get closer and closer to the point at which you need to actually turn over your work.

Maybe Lindell is not the grifter, but the mark. Maybe he’s got a bad case of addictive personality disorder, and his current addiction is Trump’s Big Lie. And he can’t stop throwing his money on the table and rolling the dice one more time.

Bump then mentions work by Julian Sanchez of the Cato Institute — yeah, I know, it’s the Cato Institute — showing the strong overlap between those who believe the Trump conspiracy theories and those refusing to get a vaccine. I know that doesn’t surprise you. And I can’t find Sanchez’s work online. But I like what Bump wrote here —

In both cases, Sanchez wrote, the conspiracy theories “have the superficial trappings of real science. Links to journal articles on the one hand, or on the other, impressively hackery looking hex dumps & spreadsheets full of IP addresses” — a reference to Lindell’s information.

“[I]n both cases, this evidence is absolutely useless to the target audience,” he continued. “They have neither the training nor the context to evaluate the quality or relevance of technical articles in medical journals — or even to understand what the article is claiming in many cases. … They are, however, being flattered by the INVITATION to assess the evidence for themselves — do your own research, make up your own mind!”

Instead of offering their trust on experts in their fields to explain complicated subjects, the audience is convinced that it needs only to trust itself — though, of course, they’re actually simply trusting the hustlers presenting incomplete or misleading information. What the hustlers offer the audience, Sanchez says, “is the illusion of not trusting an authority — unlike all those sheep who trust the mainstream authorities.”

Ain’t it the truth? I love the folks who offer some wackjob opinion about vaccines and claim they learned it from their own research. I sometimes respond, Oh? You’re a microbiologist and you have your own lab? To which they reply with a link to some inflammatory verbiage on clickbait dot com that “proves” Bill Gates is using the pandemic to get us all microchipped.

Anyway, Mike Lindell seems to be on the road to squandering everything he built, and someday we’ll be reading in some sad “where is he now?” story that after Lindell lost everything one of his sons got him a job selling shoes.

 

Today’s News: Infrastructure Moves Up, Andy Moves Out

So Andy resigned (yay) and the bipartisan infrastructure bill passed in the Senate (yay).

Regarding Andy, here’s a couple of paragraphs from New York’s Justin Miller:

The report also revealed for the first time allegations by a state trooper that Cuomo ran his hands over her body after picking her out of the ranks to serve on his protective detail.

Cuomo summarized his defense against the complaints as a matter of personal ignorance regarding supposedly changing mores involving the treatment of women. “I didn’t realize the extent to which the line has been redrawn,” he said. “There are generational and cultural shifts that I just didn’t fully appreciate.”

He seriously thought groping a state trooper used to be normal? Well, truth to tell, it probably was, but not for a long time. See Andrew Prokop at Vox on why Cuomo resigned and Trump didn’t.

After the report’s release, leading Democrats said Cuomo had to go. New York’s entire Democratic congressional delegation called on him to resign, as did national Democratic leaders like President Joe Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. Longtime allies in state politics abandoned him too, from unions to state legislature power brokers. A majority of legislators in the state assembly went on record supporting his impeachment. Voters rejected him too — a Quinnipiac poll found that 70 percent of New York voters wanted Cuomo to quit.

The writing on the wall became clear — he couldn’t win. Furthermore, a conviction in his impeachment trial could have banned him from holding state office in the future. So now, he hopes, he will avoid that trial altogether.

And look for Bill DeBlasio to be very cheerful. Oh, and Trump didn’t resign because Republicans didn’t pressure him to, says Prokop. In case you wondered.

Regarding the bipartisan infrastructure bill, Paul Waldman explains why nineteen Republicans (although not all of the Republicans who had negotiated the thing) voted for the bill. In brief, some Republicans really want big infrastructure projects in their states to get funded. And a few aren’t afraid of being bipartisan. Plus this:

The key GOP constituency — big business — wants this bill. Republicans may feed their base a steady diet of manufactured culture-war controversies, but when it comes time to write laws, few things matter more to them than the opinions of the business interests that fund their campaigns.

Those interests are now eager for the government to spend on the infrastructure on which they depend, which is why this bill is backed by the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, the Business Roundtable and the National Association of Manufacturers, as well as many influential CEOs. Those aren’t people Republicans say no to very often.

It still needs to go to the House, where its fate is tied to the reconciliation bill. See German Lopez at Vox for how that’s likely to go.  It could all blow up, but it might not.

In other newsDominion Voting Systems is suing OAN, Newsmax, and the former Overstock.com CEO Patrick Byrne for $1.6 billion in lost profit and business value. Heh.

Anti-vaccine protesters tried to storm the BBC’s offices. But they had the wrong address. It comforts me that we don’t have all the dim bulbs

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Deny ‘Til You Fry: The Republican Plan for Climate Change

The conclusions of the United Nations’ Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change ought to be banner headlines everywhere, but we should be grateful it’s made it onto front pages at all. The basic things to know:

  • Climate change is happening, and there is no question humans are causing it.
  • Changes are bigger and happening faster than predicted, and there’s no going back to the climate we had in the recent past.
  • We are locked into 30 years of worsening climate impacts no matter what the world does.
  • There is still a window in which humans can alter the climate path. An all-hands-on-deck effort could limit warming after 2050.  Anything less risks catastrophe. Nobody wants to say how bad it could get.

From the Washington Post:

Each of the past four decades has been successively warmer than any that preceded it, dating to 1850. Humans have warmed the climate at a rate unparalleled since before the fall of the Roman Empire. To find a time when the level of carbon dioxide in the atmosphere changed this much this fast, you’d need to rewind 66 million years to the meteor that killed the dinosaurs.

Carbon dioxide in the atmosphere has risen to levels not seen in 2 million years, the authors state. The oceans are turning acidic. Sea levels continue to rise. Arctic ice is disintegrating. Weather-related disasters are growing more extreme and affecting every region of the world.

If the planet warms much more than 2 degrees Celsius above preindustrial levels — a scenario all but certain at the current pace of emissions — such change could trigger the inexorable collapse of the Greenland ice sheet and more than six feet of sea-level rise that could swamp coastal communities. Coral reefs would virtually disappear.

Heat waves that are already deadly will become as much as 5 degrees Fahrenheit hotter. Parts of the Earth that currently slow the pace of warming — such as the ocean absorbing excess heat and clouds reflecting sunlight back into space — will become less able to help us.

So it’s that bad. Oh, and if you’ve always wanted to see a live coral reef, don’t wait too long.

Among other things, the fossil fuel industry has got to go. Now. We no longer have time for some extended period of incremental tweaks that would wean us all off fossil fuels gradually and give the oil and gas corporations a soft landing. There may have been a time for that, but it’s past.

And, of course, the action that needs to be taken will require strong political will and hard choices that will piss off a lot of powerful constituencies. So we’re doomed.

In a summer of rolling climate disasters that have made that fact viscerally obvious, politicians around the world have already started offering platitudes about the need for “action” and “ambition.” Yet they mostly haven’t called for the rapid shift off fossil fuels that the report indicates is necessary.

It’s not that politicians in powerful countries have done nothing in the past two decades. The problem, rather, is that where they’ve done anything at all, it has tended to be the wrong thing, emphasizing subtle market tweaks and shiny new technologies instead of the core work of decarbonization: getting off fossil fuels as quickly as possible. There is not some reserve of sensible climate leadership ready to be unleashed if Republicans weren’t standing in the way. Happy talk about net-zero pledges and climate leadership in the last few years obscure decades of bipartisan speeding down the wrong track, toward an imagined future where polluters and the planet can both make out well in coming decades.

But there are Republicans in the way. And a big part of current Republican triballism is that nothing must be done to address climate change. They’ve spent years mocking the word “green” and tying climate change to socialism and gay marriage and abortion and hating on Jesus. They are determined to deny until they fry.

See Philip Bump at WaPo:

It’s a grim coincidence that the IPCC report was released on the same day that the Senate is poised to approve a compromise infrastructure package that scaled back President Biden’s proposals for addressing global warming. The package under consideration has significant components that will increase a transition away from current levels of fossil-fuel consumption, including improving the electrical grid and improving infrastructure for electric vehicles. But climate  activists and legislators focused on the issue lament where it comes up short.

And yet — amazingly and predictably — one of the key arguments being made against the bill by far-right opponents is that it addresses climate change at all.

And there we are. Anything Democrats want to pass isn’t enough, but we can’t even get “not enough” past Republicans.

Bump reminds us how the Right turned the Green New Deal into a straw man joke about flatulent cows and banning hamburgers. They did this because they hate its progressive-left sponsors.

When Biden first announced his infrastructure proposal, it did mirror the Green New Deal in one way: It included large-scale efforts to both address and prepare for climate change and its impacts on the country. Key pieces of Biden’s plan and the Green New Deal were both about rebuilding literally and metaphorically because of how the world is changing. As his proposal went through a process of bipartisan negotiation, big parts of that effort were excised, shunted to a unipartisan reconciliation bill that’s being moved in parallel to the bipartisan effort.

But for Republicans, the impulse to turn the reconciliation bill into another joke is too strong. And let me say that Hell is too good for any Democrat who fails to vote for it.

If this were a disaster movie, we’d be at the point that scientists announce the giant meteor is only two weeks’ away from striking earth, and everyone is out in the streets screaming. But this is real life, and instead of a giant meteor we’re facing climate chantge. Most people don’t believe the scientists and, anyway, we’re fighting over mask mandates in schools. Don’t bother us about an existential threat to our species.

Yeah, real life is worse.