Trumped: America in a Time of Corona Episode II

A perspective of life in the United States during an epidemic, based upon conversations with Michael L. Roberts, and in conjunction with The American Chronicle podcast series.

Episode II

So here I am. Finally, here on the Eastern Seaboard, in the city of my dreams; Boston, Massachusetts. The sun is shining, the sky is blue, but thanks to coronavirus, there’s not a damn thing to do. Except, perhaps, chronicle these rather strange times…

A 2 trillion-dollar stimulus package has now been approved by Congress and signed by President Trump, a truly remarkable occurrence. In 2008/9 a stimulus package was passed to try to save the American economy, but this has now been dwarfed by this package, an event made all the more remarkable considering it has been passed by a Senate controlled by the Republican Party, signed by a Republican president, without a word from members of the Tea Party who  were so adamant ten years ago that it is not the job of the American government to be bailing out the national economy. Yet now we have Republicans dishing out cash directly to American voters. This package was seen as something that would stabilize the situation, without actually starting to improve things. There will now doubtless be a move towards releasing even greater funds into the American economy. How that manifests itself will, in large part, depend on how this initial bailout is received once checks start arriving in the mail and money starts working its way into the system.

The threat to the continuity of Government continues. Quite where the Trump administration believes its apparent invincibility stems from is unknown. The age of the president and the vice president places both men in the high-risk category. There has been no word from the White House with regard to how is that Donald Trump and Mike Pence have avoided the virus, which is all the more remarkable considering the people they have been in contact with. They continue to meet with individuals who have subsequently come down with the coronavirus, and yet despite this, and despite the health risks that they are facing, they refuse to address the situation. There is no apparent end to their desire to be meet un-necessarily with people, to be in front of the cameras, to hold press conferences with dozens of people at the podium.  

Why are the president and the vice president not distancing themselves form one another at this point? There must be a very real risk to the health of President Trump at this point; were he to come down with this virus, both his physical and political life he would surely be in jeopardy. In the aftermath of September 11th, 2001, Vice President Cheney was repeatedly distanced from President George W Bush to ensure a continuation of government should the unimaginable occur. When you consider the danger that the coronavirus poses to someone of Donald Trump’s age, and as an individual who is constant contact with people, it is apparent that not enough is being done to safeguard him, or the office of the presidency, from the virus.

The only apparent concession has been in regard how the media has been allowed to work within the White House press briefing room. Simplistic efforts are being employed, using only every other seat within the press briefing room. This enables Donald Trump to have half as many journalists in the room as would otherwise be the case, which is probably still twice as many as he would like to be in the press briefing room at any one time.

As the coronavirus continues to spread its way across United States the reaction to the pandemic one is causing consternation and growing hostility between the White House and individual state governors. President Trump has spoken this week about how governors should be more appreciative of what it is that he is doing for their states, raising the issue of Trump’s ego and the extent to which he is unnecessarily injecting himself into the dynamic of this situation. The White House has raised the idea of a quarantine around New York, New Jersey, and Connecticut, and the movement of individuals between these states have become problematic. The Rhode Island police force have begun flagging down motorists with New York license plates who have crossed the state line, instructing them to self-quarantine, raising serious constitutional questions. Governor Cuomo of New York, who has emerged as a central figure, is talking about suing Rhode Island for unfairly identifying citizens of New York. However, since New York is the epicenter of this, people are trying to leave out of fear that a quarantine is about you put in place. As soon as the government starts clamping down on movement within one state, it raises the risk that people will flee that state and move to a neighboring state to stay in a second home. These issues raise questions not only about the role of state versus federal government, but also regarding patterns of illness across the country. 

There has now been a large outbreak in Louisiana, which many people are putting down to the Mardi Gras celebrations. Large outbreaks are also occurring in Illinois and neighboring Michigan. The virus has, therefore, reached the American heartland. As long as this is was something which was only threatening large, urban areas on the eastern seaboard and the West coast, many in the heartland, those classic Trump supporters, could dismiss this as a myth, or just another hoax. At this rate, no corner America is going to escape untouched, and the longer this goes on, and the greater the penetration into the American heartland, the more danger this poses not only to the health of the United States, but to Donald Trump’s and ability to win re-election to a second term. This has led to an interesting dynamic play out within the White House; between the need to attend to the health and the wealth of the nation, and the issue of what may or may not be in Donald Trump’s best political interests. The president has begun talking about wanting to get the United States reopen and ending restrictions on the free movement of people by Easter Sunday. This came just as more state governors were realizing the need to limit the movement of people within their states.  When Donald Trump talks about wishing to reopen the country in time for Easter Sunday, it is simply is not within his power to do so, because those restrictions on the movement of people which are in place have been put in place by state governors and it is their power and their power alone to reopen those states as they see fit, which  they will do on a case by case basis.

The White House has been desperate to present an image that all is well and that there really is nothing to panic about. This initial response to this virus, however, has clearly been flawed. President Trump’s continuing effort to talk about reopening markets, to make sure that the stock market rebounds, to enable people to continuing with their everyday lives, appears to fly in the face of the medical advice he receives, which suggests that doing so would be the worst thing that could possibly happen. To counter this situation, Donald Trump is no attempting to portray himself the one man who will personally bail out the United States. He has decided that the bailout checks that Americans will soon receive will be signed by him, as president. This is a profound shift, revealing the extent to which the American president is attempting to inject himself into the crisis and its solution. This is a distinct Donald Trump thing to do, and a very deliberate attempt maneuver ahead of the November election. Of course, some people who will need that money may not have bank accounts, so how will those checks will be cashed?  It’s also of possible that some people might chose to keep the check as a presidential souvenir instead of depositing it in a bank.

The on-going presidential election has been completely consumed by the coronavirus; elections have been cancelled, or postponed, and the reporting of primary elections hardly receives any coverage. This must be very frustrating for Joe Biden, who had a remarkable run of success in the primaries. He has seen his challengers drop out and endorse him, freezing out Bernie Sanders. Joe Biden, therefore, will be the Democratic candidate for president, unless something untoward occurs which no one can foresee. The primary season is meant to climax with two large rallies; one for the Democrats and one for the Republicans. At this point it is difficult to see how those two conventions, which are planned for late summer, can go ahead. These events take a great deal of planning and it’s difficult to see at this point how those conventions are going to take place.  Very clearly this virus is going to continue to have an adverse effect upon the American body politic and impact the ability to elect public officials to govern effectively. 

Despite this, all of the focus is on Donald Trump, because in time of national crisis it is to the White House that the American people and the American media look for guidance. Yet there is a recognition that Donald Trump is using his daily press conferences, not as public safety messages, but as political broadcasts at which he routinely takes the podium to talk about response to the coronavirus, to talk about his own personal actions, the actions of his administration and to then attack his opponents, demean them, and promote his own political interests. Many people are calling into question not only the suitability of these appearances, but also the veracity of his statements at this at these events. Concerns are growing that Trump is using this free airtime in a similar way that he did four years ago. The networks have realized what happened four years ago and are trying to avoid that happening once more. Calls are therefore being made for the media to stop broadcasting his daily appearances. 

At this point there has been very little upside to this current crisis for the White House. We have seen a very small 2% rise in Donald Trump’s opinion poll ratings, very minor compared to the double digit increase in public support which presidents have received during previous crises. Whilst there has been a minor bump for Donald Trump it is not the great rise that he would be hoping for and in several states, he continues to lag behind Joe Biden. This administration has been campaigning for reelection from the very first day of its term in office. It is now be facing the very real prospect of becoming a one term presidency.  

“The Next Vice-President of the United States…”

For those who are less than inspired by the current presidential election, I have good news; it will all be over in 6 months (well 8 if you include the wait until Inauguration Day)! The dynamics could not be more removed from those of 4 years ago. Barack Obama is far from the historic figure if ‘change’ that he positioned himself as in 2008. He has aged visibly in the role and is failing to stoke the passions as once he did. Unable to run on a platform of ‘change’ he has chosen the rather uninspired ‘Forward’ slogan, that has gone down like a lead balloon.

As a candidate he appears unwilling or unable to take credit for his 2 signature moments without them rebounding in his face: His health care reforms are being considered by the Supreme Court and could be rejected as being unconstitutional any day now, and his efforts to maximise the raid that killed bin Laden were scuttled by his inability to credit the work of those on the ground who actually carried out the raid. So all, in all, Obama is failing to cut an inspiring figure in US politics anymore. He may not be Jimmy Carter just yet, but the signs are worrying.

Facing the president is Mitt Romney. This was the governor of Massachusetts who introduced a health care system so similar to that endorsed by the White House that it was referred to as ‘Romney-care’ by his Republican critics in reference to ‘Obama-care’. This is a Republican that is acceptable in Massachusetts. He is also a Mormon, which causes suspicion amongst some and finally he is the very personification of an old school insider politician; a governor and a son of a governor. This is not exactly the candidate that the Tea Party were hoping for and it is their activism that held so much promise for a potential Republican victory this November.

If the top of the ticket is failing to generate any interest then all that leaves is the VP slot. Readers of The Commentator will no doubt be familiar with the HBO movie Game Change that aired recently and which did much to ridicule the Republican process in 2008 that resulted in the selection of Sarah Palin. Less well known is that the book this was drawn from was focused almost exclusively on the Obama-Hillary race with only a small section focused on the Republican VP process.

However, whilst the selection of Governor Palin provided career a high for Tina Fey and filled ample column inches around the world, the forgotten reality is that the Democratic choice didn’t work out too well either. The initial reaction to Obama’s choice of Joe Biden was hardly euphoric with many, myself included, asking how this choice demonstrated the much-vaunted ‘change’ that Obama had campaigned on. Here in the UK Biden was most known, if he was known at all, for plagiarizing material lifted from Neil Kinnock, aka ‘The Welsh Windbag’ and former Leader of the Labour Party who was routinely trounced by Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s; Hardy a figure to want to be imitating in order to secure the White House.

Biden, it was argued, helped to balance the ticket. Well, ok, he was white and Obama was black, he was old and Obama was not. Was the implication also meant to be that Biden was experienced and Obama was not? That was a reasonable position to take from the comparison, though hardly a flattering one for the would-be president. Biden was from Delaware and Obama from Illinois, so hardly a great North/South divide. Delaware is also a tiny state with only 3 Electoral College votes, so he didn’t exactly bring much to the party on that score. Since the election Biden has hardly covered himself in glory, committing gaffe after gaffe.

If Obama is victorious in November, his power will begin to ebb away very quickly as thoughts turn to the 2016 race and who will replace him in the White House. Does anyone seriously expect that candidate to be Joe Biden? Of course not. Which brings me to my point: What purpose does it serve to retain Biden on the ticket? He no longer serves any purpose other than to distract attention from the president and to act the fool. He is after all, such a buffoon that even bid Laden recognised the potential value of having him in the Oval Office. So, if Biden no longer helps with the ‘lack of experience’ vote, or with the racial equation, his state brings virtually no Electoral College votes and he serves only as a hindrance, why retain him? There is simply no logical argument for his place on the Democratic ticket in 2012.

Obama needs a candidate who will be his Game Changer for 2012. A candidate to excite the base of the Democratic Party. A candidate who is ready to assume the presidency should the unthinkable happen to the Commander-in-Chief. A candidate with a track record of winning campaigns. A candidate who has demonstrated an ability to be a tough and loyal ally. A candidate whose home state would bring in a large number of Electoral College votes. And finally, a candidate that has a viable chance of winning the White House in 2016. There is no one in the Democratic Party that fits these criteria better than Hillary Clinton. She has denied any interest in the role, but selecting Hillary will also aid Obama in his depiction of the Republican ‘War on Women’ in 2012 and present the Republicans with a dilemma.

The dilemma for Romany is how best to counter a decision to place Hillary on the ticket. It can hardly of escaped anyone’s attention that the Republicans had a week field of candidates this year. The heavy hitters all stayed home, clearly anticipating a clear run against a non-incumbent in 21016. They will be ill at ease with the thought of joining a ticket that, if successful would keep them from the Oval Office for at least eight years, and which if it fails, could end any chance of such a situation arising altogether.

Romney desperately needs a Game Changer of how own, but if Obama selects Hillary then Romney could be accused of playing gender politics if he names a woman as his VP candidate. Not that there is a logical Republican female candidate who brings the same strengths to the ticket as Hillary does for the Democrats. Romney must do something altogether different therefore. His one sure-fire bet is to choose Marco Rubio from Florida. Rubio would excite the Republican base, engage the Latino vote, put Florida in play (remember 2000?) and certainly make a Republican victory more of a possibility than it is at present.

The challenge for Romney is not placing the call; it will be if that call is rejected. The risks are huge on both sides however.  If Rubio refuses and Romney loses, does it get blamed on the petulant self-serving one term senator who placed self ahead of nation and party? If Rubio accepts and Romney loses does Rubio get tagged as a loser, thus running his chances in 2016? If Romney wins, then does Rubio lose all of his appeal when he eventually gets to run, which could be as late as 2020?

This is a debate that has been rumbling for some time and must surely come to a head in the coming weeks. Not everyone agrees with this analysis, which is one thing that makes politics so fascinating. However, with the polls close, the stakes so high, the lead candidates so dull, the VP-stakes could not be more important in 2012.

Mitt Romney: Winning With a Whimper

This week voters went to the polls in five American states in an effort to select the Republican Party candidate for the presidency of the United States. In case anyone is uncertain, it will be a moderate Mormon from Massachusetts. One of those states was New York, one of the most important states in the nation politically, socially, culturally and electorally, but did anyone notice? The lack of coverage this event has received is an indication that the Republican race is effectively over and threatens to end with a whimper rather than a bang.

That’s both good and bad news for the Republican Party: Good news since it means that they will finally be able to coalesce around a single candidate, but bad news as the lack of excitement threatens to reduce media coverage and whatever public interest there was in the story or in their candidate.

Until recently, the April 24 primaries had promised to be a showdown between Mitt Romney, the Republican frontrunner and his closest rival, Rick Santorum in what would almost certainly have been a knockout for Romney had he defeated former Senator Santorum in his home state of Pennsylvania.  However, the former senator chose to throw in the sweater-vest just days after promising not to disenfranchise the remaining 50% of U.S. states that had yet to hold primaries or caucuses. Clearly Santorum elected to get out ahead of the vote and before a potentially devastating defeat in his home state.

As a result, Mitt Romney swept the board in Connecticut, New York, Delaware, Rhode Island and in Pennsylvania, securing between 56-67% of the vote. Ron Paul came in second in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island, whilst Santorum secured second place in Pennsylvania despite having suspended his campaign. The big looser was the former Speaker of the House, Newt Gingrich.

Gingrich had campaigned hard in Delaware, although how this fit with his previously declared ‘Southern Strategy’ is a mystery at this point. Delaware proved to be the only state where Gingrich received more than 13% of the vote, as he came third in Connecticut, New York and Rhode Island and a dismal fourth in Pennsylvania. In a week when it was reported that his Secret Service detail alone is costing a reported $40,000 a day even Newt could no longer justify his continued ego-trip and promptly announced the suspension of his campaign, effective May 1. No doubt he is waiting for some cheques to clear.

So after months of campaigning, what have Romney’s competitors achieved other than a short-term boost to the sweater vest-manufacturing sector? Santorum has, unexpectedly perhaps, emerged as a national candidate. This will help erase memories of his crushing defeat in his 2006 bid for re-election that he lost by over 700,000 votes, receiving only 41% of the vote to his opponents 59%, the largest margin of defeat for an incumbent senator in 26 years. A future career as a Fox News Contributor may be his just reward.

Santorum, of course, emerged as the true winner of the Iowa Caucuses, and won 11 of the first 25 states to vote. The shockingly antiquated voting methods adopted in Iowa must surely be looked at in light of this. Were it not for this he could, and I stress could, have developed the momentum leading into New Hampshire that could have kept him in the race today. In 2000, the voting methods in Florida highlighted the antiquated methods used to elect the most powerful office in the world. Twelve years later, it seems, little has improved.

Importantly, Santorum succeeded in pulling Romney to the right, keeping him honest, perhaps, but honest to whom? Honest to Conservative values? Barely. Honest to Romney’s convictions? Far from it.  It is apparent that Romney has little in common with mainstream Republican sentiment, belief or tradition. No one gets elected Governor of Massachusetts by espousing Conservative values that would be embraced in the heartland. He is, it would seem, the epitome of a RINO: Republican in Name Only.

By forcing Romney to challenge him for the traditional Republican vote Santorum may well have done more harm than good for the eventual Republican nominee heading into the general election against Obama. Romney’s campaign has already stated that they intend to say one thing in the Primaries and then essentially re-set these policies for the general election, giving rise to the allegation of being an ‘Etch-a-Sketch’ candidate, prepared to say or do anything and utterly unconcerned with investing in a set of irreversible policies.

Such statements and lack of philosophical commitment to a cause will be taken apart by the Obama campaign as the election heads into the autumn and the knives are sharpened on all sides.  The president has spoken this week of not having been raised with a silver spoon in his mouth, a non-too subtle reminder of Romney’s great wealth and the divisions that clearly exist in the United States between those who have and those who do not. The White House has clearly decided which side it is going to campaign on this year, irrespective of Obamas’ own personal wealth.

With issues of race, international tensions in the Gulf and an economy that is still sluggish at best, this should be one of the most contentious and closely run presidential elections in living memory. It would be all the more so if the Republican Party had a candidate that could appeal to independents, the mainstream party faithful and Tea Party activists. In Mitt Romney, they do not and this fact alone could well lead to the re-election of Barack Obama, by default rather than by adulation.

An alternate version of this article first appeared on The Commentator on April 25

US Governmental Shutdown Looms Large Again

Earlier in the summer the threat of a government shutdown loomed large in Washington with wild predictions in some circles that President Obama would be forced to implement the 14th amendment to the Constitution to keep the government ticking over. That didn’t happen of course. Instead, as I suggested on Sky News, the politicians in DC merely kicked the problem into the long grass in the hope that the issue would be resolved. It hasn’t been and the issue is back once again as the end of the fiscal year arrived on Friday. Continuing resolutions are no way to run the United State’s government.
At a time when world markers are plummeting and investors and citizens are looking for signs of confidence in the market, politicians in Washington are doing their utmost to worsen the situation. Blame can be spread around and suggestions that this is simply a Tea Party roadblock are misleading, if for no other reason than that such a party doesn’t really exist as a single entity. Leaders from both sides of the aisle need to unite for the long term interests of the nation.
Policymakers and lawmakers need to recognise the damage that is being done not only to markets but also to the long term reputation of the United States by their actions. Critics enjoy analysing American hegemonic decline. Their work is made easier by the very individuals sent to Washington to prevent such an event.