Feb. 20

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New Senate: DEM 49             GOP 51

New polls:  
Dem pickups: (None)
GOP pickups: (None)

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Pennsylvania Supreme Court Adopts a New Congressional District Map

The Pennsylvania Supreme Court earlier ruled that the congressional district map drawn up by the state legislature was so gerrymandered as to be in violation of the state constitution. It ordered the Republican-controlled legislature to draw up a fair map, but they came back with a map that was just as gerrymandered, so the Court hired an adviser, Nathaniel Persily, a Stanford professor who is an expert on election maps, to draw a new map. Persily did as instructed and the Court has now adopted his proposed map.

The map follows existing political boundaries much better than the old one did. The new map splits only 13 counties (vs. 28 counties in the old map). Persily is generally regarded as fair, so the map is likely to be as honest as one can get given the nature of Pennsylvania ("Philadelphia and Pittsburgh with Alabama in between"). Nevertheless, a fair map will probably allow the Democrats to pick up 3-4 seats in the House. Republicans are threatening to challenge it, but the only path for a challenge is going to the U.S. Supreme Court. The problem with that is that they already tried it, and Justice Samuel Alito, who oversees the Third Circuit, which includes Pennsylvania, wasn't buying. (V)

Conservatives Are Urging Trump to Pardon Everyone

Frederick Fleitz, a former CIA analyst and current senior vice president at a conservative think tank, is urging Donald Trump to pardon everyone connected to Russiagate, saying: "It's kind of cruel what's going on right now and the president should put these defendants out of their misery." While this sounds like what the owner of a sick dog with a painful and fatal disease might say to a veterinarian, Fleitz was talking about issuing pardons to Michael Flynn, George Papadopoulos, and more.

For purposes of special counsel Robert Mueller's investigation, pardoning people like Flynn and Papadopoulous, who have already spilled the beans, doesn't make any difference. Where pardons could make a big difference would be for Paul Manafort, Jared Kushner, and Donald Trump Jr. They are all in great danger and are still stonewalling. Absent pardons, some or all of them might ultimately flip, with Manafort the biggest risk now that his business partner Rick Gates has made a plea bargain.

President Tom Fitton of Judicial Watch, another conservative group, said that anti-Trump bias in the Justice Dept. and FBI would justify pardons. He also said: "The whole super structure of the Russia investigation is compromised." Trump's lawyers have said it is too early to discuss pardons. (V)

Clapper: More Shoes Will Drop

Former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper has predicted that there are "more shoes to drop" in Robert Mueller's investigation. While Clapper is not part of the investigative team, as the former head of all of U.S. intelligence, he is pretty well plugged in and not a man given to wild speculation. He also said that the indictments of 13 Russians are in line with what the intelligence community knows.

Clapper also mentioned some areas that have not been aired in public yet. One of these is the connection of the Russian government and Russian President Vladimir Putin to the meddling. The indictments don't tie Putin directly to the troll farm, but there is probably more to that story. Another area where he expects future revelations is the financial dealings of the Trump Organization. He is most likely referring to potential money laundering and/or tax evasion here. Clapper is no rookie. He served in the administrations of George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton, George W. Bush, and Barack Obama, and generally knows what he is talking about. (V)

Mueller May Be Looking at Kushner's Finances

Some people regard the number "666" to be an unlucky number. In the New Testament, it is associated with the devil. Although Jared Kushner is Jewish, it is also an unlucky number for him, too, because he owns more than half of 666 Fifth Avenue and the building has a mortgage of $1.4 billion that is due in a year. He needs to raise a lot of money to avoid having the building take down his whole real estate empire. Consequently, he has been beating the bushes to get foreign companies interested in deals relating to it.

Now Robert Mueller has also gotten interested in 666 Fifth, and not as a possible investment. Mueller wants to know if Kushner has somehow misused his position as one of Donald Trump's closest advisers to help his business. Mueller already knows that Kushner's sister, Nicole Kushner Meyer, was hawking green cards to potential Chinese investors if they ponied up half a million bucks. But now Mueller is looking more closely at Kushner's finances to see if any laws have been broken. Mueller has already determined that during the transition, Kushner talked to over 50 people from 15 countries. Of special interest to Mueller are Kushner's contacts with Chinese and Qatari investors. Between the mortgage and fending off Mueller, Kushner may have less time to bring peace to the Middle East, reform the government, solve the opioid crisis, and fix the criminal justice system. (V)

Trump Endorses Romney

Donald Trump hates Mitt Romney, so much so that he begged Sen. Orrin Hatch (R-UT) to run again, and he tried to get RNC Chair Ronna Romney McDaniel to drop the middle name. Mitt Romney hates Donald Trump, having blasted him during the campaign (to the point of almost launching an independent bid), and continuing with the criticism up to the present day (particularly during the Roy Moore Senate run).

That said, the two men now have a use for each other. Trump likes to be on the winning side of elections, and also needs every vote he can get in the Senate. Romney does not need the President taking to Twitter to bash him, thus complicating his now-official Senate run. And so, it is not a big surprise that Trump has decided to endorse Romney:

.@MittRomney has announced he is running for the Senate from the wonderful State of Utah. He will make a great Senator and worthy successor to @OrrinHatch, and has my full support and endorsement!

— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) February 20, 2018

These are two of the least-principled politicians in recent memory, which is saying something for a generation that also includes Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), Dick Cheney, and the Clintons. It will be interesting to see if the kumbaya act lasts. One thing we know for sure is that these two fellows, though they made their fortunes in the world of business, would have been pretty good at the world's oldest profession. (Z)

Tax Law Is Gaining Popularity

A new New York Times/SurveyMonkey poll shows that the new tax law is gaining popularity. Now 51% of all Americans approve of the law while 46% disapprove. The vast majority of the benefits went to the top 1%, but ordinary people got a small tax cut and many of them are happy with that. Some of the people who are happy with their tax cut may be in for a surprise when they file their 2018 taxes in April 2019 and discover that deductions that they have long used are eliminated or reduced, but what they don't know now won't affect their vote in the midterms. (V)

Another House Republican Is Retiring

Rep. Tom Rooney (R-FL) will not run for reelection. The five-term representative is from the Tampa Bay area and Represents an R+13 district. He is not involved in any scandal and there is no obvious reason why the 47 year-old congressman is calling it quits. His district is red enough to withstand a moderate blue wave, but it is possible that he sees a tsunami coming and wants to get out of the way. (V)

It's Even Odds that Trump Will Be Impeached

The Irish betting site PaddyPower is now offering even odds that Donald Trump will be impeached in his first term in office. The odds that he will not complete his first term due to impeachment, resignation, or death are 8/11 (58%). Bettors don't think he will resign. The odds here are 3/10 against resignation (77%). (V)

Scholars Weigh In: Lincoln Is Top-Ranked President, Trump Is Just Rank

Starting in the late 1940s, various scholarly and semi-scholarly organizations have polled professional academics to get their views on how the various presidents compare to one another. The latest, and the first to include Donald Trump, comes from the New York Times, which polled 170 members of the American Political Science Association (APSA). Here, first of all, are their top 10:

  1. Abraham Lincoln
  2. George Washington
  3. Franklin D. Roosevelt
  4. Theodore Roosevelt
  5. Thomas Jefferson
  6. Harry S. Truman
  7. Dwight D. Eisenhower
  8. Barack Obama
  9. Ronald Reagan
  10. Lyndon B. Johnson

Most of this is pretty unremarkable; Lincoln, Washington, and the Roosevelts are almost always in the top five, and Jefferson, Truman, Eisenhower, and Reagan have performed pretty well in the last 10-15 years. Barack Obama's jump to #8 (from #18 in the last APSA poll) is a bit of a surprise, given that much of his legacy is still up in the air. LBJ is an even bigger surprise; clearly memory of Vietnam is waning, while memory of his civil rights and Great Society achievements is waxing.

And then, there is the bottom 10:

  1. Zachary Taylor
  2. Herbert Hoover
  3. John Tyler
  4. Millard Fillmore
  5. Warren Harding
  6. Andrew Johnson
  7. Franklin Pierce
  8. William Henry Harrison
  9. James Buchanan
  10. Donald J. Trump

Again, most of this list is pretty standard. It's the usual mix of presidents who didn't do much of anything (Taylor, Tyler, Fillmore, Harrison), presidents who were overmatched by their circumstances (Hoover, Pierce, Buchanan, Johnson), and then Warren Harding, who oversaw one of the most corrupt administrations in history. To professional scholars, the most interesting thing here is that Richard Nixon (#33) and Ulysses S. Grant (#21) have escaped the bottom 10. In the case of Tricky Dick, he did have a pretty successful first term, particularly in terms of foreign policy. Perhaps the bad behavior of politicians in the last 20 years, and particularly the last two years, has made Watergate seem not so bad. As to Grant, his administration was as corrupt as Harding's, but he was personally honest, and he did some very good things, like destroy the original incarnation of the Ku Klux Klan. Undoubtedly, he has benefited enormously from well-received reappraisals written by Joan Waugh and by Ron Chernow.

So, that is the stuff that is of interest to professional scholars. But all the headlines, of course, were about Trump's last-place showing. Undoubtedly, some will claim a liberal bias, since both the Times and the academy are left-leaning. However, that claim does not really stand up to scrutiny. Yes, Obama did well and Trump did poorly, but Reagan jumped up several spots, while Bill Clinton tumbled further than anyone else (from 8 to 13). Further, the APSA did us the favor of breaking their ballots up by political leaning. Left-leaning scholars had Trump in last place, centrists had him second-to-last (43), and conservatives had him fifth-from-last (40). In other words, regardless of political persuasion, no scholar is terribly impressed by what they have seen so far.

Another criticism might be that it's too soon to rate Trump. That's fair, to some extent, though he's already served longer than two of his predecessors (W.H. Harrison and Garfield, and Taylor is in spitting distance). Beyond that, however, his profile is very consistent with a low-ranked president. Scholars tend to be most impressed with big accomplishments that somehow leave the country better off in the long run. Winning a war, for example, or creating an important new program, or improving upon serious social problems. For some recent presidents, the jury is arguably still out—the fate of Obamacare will have a big impact on how he's viewed in 50 years, just as the next few decades of Middle Eastern politics will shape Bush Jr.'s legacy. For Trump, however, he does not currently have a signature accomplishment, and it's hard to see what reputation-boosting accomplishment might come down the pike in the next three (or seven) years. One might point to the tax bill and/or the booming economy, but those things tend to be good for short-term popularity, not long-term respect. There is little correlation between presidential ranking and economic prosperity, as some high-ranked presidents presided over weak economies (FDR, Washington, Jefferson) and some low-ranked presidents presided over boom times (Harding, Coolidge, Arthur). Similarly, scholars are not generally impressed by backward-looking policies, like border walls or Muslim bans. Those things might help with the base, but they won't help with the ranking.

Meanwhile, there are certain things that scholars tend to penalize for. A president whose rhetoric is divisive, rather than inspirational (in other words, a president who is a poor head of state) will not do well. A president whose foreign policy is haphazard and poorly-managed will not do well. A president who is corrupt, or whose administration is corrupt, will not do well. That would seem to be three big strikes against The Donald. Put another way, one can craft a plausible narrative that has Bill Clinton, Barack Obama, or even George W. Bush in the Top 15 in the year 2050. Crafting such a narrative for Donald Trump, at least with the information currently at hand, is nigh-on impossible. (Z)

Trump Golfs While Florida Victims Are Buried

Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School, site of last week's shootings, is about half an hour from Mar-a-Lago. This created something of a dilemma for Donald Trump. On one hand, he loves his golf. On the other hand, it would not be a good look to be golfing so soon after (and so close to the site of) a tragedy. Complicating things is that Trump has remarkably bad impulse control. Add it all up, and the President (apparently) refrained from golfing on Saturday and Sunday, but he tried to sneak in a round on Monday. He got caught red-handed by the media, however, particularly the muckraking New York Daily News, which juxtaposed "18 holes" with "17 funerals" on its Tuesday cover:

Trump Golfs

If you look up "bad optics" in the dictionary, you might well find this image there. While nobody begrudges the need for a president to relax sometimes, Trump brought this on himself with his potshots at Barack Obama's golf habit. Really, given the elitist overtones of that particular activity, one wonders if future presidents won't find some more plebeian leisure activity (and not the one favored by JFK). (Z)

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