Political Update

It is time to review the bidding on domestic and international political events. More than a year ago, I predicted that nothing much would happen until the Mueller Report, which at that time was expected in a few months. It has been a long while since then but I think that, on the whole, my prediction remains sound despite the events of the past few weeks, including the separation of children from their families at the Mexican border, which does much to besmirch the reputation of the United States, but is not nearly as bad as the things that were expected to happen under Trump when Trump was first elected.

Back then, when Jeff Sessions was first appointed as Attorney General, the fear was that he would not only gut the civil rights division of the Justice Department, but that he would try through legislation for a roll back on civil rights laws. He has done the first, cutting its budget, but he has not done the second, perhaps because the Republican leadership of Congress would be against that. In many ways, Trump, who could have pursued a course unplotted in either party, combining liberalism on social issues with bellicosity and isolationism on foreign policy and big tax cuts for real estate developers with keeping taxes high on corporate earnings, while he also protected entitlement programs, as he claimed he would do during the campaign, has instead largely followed the establishment Republican line of the congressional leadership, which means tax cuts for all the rich and cutting back on government programs for all other groups as much as the congressional leadership thinks feasible, which is not very much, in that Ryan is leaving Congress without achieving his signature issue of entitlement reform.

So look at the issues which have dominated the news in the past few weeks, some of which can be interpreted either as triumphs for Trump and his party or the beginning of the end for him. There is the matter of the Supreme Court appointment which might create enough votes to do damage to Roe v. Wade without overturning it. Justices can accept it as settled law and then tinker with when a fetus becomes viable or the hurdles a woman has to go through to qualify the procedure, such as an ultrasound or “counselling”, all this at a time, actually, when the need for abortions is going down because of contraception and demographic trends that discourage having children. There is nothing much that Democrats can do about that. If they invoke the McConnell Principle of no nominations in an election year, they are just legitimating that principle and if they do not there is still no way they can block an-ultra-right conservative from taking a seat so long as he comes from the right law schools, which do produce a number of very conservative jurists in spite of the general reputation those schools have for being liberal.

Actually, just about repealing Roe v. Wade would just bring about the situation that Roe v. Wade was supposed to create. That decision had said that a women had the right to choose an abortion “with the consultation of her physician”. New restrictions would simply spell out the procedures that constitute consultation. We would have probably been better off if the Supreme Court had not decided the case on privacy grounds but instead, as Ruth Bader Ginsburg advised at the time, on the equal protections clause of the Fourteenth Amendment, in which case it would have been enshrined as a right of the woman, and so far more difficult to contest. But, anyway, as the New York Times pointed out today, the question of abortion clinics is likely moot in that abortions can be largely a matter of a prescription. Roe v. Wade was important as a transition into the brave new world where women could do what they want to with their fetuses.

The Supreme Court is notable for its sloppy reasoning about any number of things. I suspect the failure to provide a reasonable basis for Gore v. Bush in 2000 is what drove David Souter to abandon the Court on which he could probably have served for another twenty years or more. He couldn’t stomach it any more. Nowadays, because we don’t expect Supreme Court decisions to illuminate an issue and when, as Sotomayor noted in her dissent on the Muslim travel ban, the religious bias of one Colorado commissioner is enough to render the masterpiece bakery case in favor of the baker who didn’t want to bake a wedding cake for a gay couple, while the next week all of Trump’s tirades against Muslims are of no account in deciding whether he has the power to bar them from the United States, it is Sotomayor who is naive in thinking that decisions have anything to do with reasoning. What we should look for in a justice is reliability rather than intellectual gifts. Clarence Thomas is as good as anyone else so long as he votes the right way.

The other issue is what is happening at the border. Yes, twenty five hundred children were separated from their parents. But remember that when Trump took office we were worried, not unreasonably, that he would try to deport millions and millions of people back to where they came from. He never did that, I suspect, not out of any great spirit of Christian charity, but because his congressional leadership would have found that unpalatable because they consider themselves progressive on racial issues even if Cotton and Sessions are not.

Matters of foreign policy remain in stasis. As I have remarked before, Trump’s bark is worse than his bite and to that he adds a short attention span. So he denounces the Iran deal but the other signiteries don’t and so it remains in place, useful to everyone. Trump says that the nuclear crisis with North Korea is resolved and so even if the New York Times cites sources that say the North Koreans are going ahead with it anyway, Trump can disregard that and continue to claim he has resolved it. The Europeans will just have to do without US cooperation and leadership until the next election and maybe for the first time in seventy years are showing themselves capable of doing that, which is a good thing. The only real monkeywrench Trump has thrown into the unfolding pattern of twenty first century international politics is with China because serious tariffs on Chinese goods might be bad for the Chinese economy and that is not good for us if China’s economy goes into a tailspin. The whole premise, the brilliance, of Kissinger’s opening to China is that the model of the Soviet US standoff would be replaced by significant economic cooperation so that the two nations would never come to a military standoff. Trump is oblivious to such considerations.

And so we still await the Mueller Report, which some wags at the time said would be out by last Thanksgiving or Christmas, though special prosecutor investigations go on, usually, for far longer than that. Maybe Mueller was waiting for Michael Cohen to turn which, apparently, he did this past week. When the Report finally gets public, it will be a shock but no surprise, what with its tales of money laundering that go back to Trump’s Atlantic City days. The Republican leadership can then decide to drop Trump, becoming statesmen, and so cleaning the slate of their cooperation with Trump, looking forward to a vigorous 2020 campaign not dominated by Trump but by some more moderate figure whom they think can still hold onto his base, though a recession might lead to a “It's the economy, stupid” campaign, which worked well for Clinton against the vastly more statesman-like George H. W. Bush. Every election is a distinctive drama.