Friday Tabs

POLITICO West Wing Playbook, “Herbert Hoover stans fight back.” tl;dr: Admirers of the 31st President are not amused at President Biden’s constant comparisons between him and Donald Trump.

Paul Krugman , NYT, “Why I Am Now Deeply Worried for America.” tl;dr: It’s really hard coming up with column ideas.

WaPo , “Cellphones fail. Should you have a landline phone for emergencies?tl;dr: Probably not, at least if you have home WiFi, neighbors, or live in close proximity to civilization.

WaPo , “Beyoncé becomes first Black woman to top Billboard country music chart.” tl;dr: A superstar can put out a crappy song in another genre and her fans will still listen. As will those wondering if the song is any good. (It is decidedly not.) Judge for yourself . Charley Pride, she ain’t.

WaPo , “Teamsters give GOP first major donation in years with $45,000 to RNC.” tl;dr: Politics makes strange bedfellows. But the headline elides that they’ve also donated vastly more money ($150,000) to the DNC.

NYT , “California Tried to Ban Plastic Grocery Bags. It Didn’t Work.tl;dr: The headline is misleading. What didn’t work was substituting “multi-use” bags that were so thin that they were considered disposable, thus actually creating more waste than the regular ones.

Rolling Stone , “Trump’s Final Hours in Office Were Consumed With Fury at Snoop Dogg.” tl;dr: But of course they were.

WaPo , “Mike Lindell must pay man $5M in ‘Prove Mike Wrong’ challenge, judge says.tl;dr: Mike was wrong. (A two-time Trump voter who was a computer forensics expert debunked the MyPillow guy’s unsubstantiated election fraud claims.)

Trump Fatigue

NYT (“Anti-Trump Burnout: The Resistance Says It’s Exhausted“):

In 2017 they donned pink hats  to march on Washington, registering their fury  with Donald J. Trump by the hundreds of thousands .

Then they flipped the House  from Republican control, won the presidency and secured a surprisingly strong  showing in the 2022 midterm elections, galvanized by their conviction that Mr. Trump and his allies constituted a national emergency.

This year, anti-Trump voters are grappling with another powerful sentiment: exhaustion.

“Some folks are burned out on outrage,” said Rebecca Lee Funk, the Washington-based founder of the Outrage, a progressive activism group and a purveyor of resistance-era apparel. “People are tired. I think last election we were desperate to get Trump out of office, and folks were willing to rally around that singular call to action. And this election feels different.”

But for Democrats, the mission is similar: Now defending the White House, President Biden is trying to reassemble that sprawling anti-Trump coalition, casting the 2024 contest as another battle to save American democracy  as Mr. Trump moves toward the Republican nomination.

Mr. Biden, however, has a lot of work to do. Interviews with nearly two dozen Democratic voters, activists and officials make clear his challenge in energizing Americans who are unenthusiastic  about a likely 2020 rematch, are worried  about his age , and, in some cases, are struggling to sustain the searing anger toward Mr. Trump that Democrats have relied on for nearly a decade.

“We’re kind of, like, crises-ed out,” said Shannon Caseber, 36, a security guard in Pittsburgh who called the prospect of a Trump-Biden rematch a “dumpster fire.” She added, “It’s crisis fatigue, for sure.”

Ms. Caseber, a Democrat who would back Mr. Biden over Mr. Trump, added, “Any sense of urgency that we had with the 2020 election — I think it’s still there in the sense that no one wants Trump to be president, at least for Democrats, but it’s exhausting.”

Democrats are hardly alone in their political fatigue: A Pew Research Center survey  last year found that 65 percent of Americans said they always or often felt exhausted when they thought about politics.

“Exhaustion is underlying the entire attitude toward our presidential election,” said Whit Ayres, a veteran Republican pollster. “When you’ve got two people that are opposed by 70 percent  of Americans who want a different choice, it creates frustration, anxiety and discouragement.”

CNN (“High-profile Republicans head for the exits amid House GOP dysfunction“):

House Republicans were shocked by some of the recent high-profile retirements announced by their colleagues, which have included powerful committee chairs and rising stars inside the GOP.

But given the miserable state of affairs inside the House right now, they also weren’t exactly surprised.

Attention CNN: Hire some competent copyeditors, please.

“They’ve signed up to do serious things. And we’re not doing serious things,” said Rep. Ken Buck of Colorado, a conservative who is retiring after bucking his party on several key issues.

Rep. Don Bacon of Nebraska, a moderate who represents a key swing seat, pointed to his party’s struggle to govern as driving the departures.

“When you’re divided in your own conference, the joy of the job is harder,” Bacon told CNN. “When you have folks on your own team with their knives out, it makes it less enjoyable.”

And Rep. Carlos Gimenez of Florida, an ally of deposed former Speaker Kevin McCarthy, said this is not how he or many of his colleagues imagined life in the majority, saying, “I thought that some of our members would be smarter.”

“A lot of us are frustrated with what’s going on, and that’s just being flat-out honest,” he told CNN. “It’s foolish. And it’s been proven to be foolish. The definition of insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting a different result.”

As the 118th Congress has been dominated by deep dysfunction and bitter divisions inside the GOP, a number of Republicans – particularly from the so-called governing wing – are heading for the exits. So far, 23 GOP lawmakers have decided to not seek reelection or resigned early, including five committee chairs, though some have cited personal reasons or are seeking higher office.

Still, the caliber and timing of some of the retirements has raised alarm bells, particularly those who are giving up coveted committee gavels that some work their whole career to achieve.

Energy and Commerce Chair Cathy McMorris Rodgers of Washington is not even term-limited yet in her plum post, while China select committee Chair Mike Gallagher of Wisconsin, a 39-year-old who was once seen as the future of the party, recently announced he was leaving Congress after facing intense blowback for voting against impeaching Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas.

And on the Energy and Commerce Committee alone – a highly sought-after assignment – there are eight Republicans who are retiring.

“Those are big losses for us,” said Rep. Greg Pence of Indiana, who is among the members on the panel hanging up his voting card. “It is alarming. Especially for the institutional knowledge … So, that’s a big deal.”

The wave of retirements is rattling some of the Republicans who are choosing to stick around and fueling concern about a potential brain drain as more senior members decide to leave and take their wealth of institutional knowledge with them.

“You get this panic and anxiety like, ‘OK, who’s going to step up? Is this a normal thing that happens every few years, or is it actually abnormal?’” said Rep. August Pfluger of Texas. “So, yeah, I’m very worried about it.”

Others, however, said the turnover is completely normal, especially since the House GOP has self-imposed term limits for chairs, which they argued allows them to inject new blood into the ranks. Democrats have also seen their fair share in retirements this cycle as they have been relegated to the minority. Plus, the Republicans calling it quits so far are not from competitive districts, meaning their seats are likely safe.

“Look, it hasn’t been pleasant, there’s no question about that,” veteran Rep. Tom Cole of Oklahoma said of the past year. “But we have a lot of great young members, and I’ve looked at a lot of the recruits coming in, and I’m not too worried.”

And Freedom Caucus Chairman Bob Good, whose rabble-rousing behavior is being partly blamed for the turbulence in the House, even seemed to relish in the departures of some of his colleagues.

“Brain drain? Why don’t you survey the country and see if there is any brain to drain in Congress. Congress has a 20% approval rating. Most of what we do to the country is bad,” Good told CNN. “I think the retirements are a wonderful thing … I have no concerns, zero concerns. We probably need a few more retirements.”

McCarthy – who resigned at the end of last year – suggested that was perhaps the goal of hard-liners like Good and GOP Rep. Matt Gaetz of Florida who voted to oust him.

“It’s unfortunate because you think of the brain trust you are losing. I blame a lot of the ‘crazy eights’ led by Gaetz. They want to make this place dysfunctional to try to wear people out,” McCarthy said, speaking to reporters in the Capitol recently. “It’s very sad … It makes it more difficult for getting people to run in the current climate.”

While seemingly unrelated, these reports seem rather obviously an indicator that the crazies—who are a minority in the Republican-leaning population (if not its nominating electorate) and, certainly, the citizenry writ large—are winning. They have seemingly unrelenting energy and willingness to absorb the anger of those frustrated that nothing is getting done. Meanwhile, their opponents are exhausted.

Former President Trump is clearly the unifying factor here. The cult of personality surrounding him has galvanized the nominating electorate to vote out “normal” Republican candidates. Those who wish to have careers in Republican politics , then, are forced to bend the knee. And, since only roughly 5 percent of House seats are even competitive on a partisan basis, switching to the Democratic Party is not a viable option. (Not to mention that even the most moderate Republicans would get trounced in a Democratic primary.)

Meanwhile, Democrats and #NeverTrump Republicans (who are, for reasons already noted, effectively Democrats or non-voters), are exhausted. It takes a lot of energy to continue to fight the crazies. And, even when we win, the result is merely the ability to stop truly insane policies from passing. With rare exceptions able to be passed through Reconciliation, our governing structures allow the crazies to stop the passage of any Democratic policy initiatives. It’s basically a pie-eating contest in which the prize is more pie.

This all reminds me of the American experience supporting counterinsurgency and counterterrorism fights. We can have tactical success after tactical success after tactical sense and still lose the “war” because we eventually get exhausted of the fight.

California’s Weird Election Laws

WaPo’s Karen Tumulty examines “How Adam Schiff threw a curveball into California’s Senate race.”

If you are anywhere in the vicinity of a television in California, it is hard to miss the ads being run by Rep. Adam Schiff, the Democratic front-runner in the March 5 primary to fill the Senate seat of the late Dianne Feinstein. They warn, as one puts it, that someone in the race is “too conservative for California.”

Those spots — on which Schiff’s campaign has spent close to $5 million, according to media tracking firm AdImpact — are pretty much the best thing that political novice Steve Garvey  has going for him. They aim not to quash support for Schiff’s only significant GOP opponent but to gin it up in right-leaning corners of the state.

No one thinks Garvey, mostly remembered for his decades-ago career as a first baseman  for the Los Angeles Dodgers and San Diego Padres, has much of a chance of actually getting elected in a state where Democrats outnumber Republicans by nearly 2 to 1 . And the truth is, Garvey is barely bothering to campaign. (The subject line of one of his recent fundraising emails was: “Remember the 70’s?”)

So why the curveball commercials?

Schiff’s ads are lifting Garvey’s poll numbers, possibly enough to get him onto the November ballot under California’s unusual primary system, in which the top two finishers, regardless of party, will advance. There are more than two dozen contenders in the primary. Some of the latest polling shows Garvey moving into second place , past Democrats Katie Porter and Barbara Lee, both of whom are members of Congress.

Porter, a darling of the activist left, is calling foul. (This will be the last lame baseball pun I use in this column, I promise.) Were she to come in second, Schiff might actually havea competitive race in the fall.

Schiff’s tactic,as cynical as it is, is becoming common  in California and elsewhere . What’s more, Porter began running digital ads touting another Republican, attorney Eric Early, a perennial candidate polling at slightly more than 2 percent , as “the real Republican threat in the California Senate race.” She hopes Early will cut into Garvey’s vote.

I’ve written before about Democratic candidates spending money to bolster the campaigns of radical Republicans in order to influence GOP primary voters to give themselves a more beatable general election opponent. I consider it an odious practice.

Not only is it unsporting to interfere with another party’s election but it’s bad for our national politics. First, it has the potential of backfiring. Since our elections tend to be binary contests between Democrats and Republicans, it could well result in the election of a radical Republican. Second, it further reduces comity and the chances of cooperation since it targets precisely those Republican candidates who are most likely to cooperate with Democrats in governing.

California’s Top Two system further incentivizes the practice. Because it’s a heavily Democratic state, it was intended to generally give voters a choice between the two most popular Democrats running for a given office. But, since there are generally more Democratic than Republican candidates in the race, there’s good reason to do what Schiff is doing. And, indeed, he’s not alone: it’s an increasingly widespread practice . Rob Bonta employed it in his 2022 race for re-election as attorney general. Gavin Newsom used it in his 2018 and 2022 races.

Now, in fairness, there is mounting evidence that, after a very slow start, the system is starting to have the desired impact .

Even notable scholars in the democracy reform field were initially skeptical that Top Two would make much of an impact, let alone make California less polarized. But it’s important to think back to where California was when Top Two was just getting underway. California’s Legislature was ranked at the time as the most polarized in the nation . And not by a sliver, either. In fact, the gap between California and the second-most-polarized state at the time, Colorado, was larger than the gap between any other consecutively ranked states.

So given how polarized California was, it’s unreasonable to expect Top Two to have immediately turned the state into a beacon of moderation and civility. The evidence we’re after is not that Top Two has been a near-overnight panacea but rather that it has brought about incremental but measurable progress on depolarizing the state. By this standard, the system is working.

Between 2013 and 2018, California’s state legislature was one of only five in the country that became less polarized. In fact, since California implemented its Top Two system only Kansas and West Virginia depolarized more. Meanwhile, polarization increased in the vast majority of states — 38 out of 50 — during this period.

California’s performance under Top Two is even more impressive when judged against other states in the West, which have polarized more than those in any other region. From 2013 to 2018, the four states where polarization increased the most were Arizona, Colorado, Oregon and Utah. Thanks to Top Two, California is trending in the opposite direction.

Top Two is also substantially lowering extremism among members of Congress from California. Again, the debt ceiling vote is a compelling recent example. All 12 Republican members from California voted for the bipartisan deal to avoid default.

To be fair to critics, early data did tell a different story. In 2014, research showed that Top Two had had no meaningful effect on elected officials’ behavior. However, University of Southern California political scientist Christian Grose analyzed data up to 2018, allowing for more time to observe potential effects of the reform. Grose found that legislators elected under Top Two were almost 20 percent less ideologically extreme  than legislators elected in closed primaries. Consistent with this trend, Eric McGhee, a political scientist at the Public Policy Institute of California, found that Top Two had led Democrats to create a friendlier business environment  by reducing regulatory barriers.

For years, former California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger  and other electoral reform advocates have argued  that Top Two would reduce ideological extremism and polarization in government. While many Californians are understandably frustrated by continued acrimony and extremism in the state, the Top Two primary system has California moving in the right direction — at a time when most of the country is not. The state was deep in the well of polarization but is making progress. 

So, it may be that the boosting of extremist candidates as a cynical tactic is an outlier. Still, while reducing polarization is a reasonable societal goal, it’s clearly not in the interest of some of the candidates. For Newsom, Schiff, and others, it’s much better to run against an extreme candidate than a more appealing one.

Dems in Array?

President Joe Biden in the White House Rose Garden, Wednesday, October 11, 2023.
Official White House Photo by Oliver Contreras

Via Reuters: Biden campaign, Democrats rake in $42 million in January fundraising .

U.S. President Joe Biden’s re-election campaign and his Democratic Party allies raised more than $42 million in January and have $130 million cash-on-hand as they prepare for a likely general election contest against Republican Donald Trump.

The fundraising figures, released by Biden’s campaign, were propelled by small-dollar donors giving money online, officials said.

“January’s fundraising haul – driven by a powerhouse grassroots fundraising program that continues to grow month by month – is an indisputable show of strength to start the election year,” Biden’s campaign manager Julie Chavez Rodriguez said in a statement.

Given a lot of the hand-wringing I have been reading as it pertains to Democratic enthusiasm for the Biden campaign, this is one data point that suggests perhaps things are going well. Not only is having a large amount of money on hand a positive, but raising it in small-dollar donations is a sign of significant support.

For comparative purposes, also via Reuters: Trump’s re-election campaign spent more money than it raised in January .

Donald Trump’s election campaign spent more money on ads and other expenses in January than it took in from donors, according to a disclosure submitted on Tuesday to the Federal Election Commission.

Trump’s cash holdings fell to just over $30 million at the close of last month as he waged successful campaigns for primary contests in Iowa and New Hampshire, down from around $33 million a month earlier, the disclosure showed.

[…]

Trump’s campaign said it raised $8.8 million in January and spent more than $11 million, with outlays including more than $5 million on ads and mailings as he easily won his party’s first presidential nomination contests.

[…]

Separately, the biggest super PAC supporting Trump, known as MAGA Inc, reported raising $7 million last month, barely enough to offset the $5 million refund it issued to a separate Trump political action committee (PAC) that is paying the candidate’s legal expenses as he battles dozens of criminal charges.

The Trump group that received the money, Save America, reported spending close to $3 million on legal expenses during the month, adding to the more than $47 million it spent last year on legal expenses.

Most of MAGA Inc’s fundraising in January came from a $5 million contribution from Timothy Mellon, heir to the Mellon banking fortune, who is also funding a super PAC backing independent presidential candidate Robert F. Kennedy Jr.

The Psychology of Inflation

NBC News (“Consumers are tired of price increases. Big brands are paying attention.“):

Until recently, Brooke Benson considered herself a Panera Bread loyalist. For the past 12 years, the 40-year-old Orlando, Florida, resident said she’d make three to four trips there every week — an estimate her husband said was closer to four or five — to get her favorite soups.

But after the outpost of the restaurant chain near Benson’s home raised its price to $8.79 for the same bowl of soup that had cost $7.09 three years ago, she said she was done.

“I actually have been looking at soup at all these different places and comparing the prices,” Benson said by text. “I can get better soup in larger portions for cheaper” elsewhere, she said.

This was, of course, always the case. But she was used to getting her soup for $7.09. So, even though the price hike was in line with broader inflation—and quite likely her adjusted wages—over the past three years, the adjustment caused her to rethink her options.

Most of the rest of the report hinges on the same concept.

Panera Bread didn’t respond to a request for comment, but several big brands are now acknowledging that inflation-weary Americans are walking away from products and services that keep getting costlier.

Many companies that raised prices during the recovery from the pandemic cited higher costs for the ingredients, materials and labor needed to provide goods and services that many consumers were racing to buy. Those price hikes, exacerbated by supply chain snags in late 2021, helped push the annual inflation rate to a four-decade high of more than 9% by summer 2022. It has since fallen to 3.1%, meaning prices overall are still going up, albeit more slowly.

That has put customers in a game of chicken with companies that continue to raise prices.

McDonald’s recently vowed to focus more on affordability this year, with CEO Chris Kempczinski saying in a recent earnings call that lower-income customers were forgoing the golden arches to eat more cheaply at home.

Again, it has always been cheaper to eat at home than go to McDonald’s. I can get a pound of 80% ground beef for $3.49-$3.99, depending on the package size. You can’t get four Quarter-Pounders for that. But, again, we tend to get a price point stuck in our heads for certain items—Why, I remember when you could get a fish, fries, drink and pie all for a dollar ninety-nine!—and get annoyed when the price goes up.

As a young comic collector starting in the mid-1970s, I remember the constant price increases from the 25 cents that was the standard from 1974-1976, to 30 cents in 1977, 35 cents in 1978, 40 cents in 1979, 50 cents in 1981, 60 cents in 1982, 675 cents in 1986, and finally a dollar in 1988. I mostly lost the thread after that. They’re $3.99 now. That those hikes were roughly consistent with inflation didn’t change the fact that they seemed outrageous. Outrageous I tell you!

Regardless, customers are actually buying less of substitutable goods:

Baja Fresh and Wetzel’s Pretzels operator MTY Food Group said last week that same-store sales fell 0.9% yearly across its brands, after consumers responded to higher prices by reining in spending. CEO Eric Lefebvre said the company would be able to make only “very minimal price increases” as a result.

“We need to make sure we don’t push the customers away,” he said on an earnings call.

General Mills similarly cited  “a continued challenging consumer landscape” as sales in its pet food businesses, including the Blue Buffalo brand, fell 4% on a yearly basis. The company admitted it had overestimated customers’ willingness to pay higher prices for dog treats.

“People [are] trading down to less expensive treats — if they’re still treating,” CEO Jeff Harmening told analysts in December.

Kraft Heinz, the maker of iconic mac-and-cheese and ketchup brands, reported a 7.1% decline  in yearly sales, suggesting it was hitting the limit of how far it could hike prices before customers cut and run. The company raised prices by 2.5%  across its product line over the course of 2023, after doing so by 14.2%  the previous year. CFO Andre Maciel told analysts last week that Kraft expects to lift prices by only about 1% this year.

Home Depot said Tuesday it was planning for 2024 to be “a year of continued moderation,” as customers reduced their average spend  by 1.3%. The company said shoppers are less excited about big-ticket purchases  after a home-renovation frenzy early in the pandemic.

This is why I’m skeptical of the “greedflaton” argument. While I have no doubt that firms wish to extract every penny they can from the consumer—and am sure some used the excuse of broader supply chain issues and inflation as an excuse to raise prices—consumers still have options in most circumstances.

It does, of course, get more challenging in cases of monopoly or oligopoly, especially for hard-to-substitute goods. Famously, the cost of canned soft drinks went through the roof during the pandemic and haven’t come back down. And there are really only two major companies, Coke and Pepsi, in that space. Those who want their daily Diet Coke or Mountain Dew are sort of stuck. (We buy in bulk when they go on “sale” for under $5 a 12-pack.)

Walmart has been trying to lower some of its prices to cater to budget-conscious consumers, with clear results.

“We took our French bread back to $1, which had been $1 for a long time and went up as inflation hit the market,” Walmart U.S. CEO John Furner told investors Tuesday. The price had jumped to $1.47 before the cut. “We’re seeing results of that running about 40% over last year, so customers immediately responded,” Furner said.

He added that the retailer has sliced $1 off the price of rotisserie chickens as well.

That’s just shrewd business. These items are clearly loss leaders at those prices but they’re ones customers know the price of and are therefore most sensitive to changes. Presumably, they’ll mark up other products to cover the move.

Businesses’ wholesale costs for many raw materials, contracts with suppliers and other “inputs” are still elevated, with a closely watched index of those expenses recently posting its biggest increase in five months . That makes it unlikely consumers will see brands making deep price cuts across the board anytime soon, analysts say.

Even so, many companies are now more inclined to “swallow some of the cost increases” they’re shouldering, rather than pass them on to consumers completely, said John Zhang, a marketing professor at the University of Pennsylvania’s Wharton School.

That’s already eating into profits for companies that sell essential and nonessential goods and services alike. To protect them, Zhang said, many brands are expanding the range of price points they offer shoppers. That could mean promoting higher-margin premium products for wealthier customers (such as the Double Big Mac ) as well as stripped-down basics for more cost-conscious ones (like ad-supported Netflix ).

“If you want to maintain your image, if you want your customer to still like you, you need to offer the customer more options,” he said.

But this is just a variation on “shrinkflation.” Rather than raising prices, companies often just make their product worse—whether by offering slightly less of it in the package, adding advertising to something that was ad-free (and upcharging to remove the ads!), or crappifying the brand by offshoring production to China.

Trump Sneakers

Via the AP: Trump hawks $399 branded shoes at ‘Sneaker Con,’ a day after a $355 million ruling against him .

As he closes in on the Republican presidential nomination, former President Donald Trump  made a highly unusual stop Saturday, hawking new Trump-branded sneakers at “Sneaker Con,” a gathering that bills itself as the “The Greatest Sneaker Show on Earth.”

Trump was met with loud boos as well as cheers at the Philadelphia Convention Center as he introduced what he called the first official Trump footwear. 

The shoes, shiny gold high tops with an American flag detail on the back, are being sold as “Never Surrender High-Tops” for $399 on a new website that also sells other Trump-branded shoes and “Victory47” cologne and perfume for $99 a bottle. He’d be the 47th president if elected again.

Well, all perfect for President’s Day gifts, no doubt.

From NBC news , here’s a shot of the sneakers:

Seriously, the level of grift here is off the charts and the unintentional self-parody of it all is of such mass that I am shocked a mini-black hole didn’t appear as a result of the product announcement as the whole event simply collapsed in on itself.

As an SNL skit, one would have thought it too silly, and yet here’s reality, yet again proving it wins the absurdity competition.

And while on one level I can’t help but make jokes, the reality is that this is clearly nothing more than a grotesque cash grab aimed at exploiting his own supporters, many of whom will, no doubt, be sporting these monstrosities at the next MAGA rally.

It is yet another in a long string of public self-exposures of Trump’s character. And while it is certainly not the worst of those glimpses by any stretch, it is still telling. If you can look at this and not see the obvious attempt as pure exploitation, then you might be a MAGA. Nobody could possibly believe that the goal here is a real product that a mass audience would want. Like with Trump University, Trump steaks, and any number of Trump-branded products, he demonstrates himself to be no better than a dishonest street merchant selling the equivalent of fake Rolexes to whatever credulous rube he can fool.

And he deserves to be understood and evaluated the same way we look at such hucksters and yet he might yet again become the most powerful person in the world.