October 22, 2021

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Abbreviated Pundit Roundup: The plot thickens


Hello, everybody! Let’s dive right in.

Jamelle Bouie of The New York Times points out that the plan to overthrow the duly elected incoming United States government on Jan. 6 was indeed a plan—and it’s still ongoing.

[I]f Pence were to disregard the rules and the history and seize control of the counting process, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi would presumably have suspended the joint session, which relies on the consent of both chambers of Congress. “With a stalled and incomplete count because of a standoff between Pence and Pelosi,” the legal scholar Ned Foley writes in a separate Election Law Blog post, “the Twentieth Amendment becomes the relevant constitutional provision.” Meaning, in short, that at noon on Jan. 20, Pelosi would become acting president of the United States. Pence would lose authority as vice president (and president of the Senate) and the joint session would resume, with Congress putting its stamp of approval on Biden’s victory.

And let’s not forget that a series of moves of the sort envisioned by Eastman would spark national outrage. The “howls” would not just come from congressional Democrats; they would come from the 81 million voters who Pence would have summarily disenfranchised. It is conceivable that Trump and his allies would have prevailed over mass protests and civil disobedience. But that would depend on the support of the military, which, if the actions of Gen. Mark Milley were any indication, would not have been forthcoming.

None of this should make you feel good or cause you to breathe a sigh of relief. Consider what we know. A prominent, respected member in good standing of the conservative legal establishment — Eastman is enrolled in the Federalist Society and clerked for Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas — schemed with the president and his allies in the Republican Party to overturn the election and overthrow American democracy under the Constitution. Yes, they failed to keep Trump in office, but they successfully turned the pro forma electoral counting process into an occasion for real political struggle.

Susan B. Glasser of The New Yorker writes that President Joe Biden’s agenda is in some trouble, but she also advises us not to count Biden out just yet.

President Biden’s response to this freak-out moment has been revealing. He has not, à la Trump, taken to Twitter to denounce the dissenting members of his party as “dinos,” though I’m sure Biden, like his White House predecessors, wishes he could dismiss those who are failing to fall in line as “Democrats in Name Only.” (Then again, what is more Democratic than fighting with one another?) He has not fired anybody or started lining up primary challengers to his own party’s members of Congress who have angered him. He has not called up MSNBC hosts in a panic for advice. (At least, not that I am aware of.)

Instead, Biden’s approach to the matter of the irreconcilable camps in his party is very similar to his approach to everything—a philosophy neatly summed up in his address to the U.N. General Assembly this week as “relentless diplomacy,” rather than “relentless war.” On Wednesday, Biden spent five hours with Democratic members of Congress, in various groupings, in search of an elusive deal, and will surely be working the phones right up until Monday’s deadline for the House vote on the infrastructure bill—and beyond. No one doubts that Biden is ready to talk this to death.

But diplomacy, like war, is a tactic, not an end in itself. The Biden Presidency, on both the foreign and domestic fronts, remains a jumble of aspirations—and retains a haze of uncertainty about how to achieve them. Much of his political problem, it seems to me, is a vast gap between his articulated goals and what is politically possible. The U.S. is no longer a lone superpower unchallenged abroad; the Democratic Party is barely a majority party in the U.S. Congress. It’s a fifty-fifty Senate, and a fifty-fifty world…

Josh Marshall of TalkingPointsMemo concedes the press coverage of President Biden’s major policy proposals has not been very fair, yet he notes that Democrats can do some things to address that.

We are now down to the crunch time on the Biden agenda. And we don’t know how it will turn out. But there are two aspects of the story which have been quite damaging for the Democrats. They’re worth discussing.

The first is one we’ve discussed before but in a different context. It’s largely a press failure. But it’s one Democrats could do more to fix. For months we’ve had this intra-party debate presented as one between “progressives” and “moderates.” Often that gets personalized as AOC and Bernie versus Joe Manchin or Kyrsten Sinema. This is demonstrably false. The overall package is supported overwhelmingly by Democrats in both chambers and pretty much across all factions. There are some quibbles about SALT taxes and the scope of the climate package. Some more middle-of-the-road Dems resist making some of the social programs permanent. Those are real and potentially consequential differences. But they’re all negotiable. The important point is that this package is the consensus position, supported by virtually everyone. It is after all the President’s agenda. Literally. And, as much as these labels confound more than they clarify, President Biden isn’t from AOC’s wing of the party.

The reality is that this package is the consensus position supported overwhelmingly, close to universally, among congressional Democrats with the exception of two senators and maybe a dozen members in the House.

Jennifer Rubin of The Washington Post describes how the election of Trump mobilized her and other Republican women.

I had always voted Republican for president — from my first vote, for Ronald Reagan, to my last, for Mitt Romney. I admired mainstream Republicans who were dedicated to victory in the Cold War. I looked to free markets for expanded economic opportunity and embraced free trade and robust legal immigration.

If I differed with “movement conservatives” on some issues, I appreciated their preference for incrementalism and resistance to allowing centralized power to bigfoot the “laboratories of democracy.”

[…]

I watched in horror in 2016 as Republicans embraced a racist bully bent on undermining our democracy and promoting White Christians’ quest for political dominance. I witnessed one conservative “intellectual” and “respectable” publication after another deny, then rationalize, then defend and then laud a detestable figure who repudiated principles and positions that once animated them.

I saw social conservatives who demonized Bill Clinton swoon at the feet of a serial liar, adulterer and racist whose cruelty became a central feature of his presidency. Republicans who once insisted character was a critical factor in selecting leaders seemed almost giddy when Trump unleashed his personal viciousness on their progressive opponents.

That’s true enough in the case of Rubin’s experience, I guess, but I have to point out that a majority of white women voted for Trump in 2016, and again in 2020. 

Jeffrey Sachs writes for CNN that U.S. culture itself, and Republican politicians specifically are responsible for the COVID-19 epidemic surpassing the 1918 flu epidemic this week as the deadliest in the nation’s history.

US culture has repeatedly showed itself to be too self-centered, shortsighted and poorly informed to forestall mass deaths and continued surges of infection.
Even with lifesaving vaccines in prospect or in hand, politicians — and notably Republican politicians — and too much of the public demanded complete, immediate and untrammeled personal freedom: the freedom to not wear face masks, the freedom to attend large gatherings, the freedom to eschew vaccines and the freedom to infect others.
Many right wingers have treated even the most modest and limited protections as an attack on freedom. No immediate gratification should be denied; no face masks warranted even in schools, where children face the threats of infection. The message is now, now, now, without a pause for informed reflection and safety.
The selfishness of it all has been staggering. Poor people and people of color in disproportionate numbers, and frontline workers, were repeatedly ordered to go to work in unprotected settings at workplaces where even basic face mask protections were widely flouted.

Usha Lee McFarling of STATnews does investigative reporting that indicates white medical researchers are “colonizing” health equity research—at the expense of Black and brown researchers.

[A] STAT investigation shows a disturbing trend: a gold rush mentality where researchers with little or no background or training in health equity research, often white and already well-funded, are rushing in to scoop up grants and publish papers. STAT has documented dozens of cases where white researchers are building on the work of, or picking the brains of, Black and brown researchers without citing them or offering to include them on grants or as co-authors.

A glaring example occurred in August when the Journal of the American Medical Association — a leading medical journal already under fire for how it handles issues of race — published a special themed issue on racial and ethnic health disparities in medicine. Meant to highlight JAMA’s new commitment to health equity, it served up an illustration of the structural racism embedded in academic publishing: Not one of the five research papers published in the issue included a Black lead or corresponding author, and just one lead author was Hispanic.

A JAMA spokesperson said its editors do not consider the demographics of authors in selecting research papers, but critics say that neutral stance perpetuates long-standing inequities rather than addressing them.

Jenn Higgins writes for Roll Call that there are not enough Black Americans participating in clinical trials for life-saving cancer therapies.

Disparities in clinical trials have been a concern for decades, but it’s generated more attention as the field of precision medicine has taken off. As targeted therapies become a reality — and as dozens of personalized medicines on the market help patients live longer lives — we must do more to consider differences between people of varying races, ethnicities and gender.

Certainly, some genetic mutations are more common among different demographic populations. For example, Black women in the U.S. are three times as likely as women of other ethnic or racial backgrounds to be diagnosed with triple-negative breast cancers, for which there still isn’t effective treatment. Underscreening is also responsible for higher cancer diagnoses and deaths among African Americans.

Still, a major contributor to this outcome disparity is the underrepresentation of African Americans in oncology clinical trials. Research shows that Black Americans, who make up roughly 14 percent of the U.S. population, account for only 3.1 percent of participants in clinical trials for cancer drugs — meaning Black enrollees are represented at only 22 percent of the expected level.

David Ignatius of The Washington Post is impressed with the steadiness and “no-drama” nature of U.S. Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin.

Through this tumultuous nine months, Austin has been a no-drama official in a country that too often feels like a manic soap opera. White House officials, rocked by a summer of crises, uniformly speak highly of him. He proudly bears his mantle as the nation’s first Black defense secretary. He may not be a whiz-kid manager, but he’s a steady one. And he has taken some little-noted initiatives on China and technology that have helped fill some holes in his résumé.

Austin and Milley make an unusual but well-matched team. Where Milley is mercurial and outspoken, Austin remains quiet and deliberate. Both have spent many years as combat leaders during America’s two decades of war — Milley nearer to the raw carnage of the battlefield than any chairman in years. Together, they have the job of calming a military whose members mirror some of the political and social divisions that afflict the country.

The surprise about Austin is that although he’s a retired general, he is encouraging more of the civilian control the military needs. The White House is the overwhelmingly dominant voice in policy these days. The days of slow-rolling the president, which became a Pentagon art form during the Trump administration, are over. Biden wanted out of Afghanistan, and Austin, despite initial misgivings, followed the commander in chief’s orders.

Raphael Tsavkko Garcia reports for Al Jazeera that Brazilian President Jair Bolsonaro’s “Independence Day rallies” kinda flopped.

The protests were undoubtedly large – the largest organised by the far right since Bolsonaro took office – with more than 150,000 people in Brasilia and Sao Paulo alone taking to the streets to show their support for the president. Clad in the colours of the Brazilian flag, and chanting pro-Bolsonaro slogans, they made it clear that they still believe in their president and are ready to fight for him whenever necessary.

However, Bolsonaro and his allies were expecting not only thousands but millions of Brazilians to take to the streets in support of the president on that day. So, many in Brazil interpreted the lower than anticipated turnout as confirmation of what opinion polls have long been saying: Popular support for Bolsonaro is plummeting.

Moreover, despite the president’s best efforts, including his inflammatory speeches, the rallies had little effect on the Brazilian institutions resisting the excesses of the president and his allies. Indeed, Supreme Court Chief Justice Luiz Fux said on September 8 that “no one will shut down ” the Court and that he will not accept threats or intimidation. Those in Congress, meanwhile, once again voiced their determination to reject the president’s nominee for a vacant Supreme Court seat.

As it became clear that the Independence Day rallies not only failed to achieve their purpose but actually turned more Brazilians against the president, Bolsonaro went into retreat.

Rob Mudge of Deutsche Welle, reporting on today’s German elections, writes about the difficulty of Germany’s Christian Democratic Union party to inaugurate change. 

A rock, a hill or a mountain is an immovable object. Applied to the center-right Christian Democrats (CDU), inflexibility and complacency in a post-Merkel world spell stagnation or a further downslide for this once-mighty Volkspartei (major party), reminiscent of the decline of the other major party, the center-left Social Democrats (SPD).

On paper, at least, the Social Democrats and the Greens are emphasizing the need for fundamental change to meet the many daunting challenges ahead: notably, those of tackling the climate crisis and finally joining the digital 21st century. Despite the CDU’s assertions to the contrary, it still comes across as being mired in Merkel’s sedate weiter so (keep it up) politics.

But here’s the paradox: Though there is public recognition to a certain extent of the need for some form of change, German politics are steeped in conservatism and the tradition of not upsetting the status quo. Deep down, it will always be a bourgeois society. Change is welcome only when it doesn’t compromise wealth and prosperity.

The CDU’s claim that a possible coalition of the SPD, the Greens and the Left Party would somehow constitute a political shift to the radical left and spell doom for the country is misplaced fearmongering. It doesn’t get more mainstream and middle-of-the-road than the SPD and the Greens these days.

Finally, I liked this excerpt from Jessica Nordell’s new book, The End of Bias: A Beginning, published in The Atlantic, about a mathematics professor overcoming biased teaching methods with his math students.

Mathematics as an academic field is notoriously homogenous—mostly White or Asian and male—and though mathematicians are not seen as the epitome of masculinity, the culture is macho and aggressive. “Abusive language,” Ardila told me, “is completely normalized.” Although the elders of the field set this tone, the tradition is carried on by younger professors. Andrés Vindas-Meléndez, one of Ardila’s former grad students, described to me an experience he had as an undergraduate at UC Berkeley when he asked an adviser for a signature on the forms needed to declare the mathematics major. “You’re not going to be a mathematician,” the adviser had told him. As Vindas-Meléndez was walking out the door, the adviser said, “Don’t embarrass yourself. And don’t embarrass the department.”

To Ardila, now a professor at San Francisco State University, the problem was significant: 60 percent of his students come from ethnic minority groups. Nearly half are first-generation college students. So Ardila decided to do what mathematicians do when faced with a huge conundrum: begin by focusing on a smaller problem. He set out to create, in his own classroom, a new kind of math environment.

Everyone have a great day!





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