Phantoms of the Night

Morning glow, by your light
We can make the new day bright,
And the phantoms of the night
Will fade into the past.

– Stephen Schwartz, “Morning Glow
from the musical Pippin

This week’s featured posts are “North Dakota Is About to Kill the National Popular Vote Compact” and “The Action Shifts to Congress“.

This week everybody was talking about Congress

One of the featured posts covers the progress of bills through Congress (Covid relief, the Equality Act) plus Senate action on Biden’s nominees.

and bombing Syria

Thursday, America planes struck in Syria near the Iraqi border. The raid was aimed at Iranian-backed militias that the Pentagon says attacked American and allied forces in Iraq with rockets. President Biden sent a letter to congressional leaders explaining the attack, as the War Powers Act requires. He found justification for the raid in “the United States’ inherent right of self-defense”.

A lot of Americans have probably forgotten that we still have troops in Iraq, but we do: about 2,500 of them. Their main mission is to prevent the Islamic State from reforming.

and Covid

The precipitous drop in new Covid cases looks like it might have leveled off. The 7-day average of new cases per day bottomed out at around 66K on February 21. Coincidentally, that’s two weeks after the Super Bowl. So maybe people let down their guard for Super Bowl get-togethers, or maybe the more-transmissible variants are starting to take hold, or maybe it’s random fluctuation. 66K is way below the peak of 259K on January 8 (two weeks after Christmas), but would have been considered shockingly high back in early October.

Curiously, deaths also have plateaued at around 2,000 per day, down from over 3,300 at the peak. This is odd because death totals usually trail new-case totals by a week or two, so they should still be going down.

Vaccination continues to gain ground. As of Sunday evening, 49.8 million Americans had received at least one shot, and 24.8 million have been fully vaccinated.

The Johnson & Johnson vaccine got FDA approval Saturday. Sunday, the CDC recommended it for use.

“The J&J vaccine, which is easier to transport and store… is going to dramatically increase our vaccine availability,” Dr. Jonathan Reiner, a professor of medicine at George Washington University, told CNN Saturday. “It’s a big, big deal.” About 3.9 million doses will be available for ordering right away, according to Lori Tremmel Freeman, CEO of the National Association of County and City Health Officials — which could add about 25% more Covid-19 vaccination capacity for states.

3.9 million doses are available, and distribution might start today. Matt Yglesias speculates:

If Pfizer, Modern, and J&J all hit their stated delivery targets we’re going to be doing 4 million doses/day in March, and by April the whole vaccine story will shift to be about reluctance/hesitancy/resistance.

The NYT posted a very powerful short film: “Death Through a Nurse’s Eyes“.

and CPAC

Trump made his return to the public stage yesterday, giving his first speech since leaving the White House. Reportedly, he talked for 90 minutes, so (life being short) I haven’t watched it. CNN’s Chris Cillizza listed the 50 most ridiculous lines, and I couldn’t even make through them.

Trump’s fans (and many of the people who fear him) still don’t realize he’s a has-been, but he is. He lost in 2020 by over 7 million votes. After he lost he tried to overthrow American democracy. He’s stuck in the past talking about personal grievances that have nothing to do with the lives of American voters. And odds are at least 50-50 he’ll be in jail when 2024 rolls around. So if Republicans want to run that loser again — hey, don’t let me stop you.

Two crazy stories come out of CPAC. One is true and the other is at best an amazingly unfortunate coincidence. The true one is that CPAC featured a golden statue of Trump. Comparisons to the Biblical golden calf idol appeared independently all over social media, but CPAC participants happily got their photos taken with their own idol anyway. The kicker is that the statue was made in Mexico.

The other story is CPAC’s main stage, whose elaborate design closely resembles the Norse odal rune, a symbol used by the Nazis. That sounds like the kind of insane thing Twitter users are always going on about, but the resemblance is hard to deny, once it has been pointed out to you.

The unresolved question is whether this was an intentional message to the international far right, a weird attempt to invoke some kind of dark magic, or some other sinister thing. Snopes calls such claims “unproven”, which it’s hard to argue with. CPAC organizers deny any intent and seem appropriately outraged, if not appropriately embarrassed. (I mean, the rune is really there, and the Nazis really did use it. I’d be embarrassed.)

I wasn’t going to mention the controversy if it was was just liberals entertaining each other by finding faces in the clouds and tweeting their outrage. But I decided to ask two additional questions: What do the people who cover Norse paganism think? And are actual Nazis getting the message?

As for the pagans, the Wild Hunt blog is taking this seriously. The Hunt notes that the stage shape is not driven by functionality, so somebody liked the design for other reasons:

The wings of the CPAC stage lead nowhere – they do not lead to stairs, and the stage’s entrances and exits are in the rear, flanking the back wall. The red triangle toward the rear of the stage similarly serves no apparent functional use. This means that the set was intentionally designed this way, not for its utility, but for its visual appeal – an image that looks, unquestionably, like the odal rune.

The Nazi connection runs deeper than just a photo of some SS officer’s collar insignia. (Go to the Hunt’s article if you want the full history.) And it’s not hard to see why, if you know the rune’s traditional interpretations:

The odal rune’s historical meaning deals with inherited estates, homelands, or the aristocracy.

So it’s an ideal “Make das Vaterland great again” symbol. In addition, the significance is not just Hitler-era history.

In the present day, the odal rune has been adopted as a replacement for the swastika in American far-right circles, notably by the National Socialist Movement (NSM), who changed their logo to the odal rune in November 2016. The change was specifically in response to the election of Donald Trump, as the NSM’s leadership hoped there would be an opening for their entry into mainstream conservative contexts under Trump and believed the odal rune would be more presentable to the public than the swastika.

On the other hand, I failed to find any actual Nazis high-fiving each other about this. I don’t have much in the way of Nazi contacts, but I looked around on the Daily Stormer and Stormfront web sites — I wonder what lists that got me onto — and didn’t run across any excited odal-rune chatter (though lots of folks at Stormfront were planning to livestream Trump’s speech).

and the report on the Khashoggi murder

The Biden administration released an unclassified report on the murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi in the Saudi embassy in Istanbul. The short version: MBS did it. The report is just four pages, and doesn’t say how the operation went down or how we know what happened, presumably in order not to reveal how we spy on MBS and the Saudis generally.

Congress had demanded a report during the Trump administration, but Trump stonewalled in order to protect the Saudi Crown Prince, who was chummy with Jared Kushner. Biden released the report to fulfill his obligation.

It’s hard to know what to do next. MBS ordered an American resident murdered. But he’s also the de facto head of state of a country that the US sees as a counterweight to Iran in the Middle East. We no longer need Saudi oil ourselves, but our allies do. Biden has already shown an intention to distance the US from Saudi Arabia somewhat. For example, we are backing away from the Saudi proxy war in Yemen, though it’s not clear exactly what that means.

and you also might be interested in …

Things got worse for Andrew Cuomo this week. In addition to the recent scandal about reporting Covid deaths in nursing homes, he now faces a second accusation of sexual harassment. The new charge is of verbal harassment — when they were alone in a room, the governor allegedly asked a young female aide leading questions that seemed to suggest they should start a sexual relationship. Earlier, another female aide had accused him of giving her an unwanted kiss after a number of similarly suggestive conversations.

The NYT looked for someone to corroborate the first accuser’s story:

The New York Times spoke to three people who worked in the governor’s office during Ms. Boylan’s time there. The people, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, said that while they could not corroborate her allegations, they concurred that the governor would sometimes make inappropriate remarks during work and comment on people’s appearances.

Cuomo denied the accusation, but responded to the second with one of those half-way apologies that seemed to cover the first accusation as well.

At work sometimes I think I am being playful and make jokes that I think are funny. I do, on occasion, tease people in what I think is a good natured way. … I now understand that my interactions may have been insensitive or too personal and that some of my comments, given my position, made others feel in ways I never intended. I acknowledge some of the things I have said have been misinterpreted as an unwanted flirtation. To the extent anyone felt that way, I am truly sorry about that.

The WaPo’s Karen Tumulty believes Cuomo will be forced to resign, and I think that is appropriate. At the very least, he should announce that he will not run for a fourth term in 2022. Trump can claim that his dozens of accusers are all liars, and be confident that members of his cult will just repeat whatever he says. But standards are higher among Democrats.

BTW: Those who talk about the “liberal media” need to recognize that it wasn’t Fox News that broke this story. It was the New York Times.

The Perseverance Mars rover sports decals of its “family” of previous Mars rovers.

Two counties in North Dakota are trying to save their coal-mining jobs by blocking wind power. A local coal-powered electric plant might close, and if it does, the nearby coal mine that supplies it will probably close as well, with a total cost of a thousand jobs.

The problem is that coal isn’t competitive economically any more, not just with renewables, but with natural gas as well. Stopping farmers from letting wind-energy companies put up windmills on their land probably won’t save the coal jobs for long.

In a 50/50 Senate, West Virginia Democrat Joe Manchin can kill a bill or a nominee (or save the filibuster) all by himself. Frustrated progressive Democrats often ask, “Can’t we do better?”. Philip Bump looks at the last several elections in West Virginia, both presidential and senatorial. He concludes that the answer is no.

Another test for the QAnon theory: Thursday is March 4, which was the original Inauguration Day before the 20th Amendment changed it to January 20. Well, apparently, nothing that happened after 1871 is really legit.

QAnon believers claim that the US federal government secretly became a corporation under a law they believe passed in 1871 but does not actually exist, rendering every president inaugurated and every constitutional amendment passed in the years since illegitimate. But on March 4, the narrative goes, Trump will return as the 19th president, the first legitimate president since Ulysses S. Grant, with former Secretary of State Mike Pompeo as his vice president.

Any resemblance to the many restoring-an-ancient-line-of-kings myths is purely coincidental, I’m sure. Don’t say you weren’t warned.

and let’s close with something clever

Not my cleverness, other people’s. Like this young man’s technique for watching a movie on his phone.

Lisa Turner has collected dozens of such “life hacks” — some more clever than others — on her My Health Gazette blog.

The Action Shifts to Congress

The country now depends on its most dysfunctional branch of government.

Joe Biden began his presidency with a flurry of executive orders, concerning everything from public health to immigration to racial equality. But the United States is not (and should not be) a dictatorship, so executive orders can only go so far. Executive orders can redecorate the rooms of our government, but they can’t remodel the building. To make real change, you need Congress to appropriate money and pass laws.

So as the Biden administration enters its sixth week, the action has shifted to Congress. Congress (as I have pointed out before) is the most dysfunctional branch of American government, and its weakness is the root cause the dysfunction of the other two branches: Both the White House and the courts overreach, because someone has to pick up the responsibilities that Congress drops.

Syria. We saw an example this week, when Biden ordered an air strike on Syria. The legality of this is questionable, because Congress has never specifically authorized military action in Syria. But the last few administrations have justified whatever they wanted to do in the Middle East by stretching the Authorization for the Use of Military Force (AUMF) resolutions that Congress passed in 2001 after 9-11 and in 2002 prior to the Iraq invasion. The entire Obama/Trump campaign against ISIS, which culminated in Syria, happened under authority that Congress never realized it was granting two decades ago.

But the blame here belongs to Congress. A responsible legislative body would debate the exact bounds of presidential war-making in the area, and pass a new AUMF that repealed the previous two. Some — Senators Tim Kaine (D-VA) and Todd Young (R-IN), for example — have pushed for this, but most congresspeople would rather dodge responsibility and then complain later if things go wrong in either direction.

In this case, you can be sure that if the US suffered some major reversal in the Iraq/Syria theater — say, a high-casualty attack against our forces or a resurgence of ISIS — many of the same congresspeople who complain about unauthorized military action now would be complaining then that the President hadn’t done enough. Again, this pattern is independent of parties. It was equally true in the Trump and Obama administrations, and under congressional leadership of Republicans and Democrats alike.

Covid relief. The biggest bill facing Congress right now is the $1.9 trillion Covid relief package, which passed the House Saturday without a single Republican vote and two Democrats defecting. The Washington Post summarizes the content:

Beyond the minimum-wage increase, the sprawling relief bill would provide $1,400 stimulus payments to tens of millions of American households; extend enhanced federal unemployment benefits through August; provide $350 billion in aid to states, cities, U.S. territories and tribal governments; and boost funding for vaccine distribution and coronavirus testing — among myriad other measures, such as nutritional assistance, housing aid and money for schools.

The bill is popular with the American people, as well as with many Republican governors and mayors. But that isn’t enough to get it Republican votes in Congress. Mitch McConnell and Kevin McCarthy have imprinted the lesson they learned during the Obama administration: If you monkey-wrench the economy, ultimately the party in the White House will get blamed for it.

Heather Cox Richardson:

The Democrats will be able to pass a bill popular with more than 3 out of 4 of us only because they have a slight majority in the House and can use a special budget measure to work around the Republican senators who represent 41.5 million fewer Americans than the Democrats do.

The coronavirus relief bill illustrates just how dangerously close we are to minority rule.

Minimum wage. Meanwhile, the Senate parliamentarian ruled that raising the minimum wage doesn’t fit inside the rules defining the reconciliation process. So if Senate Democrats use that process to pass Covid relief — as it looks like they must to overcome the expected Republican filibuster — the minimum wage won’t be in it. Raising the minimum wage is also popular on its own, and will probably be offered as a stand-alone bill. But popularity with the American people probably won’t garner it enough Republican support to overcome a filibuster.

The New Yorker blows up one central argument against raising the minimum wage:

The fast-food chains insist that if they were to pay their employees more they would have to raise menu prices. Their wages are “competitive.” But in Denmark McDonald’s workers over the age of eighteen earn more than twenty dollars an hour—they are also unionized—and the price of a Big Mac is only thirty-five cents more than it is in the United States. There are regional American fast-food chains that take the high road with their employees. The starting wage at In-N-Out Burger, which is based in Southern California, and has two hundred and ninety-five restaurants in California and the Southwest, is eleven dollars. Full-time workers receive a complete benefits package, including life insurance—and the burgers are cheap and good.

Matt Yglesias:

The genius of America is you need a 60-vote supermajority to raise the minimum wage, but the president can bomb some militia in Iran based on … I dunno … an AUMF from two decades ago that was about something else entirely or something.

The Equality Act. Thursday, the House passed the Equality Act, which would explicitly protect Americans against discrimination based on their sexual orientation or gender identity. It’s not inconceivable that the bill could also pass the Senate and become law, but getting the ten Republican votes necessarily to overcome a filibuster looks like an uphill struggle.

Whether it passes or not, the bill is becoming a hot-button culture war issue for conservatives, raising all kinds of dark fantasies that have little basis in reality. Most conservative attempts to argue this point don’t even try to assemble evidence, and the few that do are unconvincing. For example, a Heritage Foundation report against allowing access to single-sex facilities according to gender identity includes a nine-page appendix listing “Individuals charged with sex crimes in intimate facilities”, including such incidents as voyeuristic men dressing as women to enter women’s bathrooms.

I’m sure Heritage believes its readers should be impressed with this mound of “evidence”. But the question is not whether such incidents happen, or whether they continue to happen in venues that allow trans access to bathrooms corresponding to their gender identity. The question is whether changing the rules causes such incidents to increase. A trans-friendly bathroom policy exists in enough places now that the question should be answerable.

The Heritage report also does not consider the danger that a transwoman faces if the law forces her to use a men’s bathroom. It’s as if violence and harassment directed at transgender people should not count.

I also note another example of the selectivity of conservative care: They regard the possibility of opposite-sex voyeurism in bathrooms as a world-shaking problem. But men entering men’s bathrooms to look at boys elicits no policy response at all; the status quo is just fine.

The looming filibuster battle. I can imagine readers asking “What’s the point? Why pass bills in the House that Republicans can successfully filibuster in the Senate? They’re not going to change anything.”

That question has both a principled and a practical answer. The principled answer is that you always want to give people a chance to do the right thing, even if you don’t think they will. When politicians make excuses for not serving the people, they should never be able to say, “Nobody asked me.” All the major advances in civil rights started with people making demands that (in the short term) they knew would be turned down. Asking the question is how you get from a vague “It’s just not possible” to a specific “It would happen if those people stopped blocking it.”

The practical answer is that a showdown over the filibuster is looming, and Democrats need to be united to win it. Currently they’re not: Both Joe Manchin of West Virginia and Krysten Sinema of Arizona have come out against eliminating the filibuster.

Turning them around is going to require building popular support. But the filibuster itself is a procedural Senate thing that the average voter doesn’t care about. So the debate will turn on what the filibuster means to ordinary people as they live their lives. Popular bills need to come up and go down — along with the For the People Act, which would ban gerrymandering and many voter suppression tactics, as well as controlling dark money and encouraging small-donor campaign financing — to connect the filibuster with problems that people can see.

Defenders of the filibuster sometimes warn that Democrats will be sorry if they end the filibuster and then lose the Senate, as they might in 2022 (while still representing more voters than the GOP). But that observation ignores how the Republican Party has changed in the last decade: It has no legislative program beyond tax cuts, which can pass through reconciliation.

Conversely, Democrats are more likely to lose the Senate if voters see that a Democratic Senate can’t accomplish its goals.

Biden’s nominees. Politico published a summary of how Biden’s nominees were faring in the Senate as of Thursday. Attorney General nominee Merrick Garland is likely to be approved by the Judiciary Committee today, sending his nomination to the Senate floor for final approval.

PBS Newshour notes the “pattern of minority nominees encountering more political resistance than white counterparts”. A look at Politico’s list demonstrates that the difference isn’t across-the-board. Some Black (UN Ambassador Linda Thomas-Greenfield, Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin), female (Greenfield, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellin, Director of National Intelligence Avril Haines), Latino (Homeland Security Secretary Alejandro Mayorkas), and gay (Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg) nominees have gotten through the process relatively unscathed.

But where Republicans have unleashed fireworks, the targets have largely been people of color, particularly women, and white transwoman Rachel Levine, who endured some abusive questioning from Rand Paul. The Newshour article focuses on Deb Haaland, who seems likely to become the first Native American Secretary of the Interior, but took some harsh grilling from Republicans on the Energy Committee. Afterwards, John Kennedy of Louisiana told reporters she was “a neo-socialist, left-of-Lenin whack job”. (Haaland’s sin appears to be a desire to phase out fossil fuels. I suspect Lenin was pro-fossil-fuel, so Kennedy may not be completely wrong.)

Newshour continues:

The confirmation of Neera Tanden, who would be the first Indian American to head the Office of Management and Budget, was thrown into doubt when it lost support from Democratic Sen. Joe Manchin of West Virginia. He cited her controversial tweets attacking members of both parties.

Critics also have targeted Vanita Gupta, an Indian American and Biden’s pick to be associate attorney general, and California Attorney General Xavier Becerra as Health and Human Services secretary. Conservatives launched campaigns calling Gupta “dangerous” and questioning Becerra’s qualifications.

I think the apparent racism is less personal animosity than an attempt to exploit the implicit racism of the Republican base. (Manchin is a Democrat, but needs Republican votes to stay in office.) The GOP strategy is to paint Biden’s nominees as way-out, far-left, bomb-throwing extremists. As Republicans noticed during the Obama administration, and later refined in their attacks on the Squad, that kind of mud doesn’t stick as well to a white man as it does to a woman of color. (That’s why when Bernie Sanders and AOC support the same thing, the attack goes against AOC. The GOP has made AOC the face of the Green New Deal, while poor cosponsor Ed Markey can barely get any credit.) The base doesn’t even have to notice that they’re responding in a racist or sexist fashion, they just have to unquestioningly accept accusations against the chosen targets that they might doubt if the same things were said about white men.

Julian Brave NoiseCat writes about Deb Haaland:

What Haaland actually brings — and what the Republican Party seems to consider so dangerous — are experiences and perspectives that have never found representation in the leadership of the executive branch. In fact, Republicans’ depiction of the first Native American ever nominated to the Cabinet as a “radical” threat to a Western “way of life” revealed something about the conservative id: a deep-seated fear that when the dispossessed finally attain a small measure of power, we will turn around and do to them what their governments and ancestors did to us.

North Dakota Is About to Kill the National Popular Vote Compact

Presidential elections are rigged in favor of Republicans. North Dakota wants to keep it that way.

As we’ve seen in the last two elections, the Electoral College gives the Republican candidate about a 3-4% advantage, which might be growing as the rural areas (which the EC over-weights) get more conservative and the cities (which it underweights) more liberal.

Hillary Clinton won the 2016 popular vote by 2.1% but still lost the election, and Biden’s 4.4% victory in 2020 goes away if you lower his margin by .7% across the board. (He loses Arizona, Georgia, and Wisconsin, leading to a 269-269 tie that the House — with one vote per state delegation — would have decided in Trump’s favor.) Hillary would still have lost if you similarly boosted her margin in every state by .7%.

So the Electoral College’s thumb-on-the-scale was worth about 2.8% in 2016 and 3.7% in 2020. Republicans like to talk about “rigged elections”. Well, they’re right: Presidential elections are rigged in their favor.

The straightforward way to unrig our elections would be to pass a constitutional amendment eliminating the Electoral College and awarding the presidency to the candidate who gets the most votes. But that path requires a 2/3rds majority in both houses of Congress and ratification by 3/4ths of the states, so it can’t pass without bipartisan support. Few Republicans have a sense of fair play or respect for democracy, so they’re not going to give up the unfair advantage the EC gives them. [1]

An alternative scheme for unrigging our elections is the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact: States agree to appoint electors for the candidate who wins the national popular vote, even if that candidate didn’t win in their particular state. If states representing 270 electoral votes all passed a law joining the compact and fulfilled their commitments, the Electoral College would never screw the American people again.

I have mentioned before that, as much as I like this idea, I would never trust this agreement. In 2020, we saw how many bad-faith actors hold positions of authority in the Republican Party. (Though most Republican election officials did their jobs honestly; Biden could not have won without them.) It was hard enough to feel secure that Republican legislatures wouldn’t step in and illegitimately award their electors to Trump, even though he got fewer votes both in their states and in the nation as a whole. If a Republican legislature in a place like Georgia or Wisconsin could give a Republican the White House just by agreeing with the voters in their state, I have to believe they would, no matter what commitments they might have made previously. [2]

Well, it looks like messing up the NPVIC is even easier than I had thought. North Dakota, owner of exactly three electoral votes, may be about the skewer the whole thing: The state senate has passed a law that forbids state election officials to release their popular vote totals until after the Electoral College meets.

[A] public officer, employee, or contractor of this state or of a political subdivision of this state may not release to the public the number of votes cast in the general election for the office of the president of the United States until after the times set by law for the meetings and votes of the presidential electors in all states

The upshot is that there would be no official national popular vote total. Compare this to the process laid out in the NPVIC:

Prior to the time set by law for the meeting and voting by the presidential electors, the chief election official of each member state shall determine the number of votes for each presidential slate in each State of the United States and in the District of Columbia in which votes have been cast in a statewide popular election and shall add such votes together to produce a “national popular vote total” for each presidential slate.

The chief election official of each member state shall designate the presidential slate with the largest national popular vote total as the “national popular vote winner.”

The presidential elector certifying official of each member state shall certify the appointment in that official’s own state of the elector slate nominated in that state in association with the national popular vote winner.

If everyone involved would carry out the spirit of this agreement in good faith, probably there would be no problem. It’s extremely unlikely that North Dakota’s votes would make the difference in the national popular vote, so even without knowing their totals, the popular-vote winner should be apparent. In 2016, for example, only 344K votes were cast in North Dakota, and Hillary won nationally by 2.9 million.

But now let’s talk about the real world, where bad-faith actors abound. If I’m, say, a Republican official in 2016 Wisconsin, where a good-faith application of the NPVIC would have me appoint pro-Hillary electors even though Trump won my state, I can claim that without the North Dakota votes the conditions of the NPVIC have not been fulfilled. Would the Republican legislature or a Republican-appointed judge overrule me? I kind of doubt it.

So I think the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact is dead. This particular hole could be patched without a constitutional amendment, if Congress could pass a law (over a Republican filibuster) mandating that states release their vote totals in a timely fashion. But I think this would just start a game of whack-a-mole. And what if a red state whose vote totals do matter, like Texas, decides to play?

I think the monkey-wrenchers win this battle, and we’re stuck with the Electoral College until we can muster a constitutional amendment.

[1] Electoral College advocates sometimes hide their partisan intentions by making arguments that sound good, but don’t hold up to even a small amount of scrutiny. For example:

A presidential campaign aimed at achieving a popular vote majority would completely ignore most states and focus, instead, on a few populous states containing the nation’s largest cities. This urban-centric strategy would silence the political voice of most regions of the country.

Anybody who has lived in a state with a big city knows this isn’t true. If it were, no Illinois candidate would ever leave Chicago, Texas campaigns would only happen in Houston and Dallas, and Florida candidates would camp out in Miami. They don’t — and for good reason. Consider, for example, the map of the Ted Cruz/Beto O’Rourke Senate race of 2018. Cruz lost just about all the cities — Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, El Paso — but won anyway because the rural areas came through for him.

In a popular-vote system, candidates look for votes wherever they think they can get them, because all votes count the same. Convincing somebody to vote for you in Chugwater, Wyoming counts just as much as convincing somebody in Los Angeles.

In fact, if you apply the make-them-campaign-everywhere argument honestly, it will point you in exactly the opposite direction: Because of the Electoral College, presidential candidates only campaign in swing states like Pennsylvania and Florida, and ignore most of the American people. Here’s a map where states are sized according to how many presidential campaign events happened there in 2012. Three of the four biggest states — California, Texas, and New York — don’t even show up. But neither do small states like Alaska, Utah, or Rhode Island, because nobody bothers to compete in states where the electoral votes aren’t up for grabs.

In a popular-vote system, it would make sense for a Democratic candidate to campaign in, say, the Black neighborhoods of Memphis or the Hispanic areas around El Paso — because there are people there who might be convinced to vote for you. Similarly, a Republican candidate should hold rallies in upstate New York or conservative Chicago suburbs. But they don’t, because in the Electoral College system, competing for votes that won’t tip a whole state is wasted effort.

So in fact it’s the Electoral College that silences “the political voice of most regions of the country”.

[2] The Compact tries to deal with the question of states changing their minds:

Any member state may withdraw from this agreement, except that a withdrawal occurring six months or less before the end of a President’s term shall not become effective until a President or Vice President shall have been qualified to serve the next term.

But there is no enforcement mechanism, and a basic principle of our system of government says that no legislature can claim power over a future legislature. (As Jefferson put it: “The dead should not rule the living.”) So if Wisconsin, Pennsylvania, and Michigan had joined the compact in 2015, and then in 2016 one of them passed a law refusing to award their electors to Hillary, I think Trump still becomes president. States might sue each other later, but the deed would be done.

The Monday Morning Teaser

The center of the news this week has been Congress, which is a refreshing change. The Founders intended Congress to be the most powerful branch of government, but the combination of partisan gridlock and a Republican Party that has no legislative agenda has all but sidelined Congress in recent years.

So one of the two featured posts this week, “The Action Shifts to Congress”, will cover the current state of various bills and other Congressional actions: Covid relief, the Equality Act, the minimum wage, and approving Biden’s nominees (or not). That should be out sometime between 10 and 11 EST.

In the meantime, though, I want to call your attention to a small state wielding a big monkey wrench: North Dakota looks poised to pass a law that could completely skewer the National Popular Vote Interstate Compact. The NPVIC, if you remember, is an attempt to sideline the Electoral College by getting enough states to agree to give their electoral votes to the winner of the national popular vote. You might think that North Dakota, with its three electoral votes and tiny electorate, couldn’t do much to mess that up. But where there’s a will to preserve minority rule, there’s a way.

That post, “North Dakota Is About To Kill the National Popular Vote Compact”, should appear soon.

That leaves the weekly summary with virus and vaccine updates, the Syria bombing, the bizarre personality-cult spectacle that CPAC has turned into, the finally-released report on Saudi Arabia’s murder of Washington Post journalist Jamal Khashoggi, Andrew Cuomo’s troubles, and a few other things. Let’s project that to appear between noon and 1.

Standing the Strain

I know I need a small vacation
But it don’t look like rain.
And if it snows, that stretch down south
Won’t ever stand the strain.

– Jim Webb, “Witchita Lineman

This week’s featured post is “Who Messed With Texas?

This week everybody was talking about Texas

The weather caused power failures which caused water failures, and now the weirdness of Texas’ energy system is resulting in outrageous electricity bills. All that is in the featured post, plus the state’s history of mismanagement and its leadership’s attempt to deflect blame onto sustainable energy, which works fine in much colder places like Wisconsin and Antarctica. And Ted Cruz is the comedy relief, standing in the Cancun airport with his flag-of-Texas face mask demonstrating how much he identifies with the state he was running away from.

As long as that article is, one point got left out. Remember the Russian SolarWinds hack, the one that spread into more systems than anyone has fully listed? One of the things computer-security wonks (like my wife) worry about is penetration of systems that control the power grid.

Probably the scariest thing about the whole Texas situation was what would have happened if ERCOT hadn’t starting pulling the plug to reduce demand:

The worst case scenario: Demand for power outstrips the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

That scenario could have left Texas blacked out for months (kind of like Puerto Rico). But now think about this: Imagine some hostile hacker, maybe from the Russian military, has penetrated ERCOT’s control systems. Maybe the hack only survives because the hackers don’t do anything to draw the system’s attention, but they know they have a short time window to meddle before they get detected and booted off. What if that time period is long enough to block the ERCOT shut-down order for the “minutes and seconds” necessary to trigger that worst case?

and legislation

The March 14 deadline is looming for Congress to pass Biden’s Covid relief package, or something like it. (Otherwise people start to lose unemployment benefits.) The administration is still hoping to get some Republican support, but also preparing to push a bill through the Senate using the reconciliation process that would circumvent a Republican filibuster.

That’s probably all going to work out somehow, because Biden has been going around the Republican opposition in Congress to get support from state and local Republican officials, as well as the American people. Neither Democratic nor Republican moderates will want the blame if nothing passes.

But two other bills will come up shortly, and their fates are much less certain: an immigration bill and a democracy bill.

The U.S. Citizenship Act of 2021 includes: an eight-year pathway to citizenship for nearly 11 million undocumented immigrants; a shorter process to legal status for agriculture workers and recipients of the Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals program; and an enforcement plan that includes deploying technology to patrol the border.

The For the People Act

makes illegal essentially all of the anti-enfranchisement tactics perfected by the right over the past decades. It then creates a new infrastructure to permanently bolster the influence of regular people.

The bill’s provisions largely fall into three categories: First, it makes it far easier to vote, both by eliminating barriers and enhancing basic outreach to citizens. Second, it makes everyone’s vote count more equally, especially by reducing gerrymandering. Third, it hugely amplifies the power of small political donors, allowing them to match and possibly swamp the power of big money.

Neither bill is likely to get support from ten Republican senators. Nor does either fit within the tight constraints on the reconciliation process, which is focused on issues of taxing and spending. So that will be the point where the filibuster issue can’t be finessed any further. Either Democrats will have to eliminate the filibuster (or poke such a big hole in it that it might as well be eliminated), or they will have to go back to core constituencies and admit failure.

The For the People Act stands in stark contrast to the hundred or more voter-suppression laws being considered in Republican state legislatures.

This is a good time to repeat the theme of a 2018 Sift post “You can’t compromise with bullshit“. At that time, I was focusing on the various “border security” measures Trump and his nativist allies were pushing: the wall, concentration camps for asylum seekers, and so on. The point of these measures was to end the “American carnage” of a non-existent immigrant crime wave. Trump pushed this dark fantasy again and again, to the point of implying that the US has no indigenous criminals: “STRONG BORDERS, NO CRIME” he tweeted.

For years, Democrats had hoped for a grand bargain on immigration: Legal status for the 11 million undocumented immigrants already here in exchange for increased border security. The reason that deal has never worked out is simple: Because the “immigrant crime wave” never existed, no amount of border security can stop it.

Same thing with elections: No amount of “election security” can ever be enough to satisfy Republicans, because the “voter fraud” problem they are trying to solve doesn’t exist. As I wrote in 2018:

When claims are based on nothing, they can go on being based on nothing, no matter what you do to mollify the people who make those claims.

and the virus

The statistics continue to improve, while the spread of new variants of Covid-19 looms ominously. (I think the cartoon is too pessimistic, but it expresses an important point of view.) The US recorded its half-millionth Covid death, a total that is already well past the number of deaths the country had in World War II. 43.6 million Americans have gotten at least one vaccine shot, and 18.9 million are fully vaccinated. The Johnson & Johnson vaccine, which requires only one shot and can be stored in a simple refrigerator, is getting closer to approval. Shots could start in early March.

One of the striking facts about vaccine distribution is the racial inequity.

This is a good example of the kind of systemic racism conservatives deny exists. (Laura Ingraham is offended that President Biden even uses the phrase “systemic racism”.)

I’m pretty confident that nobody in the public-health power structure has been saying “Let’s not waste our scarce vaccines on people of color.” (That would be overt, personal racism, not systemic racism.) But somehow, things just work out so that white people are more likely to get vaccinated first. If nobody consciously makes racial equity a priority, the gears just turn in a way that favors Whites.

and the Mars landing

One of my earliest memories is of my grandfather and I watching the countdown on John Glenn’s Mercury flight. For a lot of people of my generation, space flights still evoke that little-kid belief that anything is possible if we all work towards it. Hearing that we had landed a new rover on Mars rekindled some of that.

The Mars rover has its own Twitter account

and Rush Limbaugh

He died of lung cancer on Wednesday.

It’s hard to decide what to say about him. He doesn’t deserve the protection of maxims like “Speak nothing but good about the dead”, because his whole career was about scorning those kinds of rules (like when the “AIDS Update” segment on his show mocked dying gay people). On the other hand, it’s not the dead who benefit from such restraint. Vindictive thoughts are corrosive; we control them for our own well-being.

So it’s tempting to say nothing, but Limbaugh had a big impact on American political culture, so his death requires an assessment. That assessment can’t be positive, because his impact was far from positive. But I refuse to revel in his death. I have smiled at some of the more vicious things I’ve seen posted on Facebook, but I won’t pass them on.

Over a 40-year period, Limbaugh’s voice popularized a new style of conservatism. Pre-Rush conservative media personalities like Bill Buckley and George Will modeled upper-class intellectuality: Some people are just better than the rest, and government attempts to pretend otherwise are bound to backfire. They could be funny in a clever, Victorian way; sometime the next morning you might figure out exactly how you had been insulted. They were embarrassed by the yahoos, the Birch-society conspiracy theorists of their day, and did their best to keep them in the closet. Most of all, the Buckley/Will conservatives were about ideas — bad ideas, for the most part, but defended with all the skill their Yale and Oxford educations could bring to bear.

Limbaugh changed all that, creating a conservatism that was about tribes rather than principles or programs. Day after day, he fought a scorched-earth culture war. He championed the yahoos, reveled in conspiracy theories, and lied without qualm or apology. The goal was not to persuade liberals, but to make them cry.

The Republican Party today, the party of Trump, is largely his creation. It has no core ideas or governing philosophy, but instead has personalities and grievances. It cares nothing about facts, doesn’t believe in democracy, and is comfortable being supported by violence. It can motivate 74 million people to vote, but it can’t come up with even a back-of-the-envelope diagram of a healthcare plan.

Did he have any virtues? Fellow conservative pundit Rich Lowry tweeted:

Liberals who didn’t listen to Rush, and just read the Media Matters accounts, never understood how *funny* he was. What set him off from his many imitators was how wildly entertaining he was, and the absolutely unbreakable bond he formed with his listeners.

But what kind of “funny” was he? Humor revolves around surprise: An expectation is set up and then violated. In most of the Limbaugh humor I saw, the surprise came from violating the taboo against cruelty. (“I can’t believe he said that!”) As Slate’s Justin Peters put it: “his was the wit of the prep school bully making fun of the foreign exchange student’s lunch.”

Limbaugh violated “political correctness” by relentlessly mocking and insulting anyone who threatened his white male Christian privilege. If you were similarly privileged (as Rich Lowry is), and if you felt stifled by a culture that increasingly disapproved of the vicious things you wanted to say, it was probably cathartic to hear Limbaugh say them and defy the consequences. But I’ve googled various versions of “Limbaugh’s funniest lines”, and all I get are the outrages collected by his critics. “Limbaugh jokes” will lead you to jokes about Limbaugh, not jokes he told. (They’re not particularly funny either.) Atlantic’s Conor Friedersdorf verified my finding:

He will likely be remembered more for the worst things he said than the best things he said, because unlike Buckley, who said his share of awful things, no Limbaugh quote stands out as especially witty or brilliant.

Rolling Stone’s Bob Moser commented:

He wasn’t selling political ideas — and he never has. He was selling political attitude. The swaggering certitude. The mocking dismissiveness. The freedom to offend. The right to assert your privilege without guilt or embarrassment.

and continued fallout from the Trump coup attempt

Even after I have the thought “There oughtta be a law”, it’s still sometimes surprising to discover there actually is one: the Ku Klux Klan Act of 1871.

Rep. Bennie Thompson (D- Mississippi) has filed a lawsuit against Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani, the Proud Boys, and the Oath Keepers, invoking the KKK Act’s provisions for civil compensation:

The carefully orchestrated series of events that unfolded at the Save America rally and the storming of the Capitol was no accident or coincidence. It was the intended and foreseeable culmination of a carefully coordinated campaign to interfere with the legal process required to confirm the tally of votes cast in the Electoral College. …

Accordingly, this action seeks the award of compensatory damages to redress the harm to the Plaintiff caused by the Defendants’ use of intimidation, harassment and threats of violence to interfere with his discharge of his legally required duty as a Member of Congress and punitive damages to punish the Defendants for the reckless and malicious manner in which they acted and to enjoin and deter a recurrence of this unlawful conduct. …

Under the Ku Klux Klan Act, 42 U.S.C. § 1985(1), Defendants may not “conspire to prevent, by force, intimidation, or threat, any person … holding any office, trust, or place of confidence under the United States … from discharging any duties thereof; or to induce by like means any officer of the United States to leave any … place[] where his duties as an officer are required to be performed, or … to molest, interrupt, hinder, or impede him in the discharge of his official duties.” …

As a result of the acts set out in the above paragraphs committed in furtherance of this conspiracy, Plaintiff Thompson was hindered and impeded in the discharge of his official duties and suffered the deprivation of his right to be free from intimidation and threats in the discharge of his official duties, as explicitly protected under Ku Klux Klan Act. …

As a result, Plaintiff Thompson seeks an award of compensatory damages [and] an award of punitive damages to punish the Defendants for engaging in a concerted and continuing course of unlawful conduct and to deter the Defendants and others from engaging in similar unlawful conduct in the future.

[Don’t be confused like I was: The quote above doesn’t say that the KKK Act is from the year 1985. It’s section 1985 of the U.S. Code.]

Nine members of the Oath Keepers are also facing criminal charges.

A 21-page indictment alleged that the defendants “did knowingly combine, conspire, confederate, and agree with each other and others known and unknown” to force entry to the Capitol and obstruct Congress from certifying the election of Joe Biden as president in riots that led to five deaths and assaults on 139 police.

One of the attorneys who filed one of Trump’s baseless lawsuits to overturn the election is going to have to explain himself. The judge in that case has ordered him to face a grievance committee that could recommend discipline. (Disbarment? The article doesn’t specify.) The attorney “has not sufficiently allayed the court’s concerns regarding potential bad faith.”

you also might be interested in …

After a long delay, which might have been intended to avoid interfering with the election campaign, then not interfering with Trump’s attempt to invalidate the election, and finally not interfering with his impeachment trial, the Supreme Court has ruled that Trump’s accountants have to turn over the documents that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance wants, including his tax returns. Vance responded with a laconic statement: “The work continues.”

Last spring, the country briefly went ga-ga over Andrew Cuomo’s Covid briefings. They were such a realistic contrast with happy talk that came out of the White House.

Well, Cuomo has his own Covid scandal now.

An investigation by the New York State attorney general found that the governor’s office may have misled the public on the number of pandemic deaths in nursing homes after it ordered elderly people hospitalized with the virus returned to their facilities.

One of the more interesting links in this week’s featured post came from the Chicago Tribune. Well, enjoy it while you can. The Tribune Company is about to be bought by a slash-and-burn financial group. In the same boat are the Orlando Sentinel and New York Daily News, which the Tribune Company owns. But Baltimore gets a reprieve. The Baltimore Sun will be spun off to a nonprofit organization.

Having lived in the Chicago in the 1980s and visited many times since, I’ve already mourned the Trib that I used to know. It once was the kind of paper you couldn’t finish in a single sitting. Those days are long gone, but the Trib still retains the ability to do a certain amount of real journalism. That’s probably going to end soon too.

Advice from Heather Thompson Day on responding to sexist jokes:

My dad just told me “never laugh. They will mistake your nervous laughter as compliance. Instead, pretend you don’t get it, and watch them explain to you why you should be laughing.” I’ve used this advice my whole life since.

When I was 19 my boss said I should be a phone sex operator & laughed.

I said “I don’t get it”

He said “it’s a joke”

I said “explain it to me”

& that’s how I learned that once sexual harassers have to explain why their inappropriate jokes are funny, they stop laughing.

The fact that President Biden is far more popular with the American people than Trump ever was is really bugging right-wing media. The counter-attack is already underway, using the old Karl Rove tactic of trying to turn an opponent’s strength into a weakness.

Tucker Carlson sarcastically poked at the Joe-and-Jill relationship, which seems infinitely warmer and more genuine than previous first couple’s. In the process, he managed to repeat his denial of climate change and invoke the ridiculous Biden-is-senile trope. (Trump never had the kind of mental acuity Biden demonstrated in his CNN townhall Tuesday in Milwaukee — though he did misstate a few statistics. When asked a question, Biden actually answered it, rather than talking over it and daisy-chaining rambles about himself and his grievances, as Trump usually did. His answers reflected his ability to imagine what the questioner’s life is like — something Trump could never do.)

The Bidens’ affection is totally real. It’s in no way part of a slick PR campaign devised by cynical consultants determined to hide the president’s senility by misdirection. No, not at all! Their love is as real as climate change!

Meanwhile, Newsmax picks another target: Biden’s 12-year-old German shepherd Champ.

and let’s close with something energetic

In 1943, the Nicholas Brothers performed what Fred Astaire claimed was the greatest dancing he had ever seen on film. The NYT told the brothers’ story, and here’s the video, from the movie “Stormy Weather“. (Hat tip to another sifter, the twisted one.)

Who Messed With Texas?

This week’s human tragedy was caused by a political failure that no one is taking responsibility for.

This week’s Texas disaster has really been three related stories:

  • The situation on the ground has been horrific. Millions of people were significantly inconvenienced, many thousands had to leave their homes, and dozens died.
  • Bad weather was the immediate cause, but the deeper cause was bad policy. Texans’ hardships arose directly from the state’s short-sighted, low-regulation, keep-the-government-out-of-my-business political philosophy.
  • The response of the Republican politicians who hold power in Texas has been reprehensible.

It’s important to keep all three stories in mind, and not let the entirely justified outrage you feel about Ted Cruz running away to Cancun or Greg Abbott blaming renewable energy divert your attention from the underlying human tragedy. So let’s examine the three aspects of this week’s events in their appropriate order.

What happened. A major winter storm hit most of the country this week. In the Midwest and Northeast, people expect that kind of thing from time to time, so we’re ready for it. Here in Massachusetts, we began the week with a foot of snow already on the ground from the previous storm. But even here, winter weather still causes problems: We haven’t put all our powerlines underground where they belong, so occasionally a heavy snow will bring one down and black out a neighborhood or two for a few days. But it seldom leads to a widespread calamity like Texas experienced.

Winter storms are much rarer in the South, so Southerners are not as well prepared. For example, it turns out that Memphis only has 13 snowplows for its 7,500 miles of streets. The situation was probably not much better in places like Mobile or Little Rock or Tulsa.

But nowhere else in the United States experienced the kind of cascading disasters that unfolded in Texas. By Sunday, the weather was more-or-less back to normal, with temperatures in the 60s and 70s across much of the state. But the crisis is far from over. CNN summarizes:

At least 26 people died across the state since February 11. Millions lost their power, forcing families to huddle over a fireplace, scavenge for firewood or spend nights in their car trying to stay warm. Others spent hours searching for food as shelves emptied and weather conditions led to food supply chain problems. The frigid temperatures caused pipes to burst, leading to water disruptions for roughly half the state’s population. Covid-19 relief efforts, including food banks, were shuttered. Vaccine shipments were delayed and many appointments were canceled.

It could have been even worse. According to unnamed officials quoted by The Texas Tribune, as demand increased and suppliers dropped out of the system, the state’s power grid was “minutes and seconds” away from “a catastrophic failure that could have left Texans in the dark for months”.

The worst case scenario: Demand for power outstrips the supply of power generation available on the grid, causing equipment to catch fire, substations to blow and power lines to go down.

If the grid had gone totally offline, the physical damage to power infrastructure from overwhelming the grid could have taken months to repair, said Bernadette Johnson, senior vice president of power and renewables at Enverus, an oil and gas software and information company headquartered in Austin.

What would that worst case look like? Probably something like this:

As a result of the blackouts, at least three Texans died of carbon monoxide poisoning because they ran their cars in unventilated garages. Elsewhere, the freeze affected local water-treatment systems, creating situations where people needed to boil their tap water (with what power source?) before drinking.

Some 13.5 million people throughout Texas have experienced water disruptions, with nearly 800 water systems reporting issues like frozen or broken pipes, according to Toby Baker, executive director for the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. About 725 systems are under a boil-water advisory, Baker said. …

In Austin alone, the state capital’s water supply lost 325 million gallons due to burst pipes, Austin Water Director Greg Meszaros said in a Thursday news conference.

My back-of-the-envelope calculation says that’s 43 million cubic feet of water, which is bigger than the 37 million cubic feet in the Empire State Building.

Aftermath. It will be weeks before the state’s plumbers can fix all the broken pipes, or we learn how many Texans caught Covid while gathering in the homes of whichever friends or relatives happened to have heat or water.

And the hits keep coming: In the aftermath of the natural disaster, many Texas households face an unexpected financial disaster: The New York Times profiled one Texan who suddenly found himself owing $16,732.

The steep electric bills in Texas are in part a result of the state’s uniquely unregulated energy market, which allows customers to pick their electricity providers among about 220 retailers in an entirely market-driven system.

Under some of the plans, when demand increases, prices rise. The goal, architects of the system say, is to balance the market by encouraging consumers to reduce their usage and power suppliers to create more electricity.

But when last week’s crisis hit and power systems faltered, the state’s Public Utilities Commission ordered that the price cap be raised to its maximum limit of $9 per kilowatt-hour, easily pushing many customers’ daily electric costs above $100. And in some cases, like Mr. Willoughby’s, bills rose by more than 50 times the normal cost.

Dallas Morning News elaborated:

That means $9 for a kilowatt-hour that usually costs [Griddy customer Karen] Cosby around 7 cents, and sometimes as little as 2 cents. … The price per megawatt-hour reached $9,000 around 10 p.m. Sunday night and stayed there for much of Monday and all of Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. Friday morning, it fell to $35 and kept dropping. At 4 p.m., it was 85 cents. …

While searching for a new provider, Cosby flipped the breakers connected to her heating units and moved into a small bedroom with an air mattress and her two dogs, Onie and Birkin, and shut off the rest of the house. Her energy use was limited to a space heater, making a cup of coffee in the morning and using the microwave for four or five minutes to heat her meals.

“It’s been 43 degrees in the house since Monday, and I still have a $5,000 bill,” she said.

Why it happened. One of the striking things about the crisis was not just that Texas was hit worse than neighboring states, but that some parts of the state did much better than others. On Tuesday, at the height of the power disruptions, only .04% of households tracked in El Paso County were without power, while the comparable number was 29% in Dallas County, 44% in Travis County (Austin), 41% in Tarrant County (Fort Worth), and 18% in Harris County (Houston).

The difference was that El Paso, sitting at the far western edge of the state, is outside the Texas power grid. (MSNBC frequently interviewed Beto O’Rourke, who was sitting in his brightly lit El Paso home.)

Texas is the only state that has its own grid, which it maintains in order to avoid federal regulation. The rest of the US is on either the Western power grid (like El Paso) or the Eastern Power grid, like the panhandle and a few counties on the state’s eastern border. (In Bowie County, home of Texarkana, 10% of households lost power.) So when Texas’ supply/demand situation went bad, the rest of the country couldn’t bail them out.

As for why it went bad, there’s an immediate answer and then a more general answer. The immediate answer is that at precisely the time when Texans wanted more heat, suppliers were failing to handle the cold.

The system broke down this week when 185 generating units, including gas and coal-fired power plants, tripped offline during the brunt of the storm. Wind turbines in West Texas froze as well, and a nuclear unit near the Gulf of Mexico went down for more than 48 hours. Another problem emerged: Some power plants lost their pipeline supply of gas and couldn’t generate electricity even if they wanted to capture the high prices.

All sources of power were affected, but the biggest problem was natural gas.

The biggest shortfall in energy production stemmed from natural gas. Gas pipelines were blocked with ice or their compressors lost power. Much of the gas that was available was prioritized for heating homes and businesses rather than generating electricity. That’s helpful for people who use gas for heating but less so for those who use electric furnaces.

That’s the short-term cause, but nothing about that was inevitable. The Chicago Tribune contrasted Texas’ problems with power generation in Wisconsin.

So why does the power continue to work in places like Wisconsin, where bitter cold is a way of life? The reason is simple: Generators in the Upper Midwest are designed to work in frigid conditions, unlike those in Texas.

“We designed all our infrastructure for these bitter-cold temperatures,” said Paul Wilson, a professor of nuclear engineering at UW-Madison who studies electrical systems.

That means insulation, heated pipes, crushers to break up frozen coal.

“We design everything with the understanding that it can get down to 40 degrees below zero and even stay there for a few days,” said Madison Gas and Electric spokesman Steve Schultz. “We also test our equipment regularly to make sure it’s working properly and prepared for frigid conditions.”

Wind turbines are equipped with winter weather packages such as heating elements to keep ice off the blades and insulated gearboxes, allowing them to work at temperatures as cold as 22 below zero.

But that costs money, and the Texas system prioritizes price over reliability.

Industry experts say there are no explicit regulations that outline cold weather reliability, but there are economic incentives in regulated states like Wisconsin, where electricity rates are structured to give utilities a return on their investments in power plants.

“In a place like Texas where you’re competing to be the cheapest all the time you’re able to take those risks,” said Marcus Hawkins, a former engineer with the Wisconsin Public Service Commission who now runs a multi-state regulatory organization. “Any added capital costs makes you less attractive to the market.”

The Wall Street Journal has more detail:

Texas has long prided itself on its wholesale power market. It was born from a legislative effort in the 1990s that broke up the state’s utility monopolies, introducing competition among a larger universe of power generators and retail electricity providers.

The result was a laissez-faire market design that rewards those who can sell power inexpensively and still recover their capital costs. That keeps prices low when demand is steady. When demand spikes, however, so do prices, which can climb as high as $9,000 per megawatt-hour to incentivize power plants of all kinds to fire up.

If an electricity producer agrees to supply power into the market and then fails to deliver, the producer has to pay for the cost of replacing it. But if a plant trips offline and stays out of the market for an extended period, as happened this week, there is no penalty besides lost revenue.

USA Today describes one of the key features making Texas’ system vulnerable:

The ERCOT grid is what’s known as an “energy only” market, in which generators are compensated only for electricity actually delivered. In an “energy plus capacity” market, they also would be compensated for generating capacity that’s maintained but kept in reserve for special or unusual circumstances.

The result is a system that runs cheaply most of the time, but is prone to catastrophic failures like the one that happened this week. Essentially, the state is like a household that decides to save money by not paying for fire insurance. As long as your house isn’t burning down — and how often does that happen? — you’re winning.

Similarly tempting personal decisions would be not changing the oil in your car, not having health insurance, or not fixing the leak in your roof. Those things cost money, so in the short term your bank balance looks better if you skip them. For a while, Karen Cosby saved money by contracting for variable-rate electricity through Griddy. But this week she lost far more than she had ever saved.

The reason we have government regulations is precisely to remove short-term temptations (for both individuals and corporations) that have negative long-term effects. You could save money by buying a car without seatbelts or airbags, for example, but the government won’t let you. When Hooker Chemical started burying barrels of chemical waste in Love Canal in the 1940s, that probably looked like the most economical way to deal with it. But a few decades later it had caused a public-health disaster that cost $400 million to clean up. So in the long run it wasn’t economical at all. If there had been an EPA in the Roosevelt administration, Hooker undoubtedly would have complained about the cost of its regulations, and how much they added to the price of chemicals. But in the long run those regulations would have saved not just lives, but money as well.

Warnings. You can’t fault leaders for failing to see something that is truly unforeseeable. But while this winter storm was certainly unusual, there had been warnings that such things were possible. The Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011 similarly led to rolling blackouts, for the same reasons as played out this week:

Post-analysis indicated that the cold temperatures had caused over 150 generators to encounter difficulties; loss of supply, instrumentation failures, and gas well-head freezing were some of the source causes

After that event, the Texas Public Utilities Commission issued a report. The Austin Statesman article on that report quoted a previous report from 1990 about a 1989 winter storm.

“The winter freeze greatly strained the ability of the Texas electric utilities to provide reliable power to their customers. Record and near-record low temperatures were felt throughout the state resulting in a significantly increased demand for electrical power.

“At the same time that demand was increasing, weather-related equipment malfunctions were causing generating units to trip off the line.” As a result, it noted, the state suffered widespread rolling blackouts and “near loss of the entire ERCOT electric grid.”

A state senator in 2011 recalled the 1990 report and said:

What I don’t want is another storm and another report someone puts on the shelf for 21 years and nobody looks at.

But the only difference this time around is that the report only sat for 10 years rather than 21. (Which, BTW, is exactly what climate change predicts: Extreme weather events will happen more frequently.) Both reports listed ways ERCOT and the generating companies could make the system more resilient in the face of cold weather. But in typical Texas fashion, most of the recommendations were neither mandated by law nor motivated by subsidy. They were simply best practices that a responsible company should follow, even if the market pulls them in another direction.

So here we are again.

Political response. In a state like Texas, where one party has been in power since George W. Bush became governor in 1995 and the GOP gained full control of the legislature in 2003, I suppose it’s too much to expect the political leadership to say, “Wow, we really screwed up. But now we’ve got religion about winter storms and regulation, so we’re going to do better.” Even so, you might hope for a blame-free let’s-focus-on-the-future stance that more-or-less deals with the reality of the situation.

That’s not what has happened. Instead, the process seemed to go like this: What Republican talking points are lying around to respond to unreliability in the energy grid? How can we use those pre-established frames to shift the blame onto liberals?

For years, the fossil fuel industry’s criticism of solar and wind power has been that it’s unreliable: Sometimes the sun doesn’t shine and the wind doesn’t blow, but you can always burn coal or natural gas. Republican politicians like ex-President Trump frequently echoed that claim:

You know, Hillary wanted to put windmills all over the place. Let’s put up some windmills — when the wind doesn’t blow, “just turn off the television darling, please. There’s no wind — please turn off the television quickly!”

So that explanation was sitting in Republican voters’ heads, ready to be activated when Governor Greg Abbott told Sean Hannity:

This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America. … Our wind and our solar got shut down, and they were collectively more than 10 percent of our power grid, and that thrust Texas into a situation where it was lacking power on a statewide basis. … It just shows that fossil fuel is necessary.

Right-wing media picked that up and ran with it. Tucker Carlson described Texas as “totally reliant on windmills”.

Then it got cold and the windmills froze, because that’s what happens in the Green New Deal. … Now the same energy policies that have wrecked Texas are going nationwide — coming to your state.

And again:

So it was all working great until the day it got cold outside. The windmills failed like the silly fashion accessories they are, and people in Texas died.

Windmills functioning normally on Ross Island in Antarctica.

Trump-administration Energy Secretary Rick Perry arguably is more to blame for this week’s disaster than anyone else, because he was the governor who received and ignored that PUC report on the 2011 storm. But rather than apologize for his failures, he criticized President Biden:

If this Green New Deal goes forward the way that the Biden administration appears to want it to, then we’ll have more events like we’ve had in Texas all across the country.

National Memo’s Joe Conason points out the larger pattern:

If the fatal farce in Texas seems all too familiar, then you may be noticing an eerie resemblance to the botched pandemic response of the Trump administration. The impulse of Republicans in government is not to govern but to shift responsibility and try to affix blame, almost always on “liberals” or “socialists” or some other partisan goblin. What they seem utterly unable to provide are honest leadership and real solutions.

And finally we come to Ted Cruz. If these events ever become a major movie, Ted Cruz is going to be the comedy relief, the buffoon whose self-centeredness is so absurd that the audience can only laugh. You’ll see footage of a family shivering in their car or some elderly woman hoping her daughter will return soon with a fresh oxygen canister, and then you’ll see pot-bellied Ted Cruz standing in the Cancun airport wearing his flag-of-Texas face mask. (All that’s missing is somebody to play Laurel to his Hardy.)

Because that’s leadership in Texas: When the people they represent are suffering in the cold, leaders jet off to a nice warm beach, taking police away from emergencies to provide an escort to the airport.

After he’d been spotted and the story was blowing up on social media, Cruz did what any good father would do and blamed his pre-teen daughters.

Like millions of Texans, our family lost heat and power too. With school cancelled for the week, our girls asked to take a trip with friends. Wanting to be a good dad, I flew down with them last night and am flying back this afternoon.

That statement wasn’t just craven, it was misleading: Dropping the kids off wasn’t in the original plan. Ted’s original ticket had him staying through the weekend. Anyway, the jokes practically wrote themselves: When a failed state can’t provide basic services, who can blame a father for leading his family across the Mexican border to find a better life?

Almost as bad as Cruz’ original decision was the way that right-wing media defended him: He’s just a senator. What could he possibly do?

The fact that people think Ted Cruz, a United States Senator, can do anything about a state power grid, even his own, is rather demonstrative of the ignorance of so many people who cover politics.

Moving his family to a pricey beach resort was, in fact, the responsible thing to do.

People who can take care of themselves and their families in an emergency should take care of themselves and their families in an emergency, if only to remove the possibility of their having to be taken care of by the public. Of course, Senator Cruz probably will be more comfortable in Cancun than he would be in River Oaks, but it is no less the case that by absenting himself from the scene, he has given Houston — including its utility providers and its emergency services — one fewer person to worry about. From that point of view, Senator Cruz has a positive moral obligation to be in Cancun.

Atlantic’s David Graham makes the proper response:

Cruz’s error is not that he was shirking a duty he knew he should have been performing. It’s that he couldn’t think of any way he could use his power as a U.S. senator to help Texans in need. That’s a failure of imagination and of political ideology.

You know who thought of something he could do? Beto O’Rourke, who narrowly lost to Cruz in 2018. He organized volunteers to call Texas senior citizens, find out if they needed anything, and help them access available resources.

BIG THANKS to the volunteers who made over 784,000 phone calls to senior citizens in Texas today. You helped to connect them with water, food, transportation, and shelter. And you made sure that they knew we were thinking about them and that they matter to us.

Somebody else who came through was the congresswoman right-wingers love to hate: Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who used her fame and connections to raise millions of dollars for Texas relief. Ted knows a bunch of rich people who supposedly care about Texas. Do you think maybe he could have done that?

But Ted couldn’t lift a finger, because doing so would just promote the idea that the public good is a real thing, that people should expect politicians to care about them, and that government has a role to play in dealing with forces beyond the scale of individual action.

And if people started to believe things like that, the Republican Party would be toast.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This is another week where events knocked me off the article I planned to write. At first, I thought the Texas winter-storm story would just be a few paragraphs in the summary, with some links to more detailed articles and maybe a picture of Ted Cruz in the airport. But the deeper I looked into the Texas disaster — I’m over-using “disaster” today because I keep looking for synonyms not being satisfied with them — the more I felt that nobody was telling the full story.

This week’s Texas disaster is really three stories: the suffering on the ground, the failure of regulation that caused it, and the irresponsible responses of the Texas political leadership. (Cruz has become the poster boy for that irresponsibility, but he’s far from unique.) There’s a lot to know about all those things, but I haven’t found anybody pulling it all together the way I want it pulled together. It’s way too easy just to laugh at Cruz and miss the more serious implications.

So the featured post today is “Who Messed With Texas?” and it will be out around 10:30 EST. It’s long, but full of details I find fascinating. (I hope you do too.) Like: After the Groundhog Day Blizzard of 2011, a Texas state senator recalled the report written in 1990 after a 1989 winter storm shut down a lot of the power grid, and said, “What I don’t want is another storm and another report someone puts on the shelf for 21 years and nobody looks at.” Good call, senator: The 2011 report only sat on the shelf for ten years. Or: Burst pipes in Austin alone have released enough water to fill the Empire State Building.

A lot of good analysis is out there, like the Chicago Tribune explaining why the power grid works in frigid Wisconsin, and video like the scary surge arcing through urban power lines, and pictures of windmills operating normally in Antarctica. But I hadn’t seen anybody assemble it all, so I did.

The weekly summary then has the ongoing virus-and-vaccine news, Biden’s immigration and voting-rights policies taking shape as legislation, the Mars landing, my attempt to process Rush Limbaugh’s death without either whitewashing his baneful influence or kicking his corpse, conservative media’s effort to fight Biden’s growing popularity by attacking his wife and dog, and Rep. Bennie Thompson’s lawsuit against Trump invoking the KKK Act of 1871. Finishing that should take me until about 1.

Bright Lines

Without drawing that bright line, you are ceding your party to this: a party of not living in facts, that bullying is acceptable behavior and that violence is acceptable behavior if you are trying to preserve your “way of life”, whatever that means. This will result in more people, especially within the echo chamber they are living in, seeing people that they disagree with as a mortal enemy, which for some small percentage of them translates into “I have a justification for violence.

Elizabeth Neuman,
former Assistant Secretary for Threat Prevention and Security Policy
in Trump’s Department of Homeland Security

This week’s featured post is “The Week That Broke Trump’s Brand“.

This week everybody was talking about impeachment

Most of what I want to say about the impeachment trial is in the featured post. But it was already getting long and a few odds and ends didn’t fit there.

Lisa Murkowski’s vote to convict may be evidence for the moderating influence of what is sometimes called the “jungle primary” system. In November, Alaska passed a ballot initiative that changed its elections. Instead of the usual system, where parties hold primaries and then the winners of those primaries meet in the general election, Alaska now has a unified primary for the entire state. The top four vote-getters advance to the general election, which is decided by ranked-choice voting. That change seems like a big deal to me, so I’m surprised I hadn’t heard about it until now.

In other words, Murkowski doesn’t have to fear facing a Trumpist candidate in a primary restricted to Republican voters. Both the primary and the general will involve the entire electorate.

Of course, Murkowski may not have feared a primary anyway. In 2010, she lost the Republican primary to a more conservative candidate, but then won the general election as a write-in candidate.

I want to call attention to one of the arguments Trump’s defenders used: This bad precedent will come back to bite you. Trump lawyer Bruce Castor put it like this:

If you go down the road Mr. Raskin asks you to go down, the floodgates will open. The political pendulum will shift one day. This chamber and the chamber across the way will change one day and partisan impeachments will become commonplace.

He warned that former officials that Republicans love to hate — like Obama attorney general Eric Holder — could be impeached. Lindsey Graham predicted Kamala Harris will be impeached if Republicans take back the House in 2022.

In other words, the arguments used in this case and the precedents it establishes could be used in bad faith in the future. But that’s true of any government action: If we raise tax rates now, some future Congress could raise them to 100% and confiscate everything! If we convict a murderer of murder, someday you could be convicted of murder too!

Just stop. If there’s some reason to believe that the current impeachment was pursued in bad faith, Castor should have brought that up for discussion. Similarly, if there is something regrettable about a good-faith application of this precedent — say, if you think Democrats will be sorry when Biden is prevented from using violence to hang onto the White House four years from now — Trump’s defenders should have talked about that. But don’t threaten us with the unknowable bad faith of future Congresses.

Another bad argument is the one McConnell and Portman made after voting to acquit: The criminal justice system should handle this. That really is a precedent that could come back to bite us.

Here’s what’s wrong with it: I don’t know of any specific law against hanging onto power after you lose an election. Crimes were involved in Trump’s scheme, like possibly incitement to violence or election tampering, but his fundamental wrongdoing was political. He attempted a subversion of the entire system rather than the kind of specific action that a law might ban.

Having watched Trump’s attempt to wiggle through the loopholes in American democracy, I can imagine that a cleverer usurper might stay in power after losing without provably breaking any laws at all, just by abusing the power of his office and the zeal of his supporters to intimidate or cajole officials into doing what he wanted. Think back to the Raffensperger call, and now imagine that the Georgia secretary of state had believed — without the president even hinting at it — that some Trump supporter would kill his family if he didn’t “find” those eleven thousand votes. There might not be any provable crime, just the derailing of our constitutional system.

That’s why it’s wrong to take an overly legalistic view of impeachment. The point is to protect democracy, and the attack might consist of actions that nobody has ever thought to make illegal, because only the president can do them, and no president has ever tried before. “High crimes and misdemeanors” is vague for a reason. Similarly, beyond-reasonable-doubt is a good standard if we’re talking about putting someone in jail. But I don’t think everyone should stand around doing nothing if we’re only 75% sure our democracy is being subverted.

When our entire republic is threatened, Congress should do what it needs to do.

I find myself agreeing with Ben Sasse way more often these days. Should I worry about that, or should he?

Conservatives regularly denounce executive overreach – but we ought primarily to denounce legislative impotence. … If Congress cannot forcefully respond to an intimidation attack on Article I instigated by the head of Article II, our constitutional balance will be permanently tilted. A weak and timid Congress will increasingly submit to an emboldened and empowered presidency.

The NYT’s Charles Blow believes the January 6 riot and the Republican unwillingness to hold Trump to account for it is the end of the Blue-Lives-Matter movement.

In the Senate’s acquittal — or more accurately, abetting — of Donald Trump, they stripped away the facade of the opposition to Black Lives Matter and the elevation of Blue Lives Matter.

It was never about preventing the desecration of American symbols. Members of the insurrection mob smeared feces throughout the Capitol after they broke into it.

This was never really about the protection of officers, generally speaking, but about allowing officers to treat with more impunity the people who protested the maltreatment of Black people.

but there’s still a pandemic going on

The numbers continue to improve. CNN reports:

Covid-19 infection and hospitalization numbers are now plummeting nationwide after rounds of devastating surges that followed the holidays. The country’s seven-day average of new cases is now below 100,000 — down from a peak of about 250,000 in early January, according to data from Johns Hopkins University. Hospitalizations are also way down from their peak of more than 132,400 on January 6, data from the COVID Tracking Project show.

Deaths are also down, but not as sharply. The seven-day average death toll is down to 2600, after peaking at over 3300 a few weeks ago. It makes sense that deaths would be a lagging indicator, because people usually don’t die until some while after they’ve had a positive test and been hospitalized.

The number of Americans who have gotten at least one vaccination shot is up to 38 million, and increasing by 1.5-2 million each day. But the experts CNN talked to believe that isn’t the reason for the decrease in cases. After taking chances with social gatherings during the Thanksgiving-to-New-Years holiday season, people have become much more careful. (I described this a few weeks ago as the deal-with-God theory: “If you just let me get through Christmas, I’ll be good.”)

Meanwhile, the more-contagious variants continue to spread, though none of them have become the most common version yet.

and Congress needs to do something about it

Right now, Biden’s $1.9 billion Covid-relief proposal is being turned into a fully detailed bill by the House Budget Committee. This is currently at the behind-the-scenes stage of putting together a proposal that has full Democratic support. Nothing formal will happen this week because Congress is on recess.

If House Democrats can stay united, they have enough votes to pass the package. The problem will come in the Senate, where the bill will either need to attract 10 Republican votes or fit through the filibuster-proof reconciliation process.

The looming deadline is March 14, when the Covid-related unemployment benefits lapse.

you also might be interested in …

Covid relief is a sufficiently popular bill that Senate Democrats will probably be OK with using reconciliation to get it through, especially if they can attract a handful of Republican senators, but not enough to overcome a filibuster. But the filibuster will become a real issue when the focus shifts to political reform: outlawing voter-suppression tactics, ending gerrymandering, and so on. Reconciliation was designed to get must-pass budget items through, so non-financial legislation doesn’t fit well into that process.

The voter-suppression issue is particularly important in the Black community, because Blacks have so often been targets of suppression. And Democrats owe a considerable debt to their Black supporters: High turnout in Black precincts was a major factor in Biden’s win, and even moreso in the two Georgia races that allowed Democrats to take the Senate.

A voting-rights bill should come out of the House before much longer. If moderate Democrats in the Senate let a filibuster kill it, the moderate/progressive split in the Party could reopen in a big way.

I’m trying hard not to let my relief that Trump is gone make me too gullible about the Biden administration. For example, I love watching Jen Psaki’s press briefings, because so often she communicates actual information that, when you check on it, turns out to be true. And she handles hostile questions without getting hostile in return. But I have to keep reminding myself: She’s a press secretary, so if the Biden administration ever needs something covered up, she’ll be the face of that effort.

Similarly, I’m cynical enough to know that no presidential interactions with the press are truly spontaneous. But damn. This four-minute clip of Joe and Jill out walking their dogs on the White House lawn and talking about what Valentine’s Day means to them. It’s awfully endearing.

Maybe stuff like that is why the public has been giving Biden the kind of honeymoon every president used to get. So far, his approval rating has never fallen below 50% — a level Trump never reached. 538 has him at 54.6% positive 37.3% negative.

In general, Biden is doing a good job of selling his positive image: a basically decent guy who is working hard and trying to do the right thing. If people continue to believe that about him, they’ll forgive him for policies they don’t fully agree with.

and let’s close with something old made new again

One of the classic songs about the dehumanization of the working class was Tennessee Ernie Ford’s “Sixteen Tons”. Geoff Castellucci has used his incredibly deep voice and some self-harmonizing software to produce a 21st century version.

One of the under-appreciated aspects of this song is how much religious content it has. Right from the first line: “Some people say a man is made out of mud.” Who says that? Genesis does. It says that humans are shaped by the hand of God, who breathes a soul into them. The second line’s counter “A poor man’s made out of muscle and blood” essentially denies that account. Maybe you rich folks were sculpted by God and endowed with a soul, but nothing in a poor man’s life testifies to that.

Going theological for a second, “having a soul” is a poetic way of saying that your life is an end in itself. You have your own reasons to be on this Earth; you’re not just a tool for other people to use. “Sixteen Tons” raises the question: Do we really believe that? About everybody?

The Week That Broke Trump’s Brand

Officially, Trump was acquitted. But he still lost, and the Republican Party lost with him.

[I’m not sure who to credit for the cartoon above, but I found it here.]

At this rate, the fourth impeachment will nail him. (No. Seriously, I hope this is the last impeachment article I ever have to write.)

The Senate vote. When Trump was impeached in 2020, a majority voted for acquittal: 52-48 on the abuse-of-power article and 53-47 on obstruction of Congress. Only one Republican (Mitt Romney) voted to convict, and him only on abuse of power.

Saturday, in contrast, seven Republicans voted against Trump, resulting in a 57-43 majority for conviction. That was still ten short of the 2/3rds supermajority needed, but makes laughable Trump’s characterization of the trial as “the greatest witch hunt in the history of our Country”.

The seven Republicans with spines were Romney again, the two “moderate” women who always come up when Democrats are looking for bipartisan support (Lisa Murkowski of Alaska and Susan Collins of Maine), the guy who is positioning himself to be the take-back-the-GOP-from-Trump 2024 presidential candidate (Ben Sasse of Nebraska), two guys who don’t have to worry about a primary challenge because they’re retiring (Pat Toomey of Pennsylvania and Richard Burr of North Carolina), and Bill Cassidy of Louisiana, whose term runs until 2026, and who gave a refreshingly simple explanation of his vote: “I voted to convict President Trump because he is guilty.” (That vote got him immediately censured by his state GOP.)

The guilty-but-acquitted faction. You might think Cassidy’s explanation goes without saying — that of course people who thought he was guilty voted to convict — but in today’s intimidated Republican Party it doesn’t. Mitch McConnell also thought Trump was guilty, but he voted to acquit anyway, because that’s the kind of guy McConnell is.

The speech McConnell gave immediately after the vote, when he could just blow smoke without any consequences, resembled a summation for the prosecution. He called the insurrection “a disgrace” caused by Trump’s “disgraceful dereliction of duty”. He held Trump “practically and morally responsible” for the attack on the Capitol, because “The leader of the free world cannot spend weeks thundering that shadowy forces are stealing our country and then feign surprise when people believe him and do reckless things.” After the insurrection began, Trump’s response was “unconscionable”. “He didn’t take steps so federal law could be faithfully executed, and order restored.”

McConnell didn’t convict because he manufactured a constitutional reason not to, one in conflict with the practice of the framing era, against a precedent set in the 19th century, and rejected by the Senate itself just a few days ago: “We have no power to convict and disqualify a former officeholder who is now a private citizen.”

Other too-timid-to-vote-their-conscience GOP senators — Thune, Portman, Capito, and maybe more — also hid behind this bogus “constitutional” principle. I predict this interpretation will go out the window if it ever protects a Democrat.

McConnell went on to say (in a section of his speech he apparently added at the last minute, because it wasn’t in the pre-speech transcript his office provided):

President Trump is still liable for everything he did while he was in office. … He didn’t get away with anything yet. Yet. We have a criminal justice system in this country. We have civil litigation. And former presidents are not immune from being accountable by either one.

This idea will go out the window even sooner. If Trump does get criminally prosecuted, expect McConnell and all the other “constitutional” objectors to denounce his indictment as a politicization of the justice system. Republicans never admit that they have placed Trump above the law, but any forum that tries to hold him accountable is the wrong one.

The witness controversy. Saturday morning there was a flurry of uncertainty, as the House managers asked have a witness: Republican Rep. Herrera Beutler, who had reported on House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy’s phone conversation with Trump:

When McCarthy finally reached the president on January 6 and asked him to publicly and forcefully call off the riot, the president initially repeated the falsehood that it was antifa that had breached the Capitol. McCarthy refuted that and told the president that these were Trump supporters. That’s when, according to McCarthy, the president said: ‘Well, Kevin, I guess these people are more upset about the election than you are.’

This incident is damning, because it emphasizes not just that Trump wasn’t eager to call the mob off, but that he was using the attack to pressure Congress; he wanted them not to finalize his loss by accurately counting the electoral votes.

The problem with Beutler’s account is that it’s hearsay; the story of the call was “relayed to me” by McCarthy. Her testimony would backfire if Trump’s lawyers then called McCarthy to the stand and he denied that the incident ever happened. If Trump’s lawyers wanted to call a lot of witnesses — they claimed they would, but that was probably a bluff — the trial might have continued for two weeks or more.

In the end, a compromise was worked out: An affidavit from Beutler was entered into the record, no witnesses were called, and the trial wrapped up on Saturday as planned.

On my Twitter feed, I saw the progressives I follow — both national figures and my personal friends — react in outrage. DailyKos founder Markos Moulitsas tweeted (and was retweeted by Amanda Marcotte):

The storyline just changed from “soulless Republicans acquit guilty Trump” to “cowardly Democrats abandon case”

I don’t see it. (And as a matter of record, that was not the Sunday morning headline.) To me it looks like this: As of Saturday morning, the prosecutors had achieved everything they were going to achieve. They had performed flawlessly and made a convincing case to the country, while Trump’s lawyers looked pathetic. They had persuaded enough Republican senators to invalidate Trump’s predictable claim of a “witch hunt”, but not enough to convict.

The wonderful thing about a trial is that it cuts through the cacophony of conflicting voices and focuses attention on a single narrative, or two competing narratives. Trump’s scattershot approach — Antifa! the George Floyd riots! — may work on social media, but he had no answer for the story the House managers told: After Trump had lost the election, he tried to hang onto power through lies and violence.

America heard that story.

Keeping the trial going for another week or two would not have changed the outcome. It’s possible those two weeks would have gilded the lily. Maybe Republicans would squirm more and look worse to the public. But another possibility was that something unpredictable would give Trump’s supporters a talking point. (Imagine, say, that another police shooting had led to violence from groups Democrats support.) Maybe the trial would bog down in procedural issues and the nation would tune out. Maybe the politics would turn as voters wondered why the Senate was talking about Trump rather than Covid relief.

If I had been in the Democrats’ strategy room, I think I’d have said, “We’ve got what we’re going to get. Let’s end this before anything goes wrong.”

Trump lost. One reason I feel that way is that I agree with David Frum: Trump lost. As the NYT’s Peter Baker put it, the vote was “an escape, not an exoneration”.

I think the 57-43 vote, in which Democrats stayed united and Republicans fractured, is the final episode of the 2020 election — the loss that concludes four months of Trump losing.

Ever since the vote totals started moving decisively towards Biden late on Election Night, Trump has been assuring his supporters that vindication was coming: Election boards would refuse to validate Biden’s win. No matter how many times Trump’s lawyers failed, the next court case would be the big one. Republican governors would refuse to certify the election results. Republican legislatures would appoint their own electors. Mike Pence would refuse to recognize the swing state votes; and if he didn’t, January 6 would be “wild”.

I hope that someday, somebody in Trump’s inner circle lets us know what he thought was going to happen when he sent his mob to the Capitol. His pre-insurrection speech didn’t instruct them just to protest the inevitable culmination of the electoral process, he told them to stop it: “stop the steal”. But how did he imagine they would do that? Just standing outside the Capitol waving Trump flags clearly would not do it. And even their violent riot only delayed Trump’s defeat by a few hours. So what was his plan for victory? Did he really expect them to hang Pence? Hunt down Pelosi? Use those zip-ties to take members of Congress hostage? Capture or destroy the electoral-vote ballots? What?

Whatever he imagined, it didn’t work. The insurrection was another defeat. His QAnon supporters then had elaborate fantasies of what would happen on Inauguration Day, but that vision only yielded another disappointment. And this week, if you were waiting for Trump himself or his brilliant legal team to humiliate his accusers, you were disappointed again.

The broken brand. When I think about Trump’s appeal, I remember a line out of Robert Penn Warren’s classic political novel All the King’s Men. Weeks after the Boss, Governor Willie Stark, has been assassinated, the narrator runs into Stark’s stuttering driver Sugar Boy. “They w-w-wasn’t n-n-nobody like the B-B-Boss,” he says. “He could t-t-talk so good.”

People look for things in their heroes that they find lacking in themselves. In Trump, people who felt like they were losing identified with a winner. Americans who felt voiceless and powerless identified with someone who was loud, unafraid to say outrageous things, and impossible to ignore. If they feared being called “racist” or wearing some other negative label, they loved that Trump never took such criticism lying down, but always gave back better than he got. I’ve heard his White House’s communications strategy described like this: Every day should be a drama in which Trump defeats his enemies.

That’s been his brand: a fighter, a winner. And this week completely wrecked it. Day after day, the House managers described his “Big Lie” of election fraud, and how it led to the failed insurrection. And no one struck back. He was invited to testify and chickened out. His lawyers had a giant stage on which to prove to the world that Biden stole the presidency, but (like the lawyers in most of his court cases) they didn’t try. Instead, they argued narrow legal points: The Constitution doesn’t allow the Senate to convict a former president. The First Amendment gave him a right to say what he did, whether it was true or not.

Rather than defend him, Republican senators hid behind technicalities. No talented lawyers would take his case, so he was left with clowns that Jamie Raskin’s crew completely outclassed. At times it seemed as if Trump’s lawyers hadn’t even talked to their client. When did Trump find out the riot was happening? asked Senators Collins and Murkowski, two potential swing votes. There was no way to know, claimed Michael Van Der Veen (a personal injury lawyer suddenly called up to the big leagues), because the House managers had refused to investigate. Later, Van Der Veen whined that the trial was “the most miserable experience I’ve had down here in Washington, D.C.”, setting Raskin up to respond: “For that I guess we’re sorry, but man, you should have been here on January 6th.”

Trump is no longer the larger-than-life winner his followers need him to be. He’s a loser surrounded by losers. (And that’s only going to get worse as lawsuits and indictments unrelated to January 6 start to roll in.) Trump was supposed to make people stop laughing at his supporters, but if you’ve been echoing his repeated claims of vindication, you keep getting embarrassed when they come to nothing.

Now that the trial has ended, the country’s attention will shift back to the battle against Covid, and to Biden’s $1.9 trillion proposal to repair the economic damage it has done. For months — even while he was still president — Trump has had nothing to say about the pandemic. And now, no one cares what he thinks.

The broken party. The Senate outcome — Democrats united, Republicans divided — symbolizes a larger political reality going forward. The split wasn’t between those who believed the Democratic narrative and those who don’t. A bipartisan consensus of Americans understand now that Trump tried to stay in power through lies and violence. Democrats are united in believing this was bad. Republicans are split about it.

CNN’s Ronald Brownstein examines the polling and finds a disturbing fault line in the GOP.

One-sixth to nearly one-fifth of Republicans have praised the January 6 attack in polling from PBS NewsHour/Marist and Quinnipiac. That’s a far higher percentage than among the public overall (just 8% in the Marist survey and 10% in Quinnipiac.) In the American Enterprise Institute poll, about 3-in-10 Republicans said they believed the QAnon conspiracy theory.

The share of Republican voters who express support for the use of force to advance their political goals in general is considerably larger. In the American Enterprise Institute survey, 55% of Republicans agreed that “we may have to use force to save” the “American way of life.” Roughly 4-in-10 agreed with an even more harshly worded proposition: “If elected leaders will not protect America, the people must do it themselves even if it requires taking violent actions.”

Brownstein suggests that what Mitch McConnell has described as a “cancer” in the party may have gotten so big that it is inoperable. Maybe the conspiracy-theory-and-violence faction of the GOP is too small to win with, but too big to win without.

I don’t think anybody over there has an answer for that.

The Monday Morning Teaser

Whenever I do a philosophical post like last week’s “Why You Can’t Understand Conservative Rhetoric“, I wonder how well it will catch on, and worry that I’m basically just talking to myself. It turns out I shouldn’t have worried this time: The post is as close to viral as the Sift gets these days. It’s got over 9K page views so far and should pass 10K before it’s done. It’s the most popular Sift post since NRA types realized that they hatedHow Should We Rewrite the Second Amendment?” in 2019. (Of course, neither post compares with ones from the golden age of viral blogs, before social-media algorithms added more friction to the system. Between them, “Not a Tea Party, a Confederate Party” and “The Distress of the Privileged” have over a million page views.)

Anyway, this week there’s really no choice about where to focus: The impeachment trial was historic, significant going forward, and the center of the public’s attention. You can take a glass-half-empty view that Trump should have been convicted and banned from future office, or a glass-half-full view that the trial fractured the Republicans and leaves Democrats united.

I take a half-full approach in this week’s featured post “The Week That Broke Trump’s Brand”, which should be out around 10 EST. The House managers’ narrative — that Trump lost the election, but tried to hang onto power through lies and violence — is pretty widely accepted now. The senators differed on how they feel about lies and violence as a political strategy. Democrats rejected it, and Republicans split three ways: some rejected it along with the Democrats, some continue to favor it, and a sizeable chunk in the middle doesn’t want to get on the wrong side of those who favor it.

This is going to be a problem for the country, but we’ll figure it out. The Republican Party, though, is in a serious fix. The lies-and-violence faction is too big to alienate, but not big enough to win with. The 2022 Republican primaries are going to be a circus.

Anyway, there’s still a pandemic to discuss, and a $1.9 trillion package waiting for Congress to act on. That will be the main subject of the weekly summary, which I guess will appear around noon.