Good morning, everyone!

As a rule, I do prefer for my pundit round-ups to have some sort of unifying theme but sometimes, there is such a wide variety of decent and interesting punditry out there that thematic “unity” can be a bit elusive.

This morning’s batch of punditry fits that latter category.

Enjoy!


Last night, the United States House of Representatives passed H.R.1, “a sweeping expansion of voting rights,” according to The New York Times. According to Ronald Brownstein of The Atlantic, Democrats are running out of time to pass the federal voter protection bill in the face of massive GOP voter suppression legislation in multiple states and, possibly, at the Supreme Court.

In Georgia, Texas, Arizona, Iowa, and Montana, Republican governors and legislators are moving forward bills that would reduce access to voting by mail, limit early voting, ban ballot drop boxes, inhibit voter-registration drives, and toughen identification requirements—measures inspired by the same discredited claims of election fraud that Donald Trump pushed after his 2020 loss. Earlier this week, the Republican-controlled House of Representatives in Georgia, for instance, passed a sweeping bill that would do almost all of those things.

The Supreme Court’s 6–3 conservative majority is unlikely to block many, or perhaps any, of these state laws. As a result, Democrats may have a single realistic opportunity to resist not only these proposals, but also GOP plans to institute severe partisan congressional gerrymanders in many of the same states. That opportunity: using Democrats’ unified control of Washington to establish national election standards—by passing the omnibus election-reform bill known as H.R. 1, which is scheduled for a House vote today, and the new Voting Rights Act, which is expected to come to the floor later this year.

Democrats may have only a brief window in which to block these state-level GOP maneuvers. Typically, the president’s party loses House and Senate seats in the first midterm election after his victory. Democrats will face even worse odds if Republicans succeed in imposing restrictive voting laws or gerrymandering districts in the GOP’s favor across a host of red states.

Olivia Goldhill of STATnews has a special report out of Florida on COVID-19 vaccines that were intended for the arms of rural Black communities winding up in the arms of “wealthy white Floridians.”

For the Feb. 13 vaccination event, a slow stream of cars arrived all morning and early afternoon at the Pahokee High School football stadium, down a quiet road flanked by dark fields and mostly empty school parking lots. There were never more than six vehicles in the observation area where people waited for 15 minutes after they’d had their vaccine. Typically, at least five of the cars were filled with white occupants.

They came from Stuart and West Palm Beach and Miami, even from Port Charlotte on the Gulf coast, many arriving in Pahokee for the first time. Plenty of locals were vaccinated too, but they were outnumbered by the out-of-towners. They drove with hearts in their mouths, anxious at the possibility of finally getting Covid-19 protection after weeks of rising at 5:45 a.m. to unsuccessfully enter the online lottery for vaccines that had been outsourced to the Publix supermarket chain.

“I’m so grateful. I feel I’m going to have another chance to live,” said Nancy Gerace, a 73-year-old, white retired teacher from West Palm Beach with type 2 diabetes. She wiped away tears of relief and shakily thanked everyone in sight. “I’ve been so scared of this virus, I’ve seen so many people around me who’ve died,” she said. “I have too many other things I want to do before I die.”

Individually, each person who arrived was desperate for a life-protecting injection. Collectively, their demographics reflected a pattern that has played out within Florida and across the United States, where the Black and Hispanic populations disproportionately affected by Covid-19 have been left behind in the vaccine rollout. In Palm Beach County, while Black people make up 18% of residents and Hispanic people 21.7%, these communities had received just 4.1% and 4.7% of vaccines respectively, as of March 1.

Continuing on the COVID-19 beat, Laura Spinney of the Guardian wonders whether pursuing a strategy of “elimination” as opposed to “mitigation and suppression” may have been the better strategy in fighting COVID-19.

The rest of the world is pursuing a mitigation and suppression strategy, according to which we will have to live with Covid-19 and therefore we must learn to manage it – aiming for herd immunity by the most painless route possible. The poster child for this approach is Sweden’s chief epidemiologist, Anders Tegnell, who told me last week that elimination was a pipe dream for most of the world because even if a country were able to achieve it once, it would be impossible to prevent reintroductions without maintaining a costly and potentially restrictive surveillance apparatus. If the strategy failed, the country would have to revert to suppression anyway, but the population would have paid a much higher price. He too is in it for the long haul, he says; “sustainability” is his watchword. This is how he justifies the gradual tightening of restrictions in his country, from a very relaxed start.

And so the world is cleaved in two, with each bloc operating according to a different set of assumptions, in a kind of public health rerun of the cold war. One bloc assumes that Covid-19 can be eliminated, the other that it can’t. The latter thinks the former is chasing an impossible utopia. The former thinks the utopia could be achieved if only everyone pulled together.

Epidemiologists build assumptions into their models where there is uncertainty – where they lack data. The assumptions that are made when a new disease emerges are drawn from experience with other diseases. They have to be. Before Covid-19 emerged, most of the world’s pandemic response plans were predicated on flu, because flu has caused most pandemics in history. Flu spreads rapidly through a population, because an infected person can infect others before they develop symptoms, and because the disease has a short serial interval (the time between successive cases) of three days. For these reasons, the consensus is that flu cannot be eliminated; it has to be managed.

Joan Vennochi of the Boston Globe asks an obvious question about the Andrew Cuomo sexual harassment scandal.

There’s no defense for Cuomo’s actions. He’s a first-class jerk, whose conduct appears to violate Title VII of the Civil Rights Act. But once again we are left to ponder the mish-mash of standards and consequences regarding sexual misconduct, especially in the public sector. In the 2016 election, Americans elected Donald Trump as president despite multiple accusations of sexual harassment and misconduct. The next year, allegations of sexual assault made against Hollywood producer Harvey Weinstein went public, turning the rallying cry #MeToo into a movement. In 2018, under pressure from fellow Democrats, US Senator Al Franken of Minnesota resigned after several women accused him of unwanted kissing and touching. Also in 2018, Supreme Court nominee Brett Kavanaugh faced an accusation from Christine Blasey Ford that he sexually assaulted her decades ago when they were in high school. Kavanaugh famously fought back, and now sits on the Supreme Court. Trump still got 74 million votes in the 2020 election, even after a woman accused him of rape. Representative Madison Cawthorn, a freshman Republican from North Carolina, is under renewed scrutiny for allegations that he sexually harassed classmates in college. On social media, his actions are being compared with Cuomo’s.

David Fahrenthold, Jonathan O’Connell, Shayna Jacobs, and Tom Hamburger of the Washington Post reports that Manhattan District Attorney Cyrus Vance, Jr. appears to be turning up the investigative heat on the Trump Corporation’s CFO Allen Weisselberg.

Cyrus R. Vance Jr. (D), Manhattan’s top prosecutor, has not formally accused anyone of wrongdoing, including Trump, Weisselberg or the latter’s family. But the focus on Weisselberg underscores the depth and ambition of Vance’s inquiry, a criminal investigation broader than any Trump’s company is known to have faced before.

Vance’s focus on Weisselberg has included questions related to two of his adult children, a tactic that could be an effort to increase pressure on the elder Weisselberg. One of Weisselberg’s sons also works for the Trump Organization, where he manages the company’s Central Park ice rinks. Another Weisselberg son works for a company that has extended loans to the Trump Organization.

Vance recently obtained millions of pages of Trump’s tax and financial records. Now he appears to be focused on their human equivalent: a man who has paid Trump’s bills and kept his books since the 1980s.

Weisselberg has been CFO since 2000 and has said he handles nearly all the company’s financial transactions. He once described himself in a deposition as Trump’s “eyes and ears . . . from an economic standpoint.”

Steve Phillips laments in The Nation magazine that, in the state of Ohio, Democrats (chiefly Representative Tim Ryan) seems to be focusing on a losing formula as opposed to utilizing a proven winning formula utilized by Barack Obama and Stacey Abrams.

The right way to enhance the prospects of victory is to work to recreate the multiracial Obama coalition that twice powered the first Black president to victory. The wrong way is to try to convince Trump voters to see the error of their ways and hope they will shift their allegiance to the Democrats.

I fear that too much attention is already being paid to the wrong way—particularly in my home state of Ohio, where Rob Portman’s retirement has created an opening and lots of opinions about how Democrats can win in the Midwest.

***

Over the course of the past several years, Ohio Congressman Tim Ryan has been a leading proponent of the wrong way. Ryan, who is likely to throw his hat in the ring for the Ohio Senate seat, made clear that his focus is on trying, as he put it in a recent MSNBC interview, to “capture those working-class people who may have voted for Donald Trump.” He recently diagnosed the dire situation of Buckeye State Democrats by saying that “80 to 90 percent of the problem is and has been the national brand, the perception of what Democrats believe and stand for nationally on the coasts, versus what we stand for as Democrats in Ohio.”

As someone who grew up in Ohio and now lives on “the coast” in the lefty San Francisco Bay Area, I’m curious about exactly what parts of the “national brand” Ryan bemoans. Were Black Lives Matter protests, for example, about coastal hot-button issues, or were they relevant to Ohioans worried about the well-being of young Black boys like 12-year-old Cleveland resident Tamir Rice, who was killed by the police?

I’d have to look it up to be sure, but I think that the demographics in Ohio have changed a bit since 2008 and 2012, adding a layer of difficulty in winning the Buckeye State and reproducing Democratic wins like Obama-era Ohio and last year’s Democratic victories in Georgia and Arizona, although Phillips is right about what should be the overall strategy, IMO.

Moving on to foreign policy and international news commentary, Mark Garnett writes for Foreign Policy that, in some ways, the traditional job of the British Prime Minister has become obsolete or “broken.”

One of the most serious problems British leaders face is almost entirely self-inflicted. Every prime minister since 1945 has succumbed, to different degrees, to a self-defeating compulsion to overestimate Britain’s capacity to influence global developments. Successive prime ministers and their speechwriters have indulged in rhetoric suggesting the country has vast stores of international influence. Intended to please the public, it has instead merely set the country up for disappointment. Nationalist rhetoric formed a significant part of the mood music that convinced a narrow majority of voters in 2016 that Brexit would be a risk-free venture.

Even relatively levelheaded Prime Minister David Cameron regularly expressed this type of nationalism, which contributed to his own inability to eventually rebuff the Brexiteer slogan of “Take Back Control” in the 2016 referendum. Cameron was better placed than anyone to argue that the British state had limited capacity to take control of anything beyond the pay and pensions of its employees—but if he had attempted this crucial step into the real world, he would have looked like one of the so-called defeatists who, allegedly, had sold Britain short since 1945.

In large part, of course, the inability of the British state to exercise more than a modicum of control over its decisions is a consequence of globalization, of which the United Kingdom had been a pioneer in the 19th century but which, inexorably, would have reduced its relative status even without the impact of two ruinous world wars. The country’s acute vulnerability to developments outside its borders should have been common knowledge among 2016 voters, thanks to the damage inflicted by the credit crunch that began to affect financial institutions in 2007.

Felix Light of The New Statesman has a sobering article on why efforts to oust Russian President Vladimir Putin, such as Alexei Navalny’s, may be doomed to fail for the time being.

Now, with Putin in his third decade of power and Russians’ real incomes having shrunk by 11 per cent since 2013, food prices rising and new sanctions heaped atop old, prognoses of looming catastrophe seem more real than ever.

But though Russia’s recent economic performance has been underwhelming, a grim set of statistics can obscure a deeper truth. Today’s tightened belts are unlikely to drive Russia into revolution, simply because most Russians can still remember a time when things were much worse. The Russia of 2021 may have registered close to zero GDP growth in a decade, but it is a vastly more prosperous, healthier and more habitable country than the dysfunctional wreck Putin inherited in 2000, to say nothing of the still worse conditions of 1990 or 1950.

Despite everything, the present is still a historically good time to live in the world’s largest country. Contemporary Russians live longer, drink less and, strange though it may seem, enjoy more personal freedom than in almost any time in their history. Russia’s embryonic semi-democracy may have been strangled, but compared to the rolling social, economic and cultural catastrophes of Boris Yeltsin’s Nineties or the Stalinist nightmare – still just about within living memory – Putin’s unimaginative but unintrusive authoritarianism is far from the worst of possible worlds.

Michael Chugani of the South China Morning Post can be forgiven for attributing a phrase made famous by Jesse Jackson, Sr. during his 1988 presidential bid to former President Barack Obama because it flat-out took a bit of gumption to write a column like this in Hong Kong in the post-national security law era.

I support both democracy and Beijing’s sovereignty over Hong Kong. They are not mutually exclusive. Beijing, obsessed with the false belief that an independence movement has taken root, doesn’t seem to grasp that. Its tightening grip is choking off hope of real democracy.

A headline in the Post said Beijing should let Hong Kong be Hong Kong. It encapsulated the soul of Hong Kong people. Letting us be who we are doesn’t mean subversion, secession, colluding with foreign forces, or being unpatriotic.

It means preserving our free way of life that allows independent thought, a lively media, and right to protest. That’s what earned Hong Kong global admiration. But the Post headline, although recent, belongs to the halcyon days.
We no longer attract global admiration. Western democracies see us as an oppressed city under Beijing’s thumb, which has curtailed our freedoms with a sweeping but vague national security law.
Beijing is expected to further alter Hong Kong’s DNA when the country’s parliament meets this weekend. It has been widely reported that top leaders will overhaul Hong Kong’s election structure to allow only patriots to govern.

Eleanor Cummins of Vox on what passes for “skepticism” nowadays. (I have to wonder what learn may have to say on this subject this morning!)

A skeptical attitude has been a tenet of rational thought since at least ancient Greece. In some sense, the scientific method, a process by which people can develop hypotheses and carry out experiments to see if their predictions are valid, is just skepticism, rigorously applied.

“The ancient skeptics would talk about skepticism as a ‘medicine for the mind,’” says Baron Reed, a philosophy professor at Northwestern University and the co-editor of Skepticism: From Antiquity to the Present. It could offer clarity and, some argue, even happiness.

That notion of a “healthy skepticism” persists. But Americans increasingly display only a “temperamental skepticism,” says Kurt Andersen, author of Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire — A 500-Year History. It’s “skepticism as an instinct or reflex,” he says, instead of empirically based doubt. In this paradigm, asking questions is enough. The hard work of evaluating evidence — and acting when it proves sufficient — is no longer required.

“It sounds so much more fair-minded and scientific [to be a skeptic] than to be a denier,” says Lee McIntyre, a research fellow at Boston University’s Center for Philosophy and History of Science and the author of Post-Truth. “But,” he adds, “the problem is this: They’re actually not skeptics, they’re actually quite gullible.”

Finally this morning, Angry Grammarian of the Philadelphia Inquirer takes note of specific nomenclature changes since the inauguration of President Joe Biden.

Language of persecution and hate permeated government websites, press releases, and laws for much of the last four years. As the Times detailed, it’s because of Miller’s linguistic influence that President Biden has had so much work to do since taking office to change the language of government to reflect values of dignity, equity, and fairness. Biden’s team is making quick progress undoing the damage.

Among the changes since the inauguration:

  • The Department of Homeland Security now refers to noncitizens instead of illegal aliens and criminal aliens, phrases the Trump administration used over and over again to literally alienate those from another country — even in reference to, say, a 6-year-old Costa Rican.

  • Packing executive orders with zeitgeist-y words like equity, a word that — according to Factba.se, which has cataloged all of Trump’s unscripted remarks — Trump never once uttered unless it was in reference to money.

  • Including Tribal people among the Interior Department’s stakeholders — and capitalizing Tribal, a typographical bridge that even the Elements of Indigenous Style doesn’t cross.

  • Allowing mention of climate change, which the Environmental Protection Agency is finally able to acknowledge again.

  • When you contact the White House, you’re asked if you want to identify your pronouns, and options include they/them, other, and prefer not to share.

Each of these represents a sea change in how government accepts groups, individuals, and ideas, and their collective impact is enormous.

Everyone have a good morning!

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