Commentary on Political Economy

Thursday 8 February 2024

INTERVIEW WITH THE VAMPIRE (PUTIN) BY A WANNABE (CARLSON)... and the parlous state of America


US politicians line up to run themselves over

The Times

Another ordinary week in American politics. The president reminisced about recent conversations with long-dead European leaders. His predecessor as leader of the “nation of laws not men” failed in a move to have himself declared permanently immune from prosecution for all and any crimes he may have committed.

His only serious challenger for the Republican Party’s presidential nomination lost the latest primary contest to — literally — “none of the above”. And the country’s most prominent “America First” journalist flew to Moscow to pay tribute at the court of the Russian tsar.

And all this seemed routine compared with the circus of hypocrisy, dishonesty and ineptitude staged by the nation’s legislature.

Joe Biden’s alarming cognitive frailty apparently now extends beyond forgetting things that happened to remembering things that didn’t. He told one audience he had chatted with François Mitterrand at a G7 summit a few years ago, 20 years after the former French president died; and then another that he had shared thoughts with Helmut Kohl about American democracy at a meeting in 2021, four years after the former German chancellor had gone to receive judgment from the ultimate voter in the sky.

The European leader that Tucker Carlson, the commentator and arch Make America Great Again propagandist, met in Moscow was very much alive, and Carlson’s gently respectful tone with Vladimir Putin should at least ensure that, unlike some other journalists who have come up against the Russian president, the darling of the new American right will remain alive and at liberty.


Donald Trump’s attempt to sidestep his many legal problems with a bold claim that the president should have immunity from prosecution for all time may now go to the Supreme Court after an appeals court rejected it. Meanwhile the nation’s highest court seemed to give short shrift on Thursday to another wildly ambitious case, this one based on highly dubious constitutional theories from Trump’s opponents who want him disqualified from the ballot after his effort to overturn the result of the last election.

As it happens, because of an internal party dispute about allocating delegates, Trump wasn’t on the ballot in the Nevada Republican primary on Tuesday but Nikki Haley still managed to come second. “None of these Candidates” (meaning You Know Who) won by more than two to one.

It’s a relief to return to the familiar spectacle of a dysfunctional Congress incapable of doing its job. But events in Washington this week raise even more basic questions about whether the current American political culture is fit for the many domestic and global challenges it faces.

The trouble arose over an omnibus legislative package. It included $20 billion in funding and some tightening of border security to plug some of the holes that have led to a surge of illegal immigrants into the US since Biden came into office; $60 billion in military spending to help Ukraine; another $14 billion for Israel; and $10 billion in humanitarian assistance for Gaza.

The bill had been concocted over weeks of negotiations between Republicans, who have a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives, and Democrats, who hold a similar margin in the Senate. Democrats have long resisted measures to help to seal the porous border, while Republicans have become increasingly sceptical of assistance to Ukraine. Almost everyone wants to help Israel so the package was a classic compromise designed to get bipartisan support.

But at the last minute the Republicans balked. The reasons are manifold. Most of the media commentary blames craven Republicans for the mess after Trump signalled he was against any measure to secure the border — this on the cynical ground that he doesn’t want anything done before the election that might reduce the chaos in which more than seven million migrants have crossed illegally into the US under Biden.

But it’s more complicated. Republicans say the border measure doesn’t do nearly enough to reduce illegal immigration. They also argue, with reason, that Biden doesn’t even need legislation to enforce the border. All the measures that have led to a migrant influx in the past three years were executive actions that lifted restrictions put in place by Trump, along with the administration’s failure to enforce the law.

Sudden Democratic hand-wringing on the failure to restrict illegal immigration is rich — a little like the arsonist who demands to know why the fire brigade hasn’t shown up after his handiwork has burnt a house halfway to the ground. Polling has started to show that voters are furious about the border and Democrats are responding only now.


But Republicans are clearly at fault too. The bill may not build the wall they have long demanded but it does at least go some way to plugging gaps, as the organisation that represents border patrol agents argued in supporting it.

To compound the inaction produced by their own chicanery, Republicans then added ineptitude. Despite their House majority they failed to pass a resolution to impeach the homeland security secretary for his handling of the border.

Even more embarrassingly, they then failed to get enough votes to approve a standalone measure to provide the support for Israel. What happens next is unclear: yesterday the Senate passed measures that would fund Israel and Ukraine, but while the first will probably get through the House, the second may not. Meanwhile illegal immigrants will continue to stream across the border.

James Lankford, the Republican senator from Oklahoma who led the compromise efforts and was then abandoned by his colleagues, said ruefully that he had not only been thrown under the bus but that they had then “backed up over” him. As a metaphor for the rules of engagement of modern American politics, it was wholly apt.

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