Progress Report

Is it too late for Taylor Swift to enter the race for president? By Inauguration Day, she’ll be 35!

Okay, back to earth. But as it’s now February and matters have crystallized a bit, let’s take a realistic look at the prospects: not wishfully, not cynically, but with due regard for the future.

Nikki Haley is still around and has somewhat sharpened her attacks on Trump. Many never-Trumpers bemoan her failure to go the full Liz Cheney/Chris Christie and call out Trump as the bullying, lying, utterly self-interested, strongman-loving fraud he is. In their longing for Haley to give Trump hell, they forget one minor difference between her and all of Liz, Christie, Mitt and themselves: Nikki, at least for the time being, is an actual candidate.  For president.  She’s not running for vice president, she’s not running for headlines, and she’s not running to be Democrats’ favorite Republican.

Which means Nikki Haley is pursuing a chosen course that she calculates (I use the term advisedly) gives her the best chance to win — even if that chance is maybe 5 percent as compared to another strategy’s 1 percent.

The never-Trumpers also condemn her expected eventual endorsement of Trump, when she will fall in line like DeSantis, Scott and most of the rest, and humiliate herself to preserve some (probably illusory) future in today’s GOP.  But that hasn’t happened yet.  I hope it doesn’t happen.  I’d be disappointed, although not shocked.  More importantly, I don’t believe that in her own mind, Haley has made that decision yet.  I believe that she is following the mantra of most successful athletes: focus only on the next pitch, the next play, the next game — don’t worry about things outside your control.  

We all fall into the trap of projecting the future based on current conditions.  Based on current conditions, Trump is the inevitable nominee, Biden is his party’s nominee, and the election will be close.  And yes, that’s the waterfall I fear we’re drifting toward, and there is no telling whether we survive the fall.

But this much I guarantee: the present conditions will change.  We don’t know how they will change, but they will.  The environment will be different. People, at home and abroad, will do things yet unknown, and those changes will affect the outcome.  As Ebenezer Scrooge said, “Man’s courses will foreshadow certain ends, to which, if persevered in, they must lead.  But if the courses be departed from, the ends will change.”

Given the limited outcomes of the election, we might finish in the same place, but almost surely we will get there by a different path than what we expect.  Let us count the ways.

First, what might help Trump’s chances?   Some business sector collapses and the economy – now well on the road to recovery – nosedives instead.  Or some recent illegal immigrant goes berserk in a mass killing.  Or the Mideast explodes into a broader war or concerted terrorism, in which hundreds of US troops lose their lives.  The last of these risks seems particularly realistic and must weigh on President Biden as he chooses a response to the recent attack that left three US soldiers dead.

Alternatively, what might help Biden’s – or even Haley’s – chances?   Trump suffers a massive judgment in the New York business fraud case, north of $300 million, and we learn he can not in fact pay it without a fire sale of assets.   Or he becomes increasingly erratic under legal and electoral pressure.  Or his personal scuttling of the border security/foreign aid compromise won by Republicans in Congress backfires as Biden exploits Trump’s cynical political move.  Or the obstruction of government/January 6 trial actually goes forward by this summer and results in a conviction.  Any of these could cause his aura of invincibility in MAGA-world to flicker.

Then there are the more open-ended ‘what ifs’:  a ‘health event’ on the part of either Biden or Trump.  Or major battlefield and territory losses by Ukraine during the summer campaign — which way would that cut politically?  Or a firefight between federal agents and state police at the border in Texas, with neighboring states (you can name them) pledging to send Governor Abbott reinforcements?

I do not include the outcome of the Colorado disqualification case, as it seems almost inconceivable that the Supreme Court affirm Trump’s disqualification from the ballot; it’s too massive a political step.  I will not discuss the legal questions prior to reading Trump’s reply brief, due February 5th. But having read the main parties’ briefs to date and several of the many amicus briefs, I am at a loss to see any attractive ground for reversal.  I don’t know whether even the smartest person in Washington, Chief Justice Roberts, can find one.

So the ‘known unknowns,’ as Donald Rumsfeld would have it, abound.  And then there are the unknown unknowns — which, for reasons I hope are obvious, cannot be named.

Sooner or later, something will shift: the puzzle pieces will rearrange themselves, and the picture will be different.  Then they will shift again and the picture will change. And again.

Given all this, Nikki Haley’s cautiously calibrated criticism of Trump, be it ever so frustrating, is the right choice.  For now.

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One for My Baby

Today’s primary election brings warm weather. When I head out of my bungalow around 11:30 it’s a balmy 37 degrees and the brief flurry we had this morning is gone.

There are no events, and I don’t feel like going to some high school to watch voters vote, but brunch at the Red Arrow is always appealing. When I arrive, and have to wait just a bit for a seat at the counter, some woman is giving a radio interview at the entrance end of the place, where the (few) tables are. Listening for a while, I find out it’s Lara Trump, wife of Eric and therefore daughter-in-law of Donald. I don’t pay much attention, as it’s the straight MAGA line, but one remark of hers strikes me. On the sad state of America, she says, “Every day we’re getting closer to George Orwell’s 1984.

Well, indeed we are getting closer — but how insidious that the remark comes from the very forces that are taking us there. Another example of turning an attack exactly around to aim it at the accuser, like charging Biden with ‘election interference’ for supposedly orchestrating litigation against candidate Trump. It is depressingly effective.

But gaining my seat at the counter, I can shrug off doom, at least temporarily. Today there is extra help behind the counter: a little girl named Paxton is assisting my server Robin. Paxton is cute, off from school today, and boundlessly energetic, and she’s learning the diner service ropes; I assume she is some employee’s or owner’s daughter. Robin lets her “make” my hot cocoa (you push a button on the machine) and add the whipped cream (which shoots out of a can). Controlling the whipped cream is not so easy, so I end up with lots of it, all over the handle of the mug too. No worries; it’s delicious anyway. As are the eggs, bacon, and pancakes. (The Red Arrow serves over five thousand strips of bacon a week! The mind reels.) In answer to my question, Paxton confirms she is in sixth grade.

The two folks next to me are a photographer and his assistant. I did not get his name, but the assistant is busy on her laptop, choosing and editing photos, captioning them, naming them, storing them – her fingers fly and different boxes and lists appear, shift, recede, reappear. Why would one need 80 different photos of Ron DeSantis? Presumably because one never knows which of the oh-so-slightly different shots some fickle editor will choose.

She has some of their equipment on the counter between us: a lens, a light bar with meter, and a white plastic thing that looks a bit like a kneepad. (I’m trying not to get pancake syrup on her lens.) Eventually I have to ask her what the white thing is; it is definitely low-tech and therefore possibly understandable. “That’s a light diffuser,” she tells me. Of course; I knew that. Don’t want the light to be, um, too undiffused. And it all seems to work, because I look at some of the larger photos she puts on her screen – these happen to be in color, unlike most – and they are gorgeous. Some young guy with a beard – is this Donald Junior? – but perfectly focused, lighted and tinted. This guy in the pictures, whoever he is, should be hanging around the Riviera, having a good time. Something as simple, these days, as taking a picture still is definitely improved in the hands of a pro.

After those two leave, along comes Chris Wallace of CNN and his assistant, who sits between us. They are off duty, not here to ask voters questions or take the pulse of the locals but just to have lunch. And, in a place where calories are plentiful, they are pretty sensible, like people who eat at a lot of places on the road and don’t want to become blimps. Wallace has a grilled cheese and tomato sandwich, and she has something with quinoa in it. I ask them about logistics: obviously Wallace will be reporting from here, Manchester, this evening, but then when does he go back to DC, late tonight or can he travel tomorrow? They’re going tomorrow morning, flying out of the Manchester regional airport. Wallace notes that coming from Iowa to here is not bad, as the press does it over several days, but then everybody leaves here at the same time, the day after the primary, so the airport is packed tomorrow morning, and there aren’t that many flights. I ask if he’s going to South Carolina next and he says no – “I’m at an age where I can pick and choose my trips.” He looks to be in good shape – I’d have judged he is 65, but Googling him afterwards I find he’s 76. I tell him I’ll look for him on the tube tonight.

I leave a tip via my credit card but also give a real dollar to Paxton, who beams and thanks me. She’s got the whole drill down.

That evening when the polls close, 7 pm in Manchester, I head to a restaurant and bar called The Farm for a tv. (My bungalow is without broadcast or cable.) It’s the same spot I used for watching the football playoff games, or parts thereof. over the weekend. I’m having a beer and watching Texas and Oklahoma play basketball on ESPN, and after a while ask the bartender if he could put on a news station for a while. He says sure, if he can find one, and he mentions knowing I’d been there a couple times before. (I am surprised they noticed; I always think I’m inconspicuous almost to the point of invisibility.) He asks which one I’d like and I say, try MSNBC (sorry, Mr. Wallace). Eventually as he re-emerges, the channel control being someplace downstairs, he reports they don’t have MSNBC, how about CNBC? I’m not sure but say okay, try that. After some more time, CNBC comes on: it’s just interviews from the Davos conference, and ones filmed a week ago at that. I don’t really need to see Sergio Ermotti, CEO of USB, talking to someone, even if they are sitting outdoors in a beautiful setting of snow, pine trees, and mountains. I tell bartender Alex he can turn ESPN back on. Besides, by now I’ve received a text from my very good friend Donald announcing that he’s won New Hampshire. And one shouldn’t drink when one is depressed, so I’d better head back to my temporary abode where, besides there being no tv, there is no beer.

Nikki Haley, I see, has vowed to keep on battling. And she has not done badly here – at last check, she’s down by about 11 percentage points; Trump has won 11 delegates and she has won 8, with three still up for grabs. But this probably was her best shot for a win. Even as a two-term popular governor of South Carolina, she reportedly trails Donald by 30 points there. I am not surprised she lost here, and I won’t be surprised if she loses there. Or everywhere else.

Is it worth continuing? Easy for me to say yes, but I’m not going to suffer the personal attacks and the pressure to fall into line. Dear Nikki. At least fighting all the way to the convention would avert the humiliating moment of bending the knee to Orange Julius and having to endorse him, a fate cringingly embraced by many — lookin’ at you, Tim Scott, and you, Alfred E. Neuman (I mean, Ron DeSantis). And yes, there are cards on the table yet to be turned up: court cases especially. But polling indicates that even a felony conviction would not cut Trump’s GOP support enough to deny him the nomination.

It’s colder outside as I leave the bar; at least it feels that way. It’s not late, not even 10 pm yet. Certainly not 2:45 in the morning. But it feels late. I’m thinking of Johnny Mercer, from 80 years ago.

It's quarter to three
There's no one in the place
Except you and me.
So, set 'em up, Joe
I got a little story I think you should know.

We're drinkin', my friend, to the end
of a brief episode;
Make it one for my baby
And one more
For the road.

So dear readers, tomorrow I’ll head home from New Hampshire, from a primary week that, in truth, was less exciting than past ones, with fewer characters striding the stage, no plot twists and no happy ending. Still an experience not to be missed, but one that I hope will see better days. And the greater challenge still awaits, in November.

So thanks for the cheer
I hope you didn't mind
My bendin' your ear.
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Eve of Destruction

Whoever said ‘there’s no such thing as a free lunch’ did not reckon on the press’s hunger for publicity. My lunch was free today, courtesy of Sirius XM Radio, but let me first back up to the morning, since there’s supposed to be a little political content here along with the cultural ramblings.

I was up and out by 8:15 today, in beautiful cold bright sunshine and no wind, and off to Franklin, NH, about 30 minutes north. Nikki Haley is having a “meet & greet” there at 10 am, with doors opening at 9. I’m not sure how a meet & greet differs from a rally (smaller maybe) but it sounds like more fun than visiting Trump headquarters in downtown Manchester, especially as I had no valid reason to be at the latter.

I’m confident that Nikki is not as cruel, or ignorant, as Donald is when it comes to people waiting in line, but just in case, I’m wearing my long underwear.  (But no hat: fashion before comfort.)

Parking was more environmentally friendly than I would have liked. The VFW hall where Nikki will speak has a parking lot that is modest, and it’s adjoined by some unpaved fields, bordering the lovely Merrimack River.  In fact, Franklin is at the source of the Merrimack.  As I inched through the parking lot in a line of cars, it became apparent that there were no more spots in the lot itself – some turned around (and not easily) to search for grayer pastures but I headed for the open back corner of the lot, as a field beckoned beyond.  The field seemed to have been used before for such overflow; it was snowy but mostly ice-covered.  As I entered – slow, slow – I soon had the magical but unsettling feeling that I’d left the ground, and was grandly floating over the landscape, leaving behind such mundane concerns as tires and brakes.  And I saw the river sparkling ahead, just a gentle slope away, and thought it would be quite embarrassing to park in several feet of water.  Not to mention cold.  Fortunately I came back to earth with plenty of field still around me.  Never in doubt!

I know from hard experience that I’m no good at backing out of anywhere, so I started making a careful k-turn so I could park facing the escape route and also get out of the field entrance.  As I was executing this maneuver (with precision and patience) along comes a woman in a big vehicle of some sort and drives into the field at about 20 miles an hour, turns completely around me and glides into the spot on my right, lined up exactly parallel with me.  And hops out and walks off.  Not a backward glance. Damned show-off.

I got in line outside the hall, probably a hundred people ahead of me, which is not bad.  I’m chatting with an older (!) gentleman – he said he’s 82 – who looks kind of like Pete Seeger, and a young woman.  The man is definitely an anti-Trumper and has been driving and walking cross-country trying to save democracy.  (His words.)  I don’t quite get his specific goals, but he’s very much committed to the effort.  In fact he proudly shows us his caravan, parked right behind us, professionally painted with his message.

“Walking to Fix Democracy” Bus

As we wait, we’re approached by a crew from Spectrum TV (which they mention is not available here locally, but is in New York) and both the older gent and the young woman decline to talk, so I give them some dumb, absolutely commonplace comments about why I like Haley, why Trump’s bad, Biden’s a worry, and I’m not optimistic about the outcome. (Brilliant, original analysis flees like the morning dew when someone sticks a microphone in my face.) But they seem to like it, and afterwards the young woman says I sounded very logical and expressed myself well. (She’s now my favorite person in line!)

We get inside and it’s a low, not terrifically big, room. Press at the back and along one side, and everybody else cramming themselves in toward the front. We’re all standing. I give a resentful glance to two or three young men standing near me who all are north of six feet. My friend – we are chums now, and her name is Ashley – says she should have worn her heels. However, with a little squirming, we’re only a few feet from the front and can see between people’s heads, as we wait.

At this point, looking round at the crowd (because you never know) I actually see a familiar face, and asking Ashley to hold my space, I go over to check. It’s a young friend from Larchmont by way of Brown University, one Caitlyn Carpenter, here to see how these things work. I’m glad she’s here, as I say (again): I think everybody should do this.

I return to my spot and soon out comes a local commissioner of some sort to welcome us. He also – he reminds us – is the former five-term mayor of Franklin. Franklin, in case we don’t know, is the birthplace of Daniel Webster!! (my later checking shows Webster as coming from Salisbury, but that’s nearby and might be a division or offshoot of Franklin; I don’t want to deprive the mayor.) He’s followed by Gov. Chris Sununu who’s as charming and down to earth as ever.

I am interviewed once more, this time by Fox News for the Jesse Watters show. I’ve got my act slightly more together now (I think) and at least tell them some reasons why I could never vote for Trump – utter self-centeredness, lack of any historical knowledge, isolationism. I don’t mention the basics: the lies, the fraud, the urge for vengeance; they’re not going to use those anyway. Again I get plaudits from audience-neighbor Ashley, and as I bask briefly in the praise, I start worrying I’m not so different from DJT.

And here comes Nikki! She seems fresh, confident, composed. How many of these stops does she make? Don’t these candidates get tired? But she is animated and goes through most points of her stump speech with commitment. And a couple of lines I hadn’t heard before: more pointedly saying that everything that Donald Trump says is a lie; it’s what he does. And on the age issue, that ‘a vote for Biden is a vote for President Kamala Harris’ which gets a big moan from the crowd.

Afterwards we line up, raggedly, for a photo with Nikki and again I’m pleased with her graciousness, including with those who might screw up the finely-oiled photo process. An elderly man wants a picture but doesn’t have his cellphone – “I left it at home” – and arrangements are made so he gets a photo on the spot, and during the extra couple of minutes this takes, Nikki does not betray a hint of impatience. Maybe that’s just being a good politician, but I’d have at least made a face. Then it’s my turn.

At least I have my nice sweater on.

I am chatting with Ashley, who is going to vote for Haley tomorrow but doesn’t know what she’ll do in November if it’s Trump and Biden. She says she is pretty conservative (she should move to Larchmont! we need balance!). She has two very young daughters, one in daycare and one, I think, in kindergarten. Her background – her maiden name is Ashley Bussolari (used with her permission) – is Italian, but clearly Northern Italian as her skin and hair, indeed her looks, remind me more of a young Liv Ullmann (dating myself again) than a Loren type. She has taken today off to come to this event. She’s shy about interviews and such, but happy to get a photo with Nikki. And I get a quick shot as she’s leaving Nikki:

My audience-mate Ashley

We part outside and I go in search of my car. I manage to drive out and with the help of the nice lady inside the cellphone, only get lost once on my way back to the highway south. As I’m driving down I-93 to Manchester, my phone rings. My daughter always tells me not to answer the phone (even the home line when I’m home) as it will just be junk, but I am ever hopeful. So I answer and it’s a “fact checker” from the New Yorker, checking some quotes I gave to an interviewer – named more or less Eren Orban, it’s Turkish – following the Trump rally a few days ago. I confirm he got things right. And I thank her for checking, which I’m sure most but not all media do. I am not quoted by name, but I’ll recognize the lines if and when I see them.

Back at the Red Arrow around noon, I’m handed a special little menu in addition to their regular fairly massive one. The special menu has about five dishes on it, and they are courtesy of Sirius XM Radio, who is doing a show at one end of the place. I have the 2×2 combination of two scrambled eggs, two strips of bacon, two sausages, and two pancakes. And a cup of hot cocoa of course. My nice server Katie says it’s on the house, courtesy of Sirius. So there (sometimes) is a free lunch. I leave a big tip.

The fact checker for the New Yorker had told me that the story is for the online edition, not print. OK, that’s a vast disappointment – guess I didn’t make the big time after all – but it doesn’t dampen my mood. The sun was bright, traffic was light, I got to see Nikki again, I got to chat with a pretty young lady, I saw a friend, and I’ve enjoyed a free breakfast, or lunch.

And voting isn’t until tomorrow, so why be depressed today?

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Man About Town

Saturday afternoon, and I head over to the Red Arrow for lunch around 2:30. I had tried an hour or so earlier, but it was absolutely full, jam-packed, so I went for a walk in town and scouted some churches for possible attendance tomorrow. By 2:30 there is room at the counter and I dive immediately into a mug of their excellent hot cocoa. It’s a good thing that the Red Arrow does not have a liquor license…

A man two seats away asks what brings me here, and we begin to chat. He’s here with his pal, a fellow named something like Arnold – he corrected me on the pronunciation and I didn’t really get it; I get names better when I can picture them spelled. But Arno or Arnauld or similar is a dentist from the Netherlands who’s got an interest in American politics, so here they are, visiting like me.

The name of the one nearer me is Charles, Charles Duffy, and he’s from the DC area. They’d been to see Nikki Haley and liked her. He said they also had gone over to Trump’s campaign headquarters – which are a few blocks away – to see it, and there was Matt Gaetz whom they met. They urged me to go to the HQ, as clearly you never know who you might see there. From Charles’s remarks it seems he is not a big fan of Trump or of Congressman Gaetz – who is a Floridian, a bigtime Trump acolyte, and defender of the ‘stand your ground’ law when he earlier served in Florida’s legislature. Just to show that no one is all bad, Gaetz also has been accused of sex trafficking, and paying for sex with minors; reportedly the House Ethics Committee in June 2023 reopened its investigation into allegations of “Gaetz’s sexual misconduct, illicit drug use, and other misconduct.” I might have to drop in at Trump HQ to meet this paragon.

We get to talking about what we do, and I give them – gratis! – the name of my blog site, in case they have, for example, a five-hour plane ride with nothing else to do. Charles informs me that he’s in fact a trial lawyer for the Department of Justice – civil tax division. He thinks it’s ridiculous to talk of the DOJ being ‘weaponized’ against someone, as the great mass of people there are career lawyers like him; they don’t function out of personal animus. I don’t pursue it, and I’m glad that, by the same token, he does not feel professionally threatened by the prospect of a second Trump administration.

I got a photo of myself with my Dutch dentist friend – Charles, camera shy, is just at the righthand margin:

Netherlands Arn, and I, with Charles at edge

At this point we were – of course – joined by a presidential candidate. There is a hierarchy among candidates, with the ‘real’ ones – Biden, Trump, Haley, even DeSantis – at the top, and next the real but quixotic or odd ones – Ramaswamy, Robert Kennedy Jr., etc. – and the third-party hopefuls, and then, somewhere below, the amateurs. Even among these, however, there are levels of seriousness or effort or weirdness. So the man I met last night, Democrat Mr. Prascak of the robotics, was definitely down the amateur scale. This one today, a Republican, is one level above that: he comes across as substantial and engaging, he has a website (but who doesn’t?) and he travels. This is Peter Jedick, who is well-known and well-liked at the Red Arrow, and who hails from Rocky River, Ohio. Find him at

Best of all, the back of his card says “Do Not Donate.” With the proud claim, “Peter Jedick is the only candidate who is not accepting donations.” A welcome relief and much appreciated! My fingers get tired deleting the six to ten emails I get every day from Trump and Friends of Trump and Relatives of Trump and Congresspeople in Thrall to Trump asking for money. (For a terrifically astute businessman with billions of dollars, DJT is awfully eager to get my twenty bucks; perhaps he anticipates writing a check soon for a large civil judgment.) But Jedick is my kind of guy: someone asks him about Ukraine, and he says we should send troops — yes, US troops, boots on the ground — to throw the Russian army back into Russia. Sign me up!

Peter’s other card – one simply must have a personal card in addition to one’s candidate card – describes him as ‘author, historian, public speaker.’ Maybe he’s a college professor, or a retired one. Or he could be an electrician or a dairy farmer for all I know; we don’t talk long enough for me to get his background. But he’s a nice fella and if they awarded votes on personality he’d do well.

Peter Jedick with Arn and me

Having filled my quota of presidential candidates for the day, I looked around for members of the press. Surely I could not get through lunch without running into someone or other from the fourth estate. (It’s good to keep these archaic terms alive; they carry history.) And right on cue, here she comes! I was happy to say hello to the lovely and talented Jen Psaki, former Biden press secretary, and now analyst for MSNBC. I am no good at taking selfies (it looks so easy in the commercials, but I have no practice) but at least I didn’t miss our faces entirely:

Jen Psaki and geezer

She was accompanied by a sound man with a boom mike, and asked most everyone at the counter a couple of questions. She seemed interested to hear about the blog – she’s polite to everybody – and I felt safe giving her my opinions of Trump and Haley (it’s part of her job not to beat people up, and she’s not very big anyway).

My later evening was passed unsuccessfully, cheering on the Packers to their loss to the 49ers. And after that, it was even less successful, as I skimmed the brief filed by Trump with the Supreme Court in his appeal of Colorado’s decision to disqualify him from the ballot. There are perhaps three or four decent arguments why the Colorado Supreme Court’s decision must be reversed, and the appellees – the other side – will have to defeat all of them to get the Colorado decision affirmed. I can’t see the Supreme Court taking such a massive step as to strike a major party’s leading candidate from the presidential election. Of course, I’m always swayed by the last brief I’ve read; they (almost) always sound so convincing — so I am reacting to that. Maybe when the appellees’ brief is filed, I believe it’s due February 1st, I might be re-swayed the other way. But I am not hopeful.

So we carry on, having a good time and enjoying the belief that here in New Hampshire, democracy works, even this year. But I have the recurring (and yes, very trite) image, lifted from dozens of movies from silent days to today, of a couple of people in a little canoe or rowboat, drifting happily down a scenic river. They do not know — but we in the audience know — that the river leads to a massive waterfall. It’s still far away. A lot can happen in nine months or so, but is anything likely to change this hapless course? The romantic in me thinks that in the applause at Friday night’s rally, I could hear the distant falls.

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Like The Trumpet’s Martial Sound

I had not seen Donald Trump in person since June 16, 2015, when he came down an escalator to announce his candidacy for president. I was standing in the lobby of Trump Tower that day, having stopped by – taking a walk as usual during my lunch hour, from my office a few blocks away – and wandered in, curious about the crowd gathered there. Today I get a chance to see him again. He was a curiosity then; almost an inevitability now.

I have gone online and secured a ‘ticket’ – free of course – to his rally this evening at the Grappone Conference Center in nearby Concord, about 20 minutes north by car. The event is at 7 pm and the site initially tells me the doors will open at 6 pm, but be there by 5:30 or you might not get in. Before I sign off, the site changes that, to say the doors will open at 4 pm.

A little research on Grappone’s site shows that the main ballroom seems to hold 600 people. I’m not sure how these events go, but I know that Trump’s rallies can be, in the candidate’s word, HUGE, so I plan to be there before 4 in case there’s a big advance line. And I don’t dress my absolute warmest, as I don’t expect to be outdoors for long.

In fact, the original idea was to spend the afternoon in Concord, first visiting the McAuliffe-Shepard Discovery Center, which has space travel and other science exhibits and a planetarium. (Christa McAuliffe was a science teacher from Concord who was chosen from some 11,000 applicants for NASA’s Teacher in Space project; she died in the Challenger explosion. Alan Shepard was the second person, and first American, in space, and later the oldest person to date to walk on the moon; he was from East Derry, NH.) My busy schedule, including such herculean tasks as getting out of bed, scotched the museum visit. As it was, I arrived at the Grappone Center about 3:45.

There was already a line but it wasn’t very long. Trump volunteers were walking around keeping count – I confess I signed one of their sheets promising to do future volunteer work, but didn’t specify any of the work choices – and my area of the line was about number 180. By pretty soon after, it had about doubled.

Then came a dreaded announcement. The head of the volunteers was walking down the line, telling us “the doors won’t open til 6:45.” No reason given. One of my line neighbors was skeptical – they wouldn’t make us wait outdoors in this cold all that time — they’ll open before then — but her husband expected it was true: “They don’t care.” They seemed nice people, he a disability-retired steelworker (who had actually helped make the block letters for Trump Tower) and she a middle manager of some sort in the state, I think, healthcare system. She was the driving force to attend the event; she’d always wanted to see Trump in person and she wasn’t going to quit just because it was cold, declining his offer to call it a day. They were probably around 50 or so; others near us were mostly younger, guys in beards, hoodies and work boots, with whom I decided not to start debates.

And they were not know-nothing yahoos. From their talk with each other, occasionally us, and a couple of reporters who stopped by looking to interview people, they seemed well informed, reasonable and highly articulate. The only problem, for me, was that they were operating in a different world. In that world, the US economy these days is very rough on most people, Ukraine is not really our problem – and can be solved fairly easily, at least to America’s satisfaction – and illegal immigrants are displacing our kids from public schools. And of course, the DOJ and Deep State will not rest until Trump is, in some way, eliminated.

Unfortunately the Trumpists have no monopoly on stupidity. Fani Willis’s hiring of her lover – a man with no RICO experience, apparently – to run the RICO prosecution in Georgia of Trump and 18 others for election manipulation, is simply a magnificent gift to Trump fans everywhere. Even near our own little waiting line, there is a bearded, middle-aged man with a rainbow LGBTQ flag who is, politely, haranguing the line-standers about what an incipient fascist Trump is. They are, also politely, no violence here, telling him why he’s utterly wrong — when a full-size bus sidles by, festooned top to bottom and front to back with Trump paraphernalia. I think there’s lots of Trump gear for sale inside, or maybe it’s like a museum. Here’s a look at it:

Back half of Trump fan bus …
… and front half of same

Unbelievably, our ‘love for all’ liberal decides to take a souvenir from the Trump fan bus, and pulls a poster off the side of the bus. Between the bus itself and a line of Trump supporters standing ten feet away. What is he thinking? He is instantly called out by many voices, pointed fingers and dire threats, and surrounded until the official Trump volunteers are summoned. They ascertain the facts – no dispute there, as the man admits grabbing the sign – and escort him from the premises. No violence. But rainbow man has reinforced the line’s view that it’s the liberals who break the rules when it suits them.

This idiocy is welcome relief, however, because the overriding fact is that we’re all freezing to death. I think it would be quite an embarrassment to the campaign if two or three hundred frozen corpses were found in line when the doors opened. Still, no one comes by with an explanation, or better yet, jugs of coffee. The gentleman next to me says he’s not going to make it – we’re over two hours here now – and his wife offers that he go wait in the car, parked not far away. I tell him we’ll certainly hold his place. But he’s going to stick it out if she is. At this point I ask if they will hold my place, so I can go get my hat from my car. (Well, at least I brought it!) They do, and I do. It no doubt helps, but it’s really our feet that seem to be losing the battle.

It’s dark by now. But there is progress! A plain metal truck comes by and stops at the center entrance, which is only about 40 yards away. “Persons who know” say that this is the truck with the metal detectors: once they set them up, we’ll be able to go in. Eventually they are set up, and a shout goes down the line as it starts to move into the doors. It’s 7 pm and we’ve been outside for three hours.

Inside, where it’s blessedly warm, after getting through strict metal-detector scrutiny, I enter the ballroom and search for a seat. Lucky me – I find a single in the very second row:

View sideways from my seat; stage next to me on right

We first have a prayer, mostly for Trump’s recently deceased mother-in-law (“can you believe that judge in New York wouldn’t give him a single day’s delay so he could attend the funeral?”); then a lovely rendition of the national anthem by a pretty young local office-holder; then the Pledge of Allegiance. After a couple of warm-up exhortations, mercifully brief, we hear from none other than Rep. Elise Stefanik, of New York (way, way upstate). She’s a crowd favorite, and an enthusiastic speaker. And then out comes the man himself, to thunderous applause.

Heeere’s Donny!

I won’t, and can’t, summarize the speech. The interesting thing is that it’s not a speech as such. Despite the teleprompters flanking Trump, he rarely looks at them. He speaks, or reads, a short talking point – say, how many unchecked immigrants are flocking over our border each day – and then riffs on that theme, or digresses from it, conversationally, for the next ten minutes or so. Then he seems to check and pick up another point, and goes off on that for another five or ten minutes, then on to something else. It is a very casual, friendly, animated (and one-sided of course) conversation and is apparently effortless. There’s no speech to memorize or to read, no awkward pauses, no searching for the right word; if just flows. And so do the gestures. If you’re expecting a speech as mind-numbing as Castro’s were, no way. And if – as I thought might be – you were going to experience a Hitler-like symphony of emotion, hatred and call to violence able to rouse the dead, not that either. This is a man at home with his friends, holding forth to his own and their entertainment, and clearly enjoying himself.

He makes fun of Biden, of course. He describes what he might do if he ran into Biden at a bar: take him to the back room (at this, some in the crowd, who feel free to interject constantly, yell ‘Beat him up!’ and other niceties), and stand in front of him, and… here Trump just blows into the microphone, whoosh! – and gestures how Biden just falls over in the breeze.

He also does a nice bit of Joe trying to find the stairs off a stage: “Look, there’s staircases everywhere” Trump says, walking around counting four of them off his stage, left and right – “and he can’t find one?” ” ‘Um, uh, is that one, there?’ ” It is deftly done, utterly disrespectful, and quite funny. Yes, there is a mean edge, sometimes prominent, but this is not just a schoolyard bully; there is talent here. For those of a certain age, think of trying to campaign against Don Rickles.

Am I good or what?

All told, he speaks for an hour and 35 minutes, and it flies by. It’s not all humor and schtick. All of it is delivered from the heart, with total sincerity, although some of it is pure fiction delivered as fact (what some might call “lies”). I’m not enough on top of economic and social facts to call out his misstatements, but one I recognized for sure: “99% of the people I endorsed won,” he said. Almost the reverse is true. But the crowd loves it all and gobbles it all down.

The connection between them and him – the almost palpable flow of love from the crowd to the podium – is overwhelming. And he is right to flaunt his legal troubles. I was not taking notes during his speech, but I remembered one line and wrote it down right afterwards, because I think it explains why even a felony conviction will make only a marginal change in his support. He said, “They are trying to take away my freedom because I am trying to protect your freedom.”

Our 45th and possibly 47th president

At the end, he’s joined by Sen. Tim Scott – who has today endorsed him – Elise Stefanik, and former NY candidate for governor, Lee Zeldin. Each further rouses the crowd. We are all on our feet – as we’ve been for about half of the speech – and it’s a happily fired-up hall who exit to the cold and their cars.

An hour later, about 11 pm at the (great) Red Arrow Diner, there are five men sitting in a row at the counter, all in black with white shirts and black neckties. They look like undertakers. My counter neighbor – one Zachary Weisz, a British-American (mother born in Riverdale) reporter and photographer for the National Journal, published in DC – informs me they are Trump staffers, now off duty. I wonder where Trump stays? He may be on his plane back to Boston or further.

As I leave the diner I meet Mark Prascak – Democrat (amateur division) for President! He’s happy to tell me his plans for a new Department of Robotics, with four divisions: A for A.I., B for Bots, C for (ordinary) computers, and D for Drones (for defense). He’s a nice guy, rather nerdy, but empathetic enough to let me go after a couple minutes. You can find him at Or here:

Mark Prascak, candidate, with tourist

As I’ve said before, I love this place – New Hampshire, and Manchester, and the Red Arrow – because it charms me that you can’t walk twenty steps without tripping over a presidential candidate or two (or member of the press). It’s a wonderful game and it should make us proud.

But the stakes of this year’s game are mighty high. Higher even than usual. And there will be plenty of fear and anger both before it is done, and after. But take heart, as friends G & S would say:

For when threatened with emeutes
Tarantara, tarantara
And your heart is in your boots
There is nothing brings it round
Like the trumpet’s martial sound
Like the trumpet’s martial sound!

For those wondering, emeutes are riots.

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Joy in The Morning

The title of today’s sermon, dear readers, is taken only indirectly from a Bible verse; more proximately, it copies the title of a book by P.G. Wodehouse. The Bible verse goes something like, “there is weeping at night, but joy comes in the morning.” Wodehouse removed the verb from his title, crediting his readers with the literacy to remember and reinsert it.

From all of which you can infer that I’m feeling more chipper, and today’s report will be upbeat. When I left Larchmont on Wednesday afternoon I still had the lingering effects of a cold, with sniffles and coughing and so forth. I even considered ditching the whole trip – but it’s only once every four years, so better do it. I arrived in Manchester NH in the dark and could not at first work the number-pad on the front door of the airbnb – had to text the host – she was most helpful informing me of a backup system – and I was inside less than five minutes later.  That began the recovery;  that night I booked a ticket online for a Nikki Haley event the next morning.

The one drawback was that this was a bit early for me. Her appearance was scheduled for 9 a.m., at a conference center outside of Nashua, about 30 minutes from me: “Doors open at 8.” Candidates want big crowds; anyone can book a free ticket – I doubt they close the online reservations when capacity is reached: who knows how many will actually show up? So I decided to be there when the doors opened, which required getting up at 6:30. I was on the road at 7:15, in 14 degrees, feeling virtuous.  Even healthy! – cold sunshine (and a good night’s sleep) works wonders.

I walked in with the first wave. A large pine-panelled room with many, many rows of chairs set up, and room for press, cameras, etc. at the back. At first I chose a seat in the second row, but after a minute, I went for a front-row seat; there was one between two pairs of people. All young. The guy on my left – bearded, baseball-capped, friendly, — was Jacob Gelb, from Brooklyn, age 25. Took the day off from his property management job to be here. Eager to support “anybody but Trump or Biden.” What will he do in November if that’s the choice? Said he’d probably write in his grandfather or someone – as he did in 2020. 

New Hampshire’s governor, Chris Sununu, who has endorsed Haley, was chatting with some folks in the crowd as it filled in.

Gov. Sununu chats with a voter. Note classic Northern Loon mating posture of both, with wings pulled back behind shoulder blades and head cocked forward

Sununu spoke first to warm us up.  He must have “genuine,” “open,” “nice guy,” trademarked; he is instantly likable and believable.  He said we couldn’t let 56 thousand people in Iowa determine our fate: that’s how many votes Trump actually got in the caucuses there (out of 3 million people in Iowa).  Turnout is everything – each of us needs to get ten friends, your neighbors, your crazy uncle – out to vote next Tuesday.

Nikki came out next. No fanfare; thanks us for being here, and right into her speech. Good delivery, eye contact, smiling, emphatic, knows what she wants to tell us. My notes do no justice to her presentation and don’t capture the interruptions for applause.

She said it’s time to put an accountant in the White House (I didn’t know she was an accountant), that the deficit is not a one-party problem. Small-business tax cuts need to be made permanent, as the big-business ones were. Small businesses are the heartbeat of America. We’re failing at education: only 31% of 8th-graders are proficient in reading; 27% in math. Parents need to decide where their kids go to school. We need vocational classes in high school. And transparency in curriculum so parents know what their kids are being taught.

Trump lied when he said I’m not in favor of a border wall. But it’s not just a border wall we need, it’s much more than that. And putting border security against helping our friends and allies – Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan – is a false choice. We have to do both. The world is on fire now, and a lot of it stems from that debacle in Afghanistan, when we abandoned those who had supported us. Our friends saw that, and worse, our enemies like Putin and China, saw that too.

We need to be not just energy independent, but energy dominant. That means producing oil and gas, and it means nuclear, and it means wind and solar.

Haley speaking on Jan. 18, 2024

“We face a choice in five days. Over 70% of Americans don’t want a Trump-Biden rematch. Do we want more of the same?”

She ends with, “We can do this.” And we all rise to our feet, whooping and hollering. New Hampshire is political Disneyland, a magic kingdom where dreams come true. We’re here for five more days and don’t want to go home yet.

She takes questions: first, about Social Security; changes have to be made or it won’t survive; Trump’s saying he won’t change it is irresponsible, just kicking the can down the road to its bankruptcy. If you’re already paid in, you’ll be protected, but we need to raise the retirement age for those in their 20s, based on longer life expectancies. A question on war – under what circumstances would she seek a declaration of war from Congress? She declines to specify but says peace is kept through strength; her goal is to never have to go to war. She notes her husband is deployed abroad now. But Trump’s telling China he stands with them, when they flex their muscles over Hong Kong, sends a terrible signal to Taiwan. And we need to place sanctions back on Iran; there is no Hamas or Houthis or Hezbollah without Iran supporting them. A question on how to cut spending, as it’s ‘politically hard.’ Go back to the mission of each agency, not to be all things to all people. 90-day benchmarks on progress. In South Carolina, we incentivized agencies to give money back to taxpayers. And 70% of federal workers are still working from home, three years after Covid.

She meets all of us who want to say hello, and get a picture. Even extremely elderly tourists:

Candidate with visiting dork

After the fan photos, the press forms a scrum around her and pepper her with questions. Would she support a convicted felon for president? She slides off this as if she’s been asked it twenty times before, which she has: the voters have to choose, and she can’t imagine American voting for a convicted felon. “Chaos follows Trump” everywhere, “rightly or wrongly.” As if ‘chaos’ were a pet dog with a mind of its own.

Yes these are weasel words and evasions; no moral clarity of Chris Christie here – but he was running to get Trump out; she is running to win the nomination, in a party where half the people remain committed to Orange Julius. She is a politician making political calculations. And so far, she’s done alright – she actually does have a chance of winning New Hampshire, and who knows what might happen then? People under stress can make mistakes, and spoil an otherwise winning hand. Donald needs to be dealt a loss; maybe he’ll overreact and misplay what otherwise looks like a cakewalk to the nomination.

There is a line between mere wishful thinking and taking a calculated chance to fill an inside straight, and Nikki is on the reality side of that line. And I am willing to clap my hands all day to make sure Tinker Bell does not die.

Greetings from Disneyland, a real place.

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The Trump Cases – Looking Ahead

There is plenty of outrage and anguish being vented in connection with  the current election campaign. Social media, the loss of civility, an epidemic of self-righteousness – we’re all convinced that the other side has never been so evil or so crazy, and that we’ve never been so divided. That’s not true; try 160 years ago.

But we do stand on the shore of uncharted waters. No avoiding it: unprecedented questions are ahead and we will have to face them. Let’s examine the prospects without, for today, taking sides.

Just the facts: first, Donald Trump leads the race for the Republican presidential nomination. At this point, I’d say – conservatively — the probability of his being the nominee is about 75%.

Second, he’s being criminally prosecuted, most notably in the District of Columbia for, among others, obstructing an official proceeding, namely the certification of the 2020 election result. Trial is scheduled to start on March 4, 2024.

Trump raised an immunity defense that the trial judge rejected; he has appealed to the D.C. Circuit. The case is on hold pending the appeal. Prosecutor Jack Smith has petitioned the Supreme Court to take the appeal on an expedited basis and without waiting for the circuit court to rule; I expect the Court will agree there is a strong national interest in resolving the criminal case prior to the election and accordingly hear and decide the appeal – and that it will affirm the trial court. Chances of the D.C. criminal trial starting on or soon after March 4th, about 60%.

Third, the outcome: it is very likely – 80% — that a District of Columbia jury will convict Trump, although a hung jury is possible if at least one Trumper is on the panel. The jury need not connect Trump directly to leading or inciting the January 6 attack on the Capitol; there are many other acts alleged in the 45-page indictment, especially concerning attempts to certify false Electors.

Next, the nomination. Thus far, Republican voters have been unshaken in supporting Trump. Despite all the litigation, his support has only grown; Trump has attacked the cases and the legal system itself as a conspiracy to persecute him and block his election. I see no reason to think a conviction would change that. As stated above, 75% chance he is the nominee – even assuming a criminal conviction prior to the Republican convention in August.

Then what about the election? As I write this, Trump is a nose ahead of Joe Biden in the polls and Biden’s approval ratings are low. Views of the economy, currently a drag on Biden, could improve next year. Or not. And polling indicates that a relatively small – but potentially decisive – percentage of voters would be swayed by a Trump conviction. But there are wild cards: it’s safe to say Vladimir Putin would prefer Trump in office; what wouldn’t he do to help ensure that result? Such things can always backfire, but how about a public meeting with Trump and announcement of “fruitful” talks on Ukraine? Trump’s participation  would contravene the Logan Act (1799) against private citizens conducting U.S. foreign policy. Fill in for yourself whether that would deter Trump from acting in the (his) best interests of America.

Given the above, including the possibility he runs as a convicted felon, I’d put Trump’s chance of winning at 40%. (To be clear, that’s not a prediction of his vote total; it’s that he has a 40% chance of winning the election.)

But wait, there’s more: If he is the Republican nominee, and certainly if he’s been convicted in the D.C. case, somebody somewhere will file suit for a declaration that he is barred by Section 3 of the 14th Amendment from holding office as president. (The Supreme Court’s summer recess until the “first Monday in October” might be busier than usual.) The section provides that

“No person shall … hold any office, civil or military, under the United States … who, having previously taken an oath, … as an officer of the United States, to support the Constitution of the United States, shall have engaged in insurrection or rebellion against the same, or given aid or comfort to the enemies thereof. …”

I’m not going to analyze the argument here. Suffice it to say that in their article [Baude, William and Paulsen, Michael Stokes, The Sweep and Force of Section Three (August 9, 2023); University of Pennsylvania Law Review, Vol. 172, forthcoming , read at SSRN:], Profs. Baude and Paulsen provide a thorough analysis and conclude that Trump is barred from serving as president, that the section is self-executing, and that any official charged with qualifying candidates can sue to enforce it. Scholars are divided about the conclusions.

But surely some (partisan) official would file the case. In fact some suits based on this provision already have been filed. For example, one went to judgment in Colorado, but the court there held – correctly in my view – that the section did not bar Trump’s running in the Republican primary, which is what that suit targeted. (A political party can nominate whomever it wishes, eligible or not.) The constitutional question was not reached.

Suppose the Court heard this case next October. Now we are truly in new and murky waters. Let’s look at possible outcomes.

The Court could rule the question is premature until the election takes place, at which point it may be moot as Biden might have won. This seems both incorrect and irresponsible: voters need to know whether a candidate can serve if elected.

The Court could rule on the merits, either that Trump is not barred, or that he is barred and therefore must be struck from the ballot. Then the GOP presumably would scramble to choose a new nominee. (Might state rules on election procedures prevent a late switch? What a mess.)

Or the Court could rule that Trump is barred from holding office (reflecting the words of the Amendment) but not from running. As a textualist I think that would be right. More weirdly, the 20th Amendment might then come into play. That amendment moved the start of the president’s term from March 4 to January 20. But Section 3 of the amendment provides in part:

“… If a President shall not have been chosen before the time fixed for the beginning of his term, or if the President-elect shall have failed to qualify, then the Vice President-elect shall act as President until a President shall have qualified; and the Congress may by law provide for the case wherein neither a President-elect nor a Vice President-elect shall have qualified, declaring who shall then act as President, or the manner in which one who is to act shall be selected, and such person shall act accordingly until a President or Vice President shall have qualified.” [emphasis added]

This does not seem aimed at our predicament – “until a President shall have qualified”?? – but by its terms might apply. This effect, not to mention other political considerations, would behoove the Republican party to have Trump this summer choose a running mate untainted by the January 6 attack.

So Nikki… you’re saying there’s a chance.

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From Russia, with Love

No doubt you have been wondering: Just how well-connected is this guy? Whence comes his trenchant analysis, insightful reportage and other good stuff? Well, I can tell you this much: even my sources have sources. Beyond that, I could not say. Secrecy and discretion are all. I hope you are suitably impressed.

Or if not impressed, amused. A smile is important even in harsh times. Or especially then. This should be kept in mind, I think. Because when writing a blog, there is a tendency to pretension. The thought that people will – or even may – read what you write is exhilarating, when you think about it. So it’s best not to think about it.

With that preface as perspective, I am pleased to report that I did indeed come into a piece of information that may be of interest. Now that Russian plans for quickly conquering Ukraine have been thwarted by the Ukrainians themselves, with broad but limited support by NATO and partners, the question arises: how does this end? In my previous post I speculated about what the government of Ukraine must insist upon and what it might properly concede. But what of Russia? Which really means: what of Putin? Is there an outcome short of complete victory that Putin would accept instead of further intensifying his military efforts?

Maybe Russian television can give us a hint.  I paid a visit to my dentist this week.  She is, or was, Russian; she was born in Leningrad and grew up in Georgia.  She has lived in the United States for decades, is staunchly anti-Communist and anti-Putin.  But her sister still lives in St. Petersburg and sees and hears the news as broadcast in Russia.  And believes it.  The two sisters speak by phone, but the gulf in their knowledge of the ‘facts’ about the war in Ukraine soon had them shouting at each other.  

The Russian sister sent my dentist an item from the Russian online news service, including a map that Russia said is what Polish TV was showing.  According to Russia, this map represents Poland’s or the West’s goal of partitioning Ukraine.  Russia therefore can be credited with launching its “special military exercise” to save Ukraine from this fate.  The map shows a much-diminished Ukraine, with its northwestern part acquired by Poland, a southwestern bit going to Romania, and, interestingly, large eastern and southern areas absorbed by Russia.  

Here is the map:


Even as we walk through the mirror-world of propaganda, this map may tell us something of Russia’s own end goal.  We know damn well that Poland had no designs on Ukraine’s territory, as clearly as we know Ukraine’s government was not rotten with Nazis.  But the matter-of-fact collateral acceptance that much of Ukraine, even after this supposed Polish aggression, would be part of Russia, may indicate Russia’s core aims.  

As I stated in my first post on this war, on March 8, the realistic endpoint for Russia probably is partition.  I said it is likely that “Putin eventually proposes a division of Ukraine in exchange for cessation of all hostilities.  Russia would retain the areas it is about to subdue: the eastern provinces, the Azov and Black Sea coasts including Odessa, and the southern tier extending to Transnistria which already is separatist.”  Putin would love to restore Russia to the Soviet Union’s position and role in the Cold War that he feels should not have been lost.  Part of that was the partition of Germany into East and West, the former controlled by the Soviets.  

So never mind the bizarre accusation of Polish aggression, but look at the areas of Ukraine that the map shows belonging to Russia, appropriately in red.  That is Putin’s goal.  Russia’s failures thus far on the battlefield mean that he will settle for less, but only at the margins.  He will not abandon his aim of acquiring more Ukrainian territory than Russia controlled pre-2022; he will escalate rather than pull back to pre-2022 borders.  

To date, it seems NATO and its partners believe that the broad but shallow military assistance they are giving Ukraine, plus the gradual effect of economic sanctions, will be enough to repel the Russian forces from Ukraine.  I doubt that.  Currently, stalemate seems more likely, and that’s without accounting for Russian escalation.  

Whose side is Time on?  For the West, the more time that passes, the deeper the economic sanctions will bite.  Will that be enough to force Putin’s hand, and in which direction: negotiation or escalation?  For Putin, the more time that passes, the higher the death toll will mount, especially of Ukrainian civilians.  The West has trouble bearing high, continuing death tolls.

How many Ukrainians is NATO willing to sacrifice to preserve its reluctance to supply Ukraine with more sophisticated weapons systems, on the fear of escalation?   Does the West believe things are going well enough now to justify merely holding its course?  The Ukrainians beg – literally beg – to differ.

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The End of The Beginning

We live in an accelerated age. World War II was fully three years old when the tide began to turn, in the Soviet Union and in North Africa. Even at that point, amid glimmers of optimism, Churchill was clear and careful not to get ahead of events. In October of 1942, he said “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning.”

We are now, perhaps, at the end of the beginning in Russian president Putin’s war on Ukraine. Today the war is four weeks old. The Russian and Ukrainian forces seem to be approaching stalemate, and Ukraine reportedly has recaptured bits of territory around Kyiv; however, the deaths on both sides continue to mount, especially in surrounded cities like Mariupol, and the flood of refugees from Ukraine, mainly women and children, now exceeds three million. And as Russia’s original plan to subdue Ukraine quickly by capturing its major cities apparently has failed, Russia seems to have shifted to a siege approach: its forces outside those cities rain death and destruction on the inhabitants, even targeting streams of refugees. With Russia’s conventional forces stalled, the use of chemical and biological weapons is very much on the table.

At this juncture, our instinctive wish is that the slaughter, the violence, the displacement and the heartbreak cease, and cease now. That urge should be resisted.

This past Sunday in my town, local groups organized a “Peace Vigil” at a park, and many in the community came together there. I did not attend. I could not support a gathering so labeled. If Ukraine merely wants peace, that is achievable at any time by uttering two words: “we surrender.” Peace, without more, is not the goal; only on certain terms is peace acceptable and sustainable.

Such terms cannot be achieved at this moment. In recent negotiations, Russia has proposed, among other things, that Ukraine be demilitarized. That would set the clock ticking on the next invasion, one that would end badly, either in Ukraine’s defenseless surrender or the West’s massive intervention. The only peace worth seeking will come with Ukraine’s victory, or at least a sufficiently dominant position on the ground that Ukraine would be able to impose terms that do not reward Russia’s aggression or invite future aggression.

What are the minimum acceptable terms? Ukraine must retain full sovereignty, including the right to defend itself. It must retain its full territory as of the start of this war, including the two eastern ‘separatist’ provinces. Ukraine likely would have to tolerate Russia’s de facto control of Crimea established in 2014, but (on the Korean model) should not have to formally recognize Russian ownership. In return, Ukraine could forgo application for NATO membership, but that promise should be time-limited even if long-term, e.g., 20 or even 99 years. Russian control over Crimea would be acknowledged de facto by Ukraine and NATO. All economic sanctions against Russia would be dropped by the EU and NATO nations and their partners. Ukraine also could provide Russia face-saving measures such as agreeing to prohibit neo-Nazi political parties, and agreeing to enact anti-discrimination laws with respect to its ethnic Russian minority.

Such a treaty is hypothetically achievable among reasonable parties. It is doubtful in reality. As noted, to bring Putin to such terms, Ukraine would first have to have more battlefield success. But if that began to develop, Putin doubtless would escalate rather than negotiate. Putin’s control over Russian policy does not (yet) appear threatened to the point of diverting him from his chosen course of war. He will first bet that increased force, more targeted to interrupt NATO’s military resupply of Ukraine, and the use of more destructive weapons on the civilian population, will shift the West’s and Ukraine’s thinking before his own military or economic losses compel him to shift his own. In this he is likely correct with regard to the West’s determination, if not that of Ukraine itself.

Faced with the continued appalling humanitarian toll and likely the more difficult delivery of supplies to Ukraine, the West will find peace talks increasingly attractive. Ukraine will resist concessions, but that will get harder if the West’s military support wanes.

As leaders of the NATO nations meet today, they should discuss, frankly and privately, the crossroads they now face. Ukrainians’ resistance to date has, for the moment, saved their country, but it will not be sufficient to defeat the coming Russian escalation. That escalation, either by re-focused tactics or by weapons of mass destruction, or both, will force NATO’s members to a choice: a markedly more vigorous response (beyond increased economic sanctions, which are necessary but insufficient) or more pressure upon Ukraine in the peace talks.

Can the West override their instincts and their last 75 years’ history, which are peace-loving, risk-averse, gradualist, economic- and diplomacy-centered, in the face of a committed aggressor? NATO needs to take decisions soon; this week would be nice. Postponement is itself a decision, and not a helpful one.

Do we move forward in a horrible struggle, or step back from it? There is some merit to either course, but I would rather things got worse before they get better, than the other way ‘round. Ukraine’s future likely rests on what NATO decides. Even if the steps taken do not bear fruit for weeks or months, we will eventually harvest what is sown now.

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Ukraine War – March 8, 2022

Ukraine Auguries

Never underestimate the willingness of the American government, and the American people, to seek peace at any price.  We are not a nation of Patrick Henrys, and probably never were.  And the limits of our appetite for even a war in which we are not combatants are already beginning to show. 

For the first 13 days of this war, US President Biden acted admirably and successfully to assemble and help manage a broad alliance of mostly Western countries responding to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.  Economic sanctions were imposed.  The first of these was small and peculiarly aimed at the economies of the two partly separatist eastern Ukrainian provinces, but by the next day, important sanctions were properly imposed on Russia, and more were promised.  That promise to date has been kept, as the US, EU and other important nations (notable exceptions China and India) ratcheted up sanctions, including interruption of SWIFT financial services, cutoff of trade, freezing of Russian government foreign accounts, and other steps. 

Today – March 8 — (written March 8th, although published to the blog on March 15 as it took me a week to re-establish passwords etc. after being away for so long) Pres. Biden announced that the US will cease importing Russian oil and gas.  These make up a relatively tiny percentage of US energy imports but the step is important not only for itself and its symbolism, but as recognition of two points: first, that Biden is willing to tell Americans they will have to bear some resultant increases in retail fuel prices at home (it’s a small enough price to pay); and second, that in practical terms, the entire alliance will not be expected to join fully in every step.  Europe imports some 25% of its energy from Russia and would suffer more deeply from such an embargo.  Even so, the EU reportedly announced it would aim to reduce its Russian energy imports by two-thirds by year end, a significant step.

NATO including the US has been effective at supplying Ukraine with arms, equipment, and humanitarian aid.  Western countries bordering Ukraine, especially Poland and including even Hungary with its Putin-philic leader Victor Orban, have been accepting, helping and processing refugees.  The stream of refugees is now nearing 2 million.  The silver lining of the horror and tragedy of this war is that it has unified and strengthened NATO as nothing has in the past 30 years; Pres. Biden deserves full marks for adroitly managing this hour of history… so far.

With NATO, the US has supplied Ukraine with arms including Stinger and (British) Javelin anti-tank and anti-aircraft missiles.  Last week the US approved $350 million of additional military aid to Ukraine, and one can be confident there is more to come.  At the same time, NATO and the US have been clear in rejecting Ukrainian pleas that they impose a ‘no-fly zone’ in Ukraine’s air space.  A no-fly zone requires enforcement, which means shooting down Russian planes that enter it; in other words, direct acts of war in the air.  Not to mention the need to destroy Russian anti-aircraft emplacements in Russian territory near Ukraine.  Both logically and under international law, those acts constitute war.  Russia could well retaliate against NATO, and escalation would follow, with a high risk of mutual mass destruction.

Ukraine and its superb president Zelenskyy – who clearly has risen to the crisis as if born to this role  – have understandably continued to ask for imposition of a no-fly zone despite NATO’s sensible rejection of that plea.  Pres. Zelenskyy’s first duty is to his country and he is right to ask, although we can surmise he is fully aware that the refusal will not change.

But Pres. Zelenskyy has asked too for a second-best alternative: aircraft.  Ukraine needs fighter jets in order to continue contesting control of its air space.  To date Russia has not achieved air supremacy and maybe not even superiority.  But Ukraine’s air force is small; they will run out of aircraft.  Hence Zelenskyy’s imploring, cajoling, begging, demanding NATO to supply planes.

Poland has 29 MiG jet aircraft that are similar enough to Ukraine’s force that Ukrainian pilots can readily fly them.  Poland is willing to furnish these to Ukraine’s defense.  The US seemed to support this, agreeing in principle to refill Poland’s air force with US F-16s to replace the MiGs.

But to the extent giving Ukraine the aircraft posed a risk that Putin would claim this was an act of war and would retaliate, Poland would likely have been the sole target.  So Poland found a way to share that risk: it offered to send the MiG jets to the US base at Ramstein, Germany, for shipment to Ukraine.  The US would then arrange delivery. 

Poland’s offer to fly the planes into Ramstein appears to have caught the US unprepared, but it shouldn’t have – it’s a smart move by the Poles so they do not have to bear alone whatever the Russian reaction is.  Apparently, as long as the US thought it could push Poland alone out in front of the aircraft transfer, we were all for it.  Now that we would have an active role, we have blinked.  The Pentagon’s first public response was to say that the Polish plan is ‘not tenable’ but without saying why.  

We should put those jets where our mouth is and get them sent.  If Putin wants to consider furnishing war materiel an act of war against Russia, he can already do that based on all the weapons we have already sent.  There is no clear line between a jet airplane and a sophisticated, internally guided surface-to-air missile.  By contrast, there is a clear line between merely sending equipment and committing combat forces to the war, whether the latter are soldiers, pilots or sailors.  

Of course there would be logistical problems to overcome: The MiGs would have to be repainted with Ukrainian insignia rather than Polish or NATO’s. More important, the jets presumably would have to be flown into Ukraine by Ukrainian pilot, so those pilots first would have to be carried to Ramstein – or to any takeoff point.  Should they be flown into Ukraine armed (rather helpful if attacked) or unarmed (helpful politically)?  But these are not insurmountable.  

We can only hope that the US’s sudden hesitation, for fear of reprisal, was merely a reflex response of caution and that after a day or two’s consideration the move will be approved.  We cannot afford to let the risk of inciting Putin to recklessness deter us apart from our own rational appraisal of the actual risks.  So evaluate the actual risk: To date, Putin has not attacked any NATO state for supplying war materiel, including sophisticated weapons systems, to Ukraine. Aircraft – flown by Ukrainian pilots – are one more form of such materiel.  The risk is low and the benefit to the defense of Ukraine is great; this step should be taken.

But I am not optimistic about this.  We have blinked because we are now asked not to offload the full risk onto an ally. Supplying the jets was a fine idea so long as Poland did it, but we will not do it.  

If this aid refusal stands, it darkens the prospects for the final outcome.  Ukraine’s Zelenskyy can promise to fight to the end, “whatever the cost,” as he said in addressing the British Parliament today, using Churchill’s words.  But can Ukraine fight on if NATO support is withdrawn?  And it is foreseeable that, led by the US, NATO would withdraw support if Putin eventually proposes a division of Ukraine in exchange for cessation of all hostilities.  Russia would retain the areas it is about to subdue: the eastern provinces, the Azov and Black Sea coasts including Odessa, and the southern tier extending to Transnistria which already is separatist.  Putin likely would throw in safe passage for every Ukrainian in ‘his’ area to the free west and north parts of Ukraine; that would reduce the threat of continued insurgencies.

Peace is precious to Americans and such a proposal would be sickeningly welcomed.  President Biden and his advisors should reconsider their initial rejection of supplying jets to Ukraine; it betokens defeat.  And defeat will further embolden not only Putin but certain other, more powerful, players, with their own designs and plenty of money, plenty of people, and plenty of patience, to achieve them.

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