The Outsider Perspective, brought to you by The Beltway Outsiders.
Good Friday Morning! Happy New Year! I hope you and your family have a happy and blessed 2017!
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Since this is the first newsletter of the new year, I thought it would be helpful to take a look at the year ahead. We already know of several important dates in 2017. There are events, laws, and elections triggered by dates in 2017 that will shape the year. Whatever ends up happening, it will be shaped by the events around it. Finally, I close with what I see as the greatest issue facing America in 2017: challenging Vladimir Putin. Links for your radar follow.
Key dates to watch in 2017
I’m going to go over some dates for the next year and how those dates will impact. The Daily 202, a masterful daily piece put together by the Washington Post, has provided the key date information. All quotes are from this piece, unless otherwise noted.
The first major event of the year: Trump is inaugurated.
Jan. 20: Trump will be inaugurated as the 45th president of the United States. Watch for a flurry of executive orders and bill signings during the hours after he’s sworn in. The transition team will huddle this week to discuss which ones will get top billing.
The first big stories will be about the protests at his inauguration. Protestors will get more air time than they actually deserve. But expect a few thousand think-pieces on the protests. The real story is what is noted above: executive orders. Trump says he will “repeal a lot” of Obama’s executive orders. What remains to be seen is what he will actually repeal and what new orders he will enforce. In 2009, one of Obama’s first executive orders was the closing of Guantanamo Bay. That order has never been fulfilled. So while there will be a flurry of responses and “outrage” over whatever executive orders Trump makes, in the end it will all depend on how he enforces those orders (if at all).
You can also expect for Congress to begin setting confirmation hearing dates for Trump’s cabinet appointments immediately after inauguration. Democrats are going to attempt to challenge a few of these nominations. I do not believe they will be successful on this front. Republicans are smartly jumping on the offensive and advancing on all fronts quickly:
THE BIG IDEA: By scheduling six confirmation hearings for the same day, the Senate GOP is working to prevent any one Donald Trump nominee from dominating a news cycle. The gambit is very likely to succeed.
It’s no coincidence that Republican committee chairmen scheduled hearings for some of the president-elect’s most controversial and polarizing nominees next Wednesday.
Trump, after putting it off repeatedly, will also finally have his first press conference since the election at the same time. And Mitch McConnell plans a budget vote-o-rama, including votes related to the repeal of Obamacare. This will further distract the press and the public.
The GOP leadership’s approach will minimize unflattering process stories and prevent Trump’s nominees from receiving the kind of full airing and scrutiny that they would otherwise.
It’s the political equivalent of running a no-huddle offense in the first quarter and throwing a lot of deep balls when you know the defense is outmatched. The other side’s best safety is still recovering from a pulled hamstring, and the defensive coordinator is distracted by the head coaching job he’s going to take next season. The odds are that Team Trump will score a bunch of touchdowns.
In fact, the conventional wisdom inside the Capitol right now is that all of Trump’s picks will get confirmed, no matter how many red flags several have in their backgrounds.
The Washington Post presents this in an unflattering light, but it is politically brilliant. I’ve called for a similar approach, though I used a basketball metaphor. Focusing on spreading Democrats out and playing small ball and transition offense. Basically, just run the Democrats up and down the court. I hope Republicans do something similar with the budget and Obamacare. Ignore the delusions of grandeur on getting grand compromises and just rack up a ton of small wins.
Democrats are gearing up for big policy fights on Obamacare and obstructionism. But if you play small ball or spread offense on them, the GOP will be able to pick off stragglers. The upcoming blitz on nominations will generate a ton of press in the initial few weeks, but then fade quickly. The odds are very low any of Trump’s nominations fail (absent a truly horrific answer during a hearing). In the end, I expect his nominations will pass easily, most with bipartisan support.
The first test for Trump: Congressional budget fights
The first major fight for Trump will be over the budget and debt. How will the GOP Congress and Trump White House handle a budget fight and dealing with the debt ceiling? Dates to watch are:
March 16: The debt limit has been suspended until 12:01 a.m. on this date. The Treasury Department can begin using “extraordinary measures” for some still-unknown length of time before the “true” limit is reached. But if Congress does nothing by that point, the U.S. will begin to default on its debts.
April 18: Tax Day. The deadline for filing a Federal Tax Return with the IRS.
April 28: The current Continuing Resolution funds the federal government through this date. If Congress does not pass a budget or another C.R., there will be a shutdown…
April 29: Trump’s 100th day in office. It’s been an important milestone since FDR took office in 1933 and began pushing through New Deal programs. There will be a flurry of stories and Sunday show panels this weekend assessing the new president’s early successes and failures.
Note the positioning of these dates, in particular Trump’s 100th day in office. You can bet money on Trump tweeting and announcing all his victories for the first 100 days. Which means the media will be hell-bent on disproving those victories. It also means Trump’s team will be looking to avert disasters with the debt limit increases and a government shut down. Trump, the deal maker, will likely try to get Congressional wheels moving to ensure a smooth entry into his 100th day. And with Americans all filing their tax returns, Trump will likely try to make a show of how those tax dollars are going to work.
Trump and the GOP will both try to prove in the budget fights that they can govern well. How they perform in this budget fight will set the tone for Trump and Congress until the 2018 midterm elections.
Europe votes with the European Union on the line
If you’re watching abroad, there will be several key elections to watch. The largest unknown is whether or not the populist waves in Britain and the US spread further in Europe.
March 15: An election in the Netherlands will offer a barometer of how strong the populist tide continues to be. Stephen Bannon, the new president’s chief strategist, sees his boss as part of a global movement, which he wants to do his part to help advance. Geert Wilders, leader of the Dutch far-right “Party for Freedom,” which leads opinion polls ahead of March elections, has embraced and celebrated Trump. “Politics will never be the same again,” Wilders told The Post in the wake of Trump’s victory, saying that Donald’s win helps his party by underscoring the global skepticism toward open borders for people and trade. “It’s a kind of new era that we entered.”
May 7: France chooses its new president, with the future of the E.U. on the line. The first round to replace Francois Hollande is April 23, and then the runoff is two weeks later. “Though polling suggests French far-right candidate Marine Le Pen wouldn’t beat center-right candidate François Fillon in the second round of the presidential vote scheduled in May, investors are mindful of the risk of a victory for an anti-euro leader in the currency union’s second-biggest economy,” a piece in today’s Wall Street Journal notes. “It would raise the question for markets, can the euro project survive?” said Andrew Wilson, CEO of Goldman Sachs Asset Management in Europe, the Middle East and Africa. “It would be reminiscent of the European debt crisis.”
Sometime in September: Germany will hold federal parliamentary elections, which will serve as a referendum on Angela Merkel’s leadership. The Chancellor has been expected to win a fourth term, but she’s been hobbled pretty badly by the rising nativist tide and her party has faced setbacks in local elections. The Berlin truck attack before Christmas further heightened fears about her migrant policy. August 27 is technically the first date possible for the German legislative elections, but they could be scheduled for as late as October 22. Merkel herself gets to set the date, and German experts say custom dictates a couple options in late September. (Dana Perino predicted last night that Merkel will resign before the election.)
The Netherlands will be the “canary-in-the-coal-mine” moment for 2017. If populists outperform or win there, expect to see a massive upheaval in the European Union. Brexit was a serious blow to the credibility of the European Union. And if other nations look to leave, it will be seen as a repudiation of the entire EU project. The biggest tests will be in France and Germany. If Marine Le Pen takes France, then you can write the obituary for the EU right there. She is the extreme far right candidate in France. Merkel losing in Germany, or even a resignation, would leave the EU leaderless. Merkel is the single most powerful European leader. If all three elections go the way of populists, we could even see early elections in Italy.
2017 holds the fate of the EU in its hands. If the EU collapses by the end of the year, or falls into a lame duck version of itself, Europe will spend considerable time trying to reconstitute itself. Vladimir Putin will be cheering on the collapse of the EU. It gives him more sway and power over the individual countries and especially the Baltic states. EU partisans will look to build the next EU project to unite all the countries.
Off-year elections in the US
Off-year elections in the US will come into focus as Democrats and Republicans fear up for the 2018 midterm elections. Key dates to watch on this front:
Feb. 23-26: A new Democratic Party chair will be elected during the DNC’s winter meeting in Atlanta. It’s the first battle in the brewing Dem civil war, pitting the Obama forces (represented by Tom Perez) against the Bernie wing of the party (represented by Keith Ellison).
June 13: Virginia Republicans pick their nominee for governor in a primary. Former RNC chairman Ed Gillespie, a top adviser in George W. Bush’s White House who almost toppled Mark Warner in 2014, is the establishment favorite of the four candidates running. His main rival is Trump’s former Virginia chairman, Corey Stewart, the chairman of the Prince William Board of County Supervisors, who first came on the national radar with his crackdown on undocumented immigrants. Democrats, meanwhile, have cleared the field for Lt. Gov. Ralph Northam. (The commonwealth restricts its governors to one term, so Terry McAuliffe cannot seek reelection.) If you missed it, Laura Vozzella had a wild story over the weekend about the nasty battle between two Republican state senators in the lieutenant governor primary.
Nov. 7: Election Day in America. Historically the party that wins the White House loses the Virginia governorship the following year, but McAuliffe broke that half-century streak with his 2013 win. Hillary Clinton carried the commonwealth, but the state remains purple and Republicans are good at winning low-turnout, off-year elections. New Jersey will likely be picked up by the Democrats because of outgoing Gov. Chris Christie’s unpopularity, but there will be a contentious primary that could damage the nominee. In New York City, Mayor Bill de Blasio is seeking a second term.
Off-year elections are important to both parties. They use these years to test early national campaign ideas for the mid-terms and see if the public-opinion is swinging one way or another. In 2009, off-year elections provided Republicans with ample data that Obamacare was highly unpopular. The summer months provided video scenes of packed town halls where politicians were being blasted for supporting Obamacare. Virginia is often viewed as an early barometer of anti-incumbency mood in the country. The June meeting for the Virginia GOP will provide clues on where the GOP is headed under Trump. Ed Gillespie is widely seen as the favorite for the position, after narrowly losing the Senate race here in 2015 (a barometer I used to predict a close race in the Presidential race than national polls indicated). But if the Trump campaign favorite is the nominee, it will show a massive shift in the GOP into a Trump-centric party.
The DNC Chair race will also tell us a lot on the direction of Democrats. Will Obama and his allies retain control? Or will the party lurch even farther to the left? Ellison is the far-left progressive in the race. He’s also the current favorite. I would not count out Obama ally Tom Perez though. Ellison has been hammered, repeatedly, for his past associations with radical fringe-leftists. The Perez-Ellison battle is the first major battle in the Democratic Party civil war.
Whoever wins, and I suspect Perez will win with heavy influence from Obama, will take over a fractured party. And their first major item is finding a way back in the 2018 midterm elections (specifically the House. The Senate is likely a lost cause for Democrats until 2022). It’s worth noting, a former spokesman for Hilary Clinton is warning Democrats away from obstructionism. Democrats are less comfortable with the idea that government is the problem and its ok if it doesn’t work, unlike Republicans. The 2017 off-year elections will allow both parties to test the Trump-era waters.
Obamacare enrollment continues
Absent Congressional intervention, Obamacare enrollments will continue in 2017:
Jan. 31: The open-enrollment period ends for coverage through Affordable Care Act marketplaces for 2017. Most of the enrollment period is during the Obama administration, but the last 10 days are during the Trump administration. Will all the talk about repeal affect numbers?
Nov. 1: The open-enrollment period for 2018 coverage through marketplaces begins on Nov. 1.
The bookends for 2017. I expect the GOP to act on Obamacare sooner rather than later. The fight over Obamacare should be the biggest fight of the year. Democrats are already testing their messaging campaign: “Make American Sick Again.” It’s an odd hill for Democrats to choose to die on. Obamacare is massively unpopular and the GOP plans on replacing Obamacare mostly include the popular provisions of Obamacare. Expect a lot of lies on this front. Democrats sold this legislation on a mountain of lies. They’ll defend it on one too.
For Republicans, they’ll have to do something prior to the Summer recess in Congress. Here’s the reason: if open enrollment begins again in November, Republicans will be the one holding the ball when higher premiums hit again. In 2016, premiums rose an average of 7.5%. In 2017, premiums are set to rise 22%. People will be clamoring for help when November hits. The GOP will have no choice but to act. And if health care companies see Obamacare as a lame-duck law, they’ll pull out entirely, leaving people without coverage. The final implosion of Obamacare threatens to be a disaster if the GOP does not govern well. Action will be required more quickly than more Republicans want to admit.
While everything above is a set calendar date, history has shown that unexpected events play as much a role in altering a Presidency’s course as planned ones do. And I think we can look ahead and imagine several scenarios Trump will/may deal with in 2017:
- Supreme Court Nomination Fight: There are no dates set on any nomination hearings. But Trump will fill Scalia’s empty Supreme Court seat in 2017. If he nominates someone not on his “list” or someone like his sister, the retribution from the right will be swift and loud. Any nomination will get grilled by Democrats.
- Terrorist attack: We’ve had several high profile terrorist attacks the past 3 years. The US is no exception with the Pulse Club attack, San Bernardino, and Boston Marathon bombings all showing either direct or indirect ISIS/AQ influence. Germany and France continue to see attacks on their soil. These attacks have the ability to shape elections and Presidencies. Trump’s reaction to his first attack will shape his administration. If an attack happens in and around budget fights, it could spur a renewed push for higher military spending.
- Racial tensions flare: We’ve seen a resurgence in race tensions dominating the news. Trump will have to respond to these events, just as Obama had to respond. How Trump responds has the power to inflame or quell these tensions.
- Russia / China cyber attacks: The intelligence community is convinced Russia is behind the cyber and propaganda attacks attacks in America. And there’s little to no evidence disproving them. We don’t know how Trump will handle Russia and China. But we do need a change. And if Trump does push back against Putin, what will Trump do when Putin starts having Wikileaks leak sensitive documents on Trump? Russia hacked the GOP and Trump just as bad as they did Democrats. The only difference is that information hasn’t been released yet. If Trump threatens Putin, we could see Putin back Trump down with embarrassing leaks.
- Intelligence Community leaks: The opposite of the Russian leaks would be if American Intelligence started leaking embarrassing documents and information on Trump. If they feel threatened with Trump’s continued attacks on them, they could flip the tables and look to destroy Trump.
There are, of course, may other events that could take place and define Trump’s Presidency. But the dates and wildcard events on the calendar will go a long way in defining Donald Trump as President.
The Looming Issue for 2017: Challenging Putin
Geo-politically, the number one issue facing America is challenging Russian President Vladimir Putin and reassuring itself on the international stage.
There are other issues people point to with more important, like China, ISIS, international trade, and the Middle East. But the one person thwarting America, domestic and abroad, is Putin. Bringing Putin to heel would open up American power to influence and change multiple areas around the globe. Thwarting Putin eases global tensions by decreasing the power of a chaos agent seeking to destroy America’s influence globally.
The Russians are engaging in an “Active Measures” campaign against the US at the directions of Vladimir Putin. We’ve had evidence of the Russians and Cubans committing similar acts in the past, but the ante has been ramped up with Putin’s full-scale intelligence war against the West. Putin isn’t interested in being an ally of America or helping us defeat ISIS. He wants the old-school Soviet wish: the destruction of America. In the Cold War, it was Communism vs Capitalism. Capitalism won. It won because the USSR’s embracement of Marxist Socialism planted the seeds of Russia’s own destruction. Communism was and is utterly incapable of beating capitalism or ruling over a people.
In a similar way, Putin has planted the seeds of his own country’s destruction. He is the epitome of the cult of personality. He acts as the strongman to make up for the inadequacies he believes his country has on the international stage. Defeating him defeats the problem. George Kennan, the man responsible for developing the United States Cold War doctrine of containment wrote in 1946 of Russia:
At bottom of Kremlin’s neurotic view of world affairs is traditional and instinctive Russian sense of insecurity. Originally, this was insecurity of a peaceful agricultural people trying to live on vast exposed plain in neighborhood of fierce nomadic peoples. To this was added, as Russia came into contact with economically advanced West, fear of more competent, more powerful, more highly organized societies in that area. But this latter type of insecurity was one which afflicted rather Russian rulers than Russian people; for Russian rulers have invariably sensed that their rule was relatively archaic in form fragile and artificial in its psychological foundation, unable to stand comparison or contact with political systems of Western countries. For this reason they have always feared foreign penetration, feared direct contact between Western world and their own, feared what would happen if Russians learned truth about world without or if foreigners learned truth about world within. And they have learned to seek security only in patient but deadly struggle for total destruction of rival power, never in compacts and compromises with it.
It was no coincidence that Marxism, which had smoldered ineffectively for half a century in Western Europe, caught hold and blazed for first time in Russia. Only in this land which had never known a friendly neighbor or indeed any tolerant equilibrium of separate powers, either internal or international, could a doctrine thrive which viewed economic conflicts of society as insoluble by peaceful means.
While Russia’s leaders have long mired themselves in this insecurity, the West has never truly understood this problem. Which is why when Russia strikes out, the West is always surprised. George W. Bush and Barack Obama truly thought and believed Putin held a similar belief system when it came to international norms. Putin is attempting assert Russia internationally to make up for the decades of loss his country has withstood since the fall of the USSR. But he’s gone beyond simply asserting himself internationally, he’s used his newfound prominence to annex Crimea in the Ukraine, invade Georgia, and push US influence out of the Middle East. Not to mention the Active Measures intelligence campaign against the US and other Western allies.
Much like Bush at the end of his term, Barack Obama has only seen the danger of an ascendant Putin at the 11th hour. His steps of kicking out spies and diplomats, while great steps, are too late. More action is needed in 2017 to push back Putin’s advances. America doesn’t even need a different playbook. We won the Cold War once, we can beat a much weaker foe with a similar playbook, as John R. Schindler wrote:
How to stop this Russian semi-clandestine political juggernaut? Here looking back to 1947 helps. As the Cold War dawned, President Harry Truman eventually accepted that American power had to be used to prevent a Kremlin takeover of Western Europe. Thus was NATO born and American troops returned to Europe to prevent a Soviet invasion. Military power still matters, and the limited efforts made by the Obama administration to bolster deterrence in Europe may not be sufficient.
Yet it’s the political aspect that’s most intriguing. In the late 1940s, to prevent friends of the Kremlin from taking over via the ballot box, especially in key countries like Italy and France, Truman unleashed American intelligence to secretly support anti-Soviet parties of the democratic left. Aid, in cash and kind, was provided to European socialists to undercut the appeal of Communism by offering a robust reform program inside the democratic, Western system. This worked astonishingly well, and throughout the Cold War, the CIA and others quietly backed the European democratic left, politically undercutting the appeal of Moscow’s stooges.
The same must be done today. We must learn to work with moderate nationalists and anti-globalists, who are rising politically across the West. Stop denouncing them as racists and xenophobes, listen to their legitimate concerns, and start cooperating with the reasonable ones against Moscow. Seventy years ago, Washington successfully forged a quiet alliance with the moderate left to fight the Kremlin, and today we must do the same with the West’s moderate right. If we refuse to do so, they will gravitate to the only force which welcomes them, and his name is Vladimir Putin.
The last sentence is key: If we do not push back against Putin’s moves and the groups he is financing, he will only win more Westerners over to his cause. The US has a direct interest in ensuring that Putin is not calling global shots. Putin is the new offshoot plant of a USSR tree stump that Ronald Reagan cut down in the 1980’s. If allowed to grow and metastasize further, that tree will grow back to full strength. The US must stop this threat. And soon. Society does not have to live through another half-century of fear that their city would be nuked at any moment. We can, and must, do better.
What I’m reading
“Populism, V: A bulwark against tyranny – On the structural safegaurds of the U.S. Constitution” by James Piereson, in The New Criterion.
The monthly installment of my favorite current political magazine has arrived. This part was written by James Piereson, the president of the William E. Simon Foundation and a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute. As with every issue so far in the series, this one is worth your time. Piereson does a great job of navigating the history of the Constitution and how it was designed to curtail and control populism:
Madison and many of his political allies began their political careers during the years of the Revolution, most of them as members of the Continental Army or the Continental Congress, or as office holders of some kind under the continental government. It was in this way that the Revolution produced a division within the governing class of the new nation between those who experienced the war in various continental or national posts and those who fought the war in the state militias or devoted their careers to state or local offices. The “nationalists” traveled abroad and up and down the continent conferring with colleagues from other states, while wrestling with national issues like taxation, foreign affairs, and overall military strategy. They were a relatively small but tightly knit group that included Madison (who served both in the Continental Congress and the Virginia legislature), Jefferson, Franklin, Adams, Hamilton, and, of course, General Washington. They disagreed then and later on many important issues, but they were of one mind about the fatal weaknesses of the Articles of Confederation. After all, they were the ones who had struggled and largely failed to turn the continental system into an effective political force. They were the first to conceive of the United States as a nation in need of a government worthy of the name. Those who labored in the states came more slowly to this outlook. Most could not reconcile themselves to the concept of a strong national government located in a faraway capital.
Madison, along with several others of this national outlook, began to press in the mid-1780s for revisions in the Articles out of concern that the national union was too weak to sustain itself and, indeed, was on the verge of falling apart. In the aftermath of the Revolution, the states drafted and ratified constitutions that allocated the preponderance of power to the legislatures in keeping with the theory that the executive poses a threat to liberty and the legislature is the appropriate repository of popular power. By the mid-1780s, the various legislatures in the states were erecting trade barriers against neighboring states, issuing worthless paper currency, interfering with treaties with other nations, and allowing mobs to threaten courts of law—all of it under the banner of populism and popular rule. In addition, those legislatures withheld taxes and revenues due to the Continental government, thereby weakening it further and leaving it vulnerable to possible attacks from European powers. One might describe this as the original “populist” moment in the history of the United States.
The resulting Constitution solved the Constitutional and populist crisis America was in after the Revolution was won. The hardest thing to do, even when winning a Revolution, is to govern well. The Founders did just that when they created the Constitution.
Links worth your time
To Fix the Department of the Navy – Kill the Mabus Legacy – by Gary Anderson
Excerpt: “Global warming and political incorrectness are the greatest threats to the United States, and it is the job of America’s Navy to protect us from those threats. For the past eight years, that has been the strategic legacy of Navy Secretary Ray Mabus, and the primary goal of his successor should be to ensure that Mabus has no legacy. The traditional mission of the US Navy has been to deter potentially hostile navies, or failing to do that, defeat them. Getting the US naval services back to that philosophy is going to be a big job for the new administration.”
Russia’s New Favorite Jihadis: The Taliban by Thomas Joscelyn
Excerpt: “Last week, Moscow hosted Chinese and Pakistani emissaries to discuss the war. Tellingly, no Afghan officials were invited. However, the trio of nations urged the world to be “flexible” in dealing with the Taliban, which remains the Afghan government’s most dangerous foe. Russia even argued that the Taliban is a necessary bulwark in the war against the so-called Islamic State. For its part, the American military sees Moscow’s embrace of the Taliban as yet another move intended to undermine NATO, which fights the Taliban, al Qaeda, and the Islamic State every day.”
Vladimir Putin’s Newest Export: Terrorists – ISIS is full of Russian speakers from Chechnya and other Caucasus republics, and the ‘stans.’ One is suspected of the NYE shooting in Istanbul by Michael Weiss and Katie Zavadski
Excerpt: “With the establishment of ISIS’s “caliphate,” veterans of the Caucasus or Central Asia insurgencies have found a new port of call, and ISIS has even gone so far as to declare a wilayat, or province, on Russian Federation territory, more out of bluster than anything approaching the medieval reality it has been able to impose on now-dwindling areas of Syria and Iraq. According to Jacob Zenn, a fellow at the Jamestown Foundation, “not including al-Qaeda and also not including Uighurs, if you’re looking at Russian-speaking jihadists, you’re looking at mostly Uzbeks.” And very few of them actually come from Uzbekistan but are rather cultivated as migrant laborers inside Russia. “They get picked up by a jamaat,” he said, referring to the Arabic word for an Islamic council, “with professional ISIS recruiters in Russia who get money for each guy they send to ISIS in Syria. The route is through Turkey. There hasn’t been much done about it.” The reason for that, Zenn says, is that either Russia has willfully turned a blind eye to the exodus or because the FSB can’t keep track of everyone leaving, particularly from networks in Siberia or the Russian regions away from Moscow.”
The Wikileaks Right by Noah Rothman
Excerpt: “Republicans would do well to ask themselves to what end is Russia seeking to undermine American computer security and muck around in American politics. Do Republicans really believe that American national interests are advanced by creating friction between the White House and the intelligence community or by cleaving the United States away from its imperiled European allies? Pro-Trump partisans have some soul searching to do. They won; it’s time to govern. The subordination of intellectual honesty to the demands of partisan rigor will only make that task harder, uglier, and less likely to be successful.”
Thanks for reading!