Good Friday Morning, and what a week! Or a month? I’m not sure. Last week when I wrote this newsletter, Donald Trump had just gotten a positive COVID-19 test and I was scrambling to fit that into this newsletter. I was literally 2-3 clicks away from hitting the send button when that news hit. Since then, Trump got COVID, went to the hospital, left the hospital, and we had a Vice Presidential debate. And it doesn’t look like things are going to let up any time soon. The NYTimes dropped a story (late Thursday, again), with two interesting tidbits. The first is that Pelosi is trolling Trump’s health:
Ms. Pelosi said she planned to introduce legislation on Friday creating a commission on presidential capacity to review the health of a commander in chief under provisions of the 25th Amendment providing for the temporary transfer of power to the vice president in case of inability to discharge the duties of the office.
The ultimate goal here is to use the House’s subpoena power to go after Trump’s health documents, I’m sure. And she’ll make it out that Trump is hiding things. The 25th Amendment lays out the succession plan in the event of death or incapacity of the President. I’ve written columns in the past blasting dumb, wishcasting plans to remove Trump via that amendment. But as I said, this is ultimately a troll job by Pelosi that will attempt to attack Trump’s transparency on his health, and will likely accuse him of being out of his mind via “mind-altering drugs.”
My second concern is Trump’s health. The Times report added these two paragraphs:
The president’s phone interviews were his first time answering questions since he was infected with the virus and flown to the Walter Reed National Military Medical Center, where he stayed for three nights. He said he was no longer taking the experimental drugs used to treat the virus, but he added that he was still taking a steroid that doctors say can produce bursts of energy, euphoria and even a sense of invulnerability.
“I felt pretty lousy,” Mr. Trump said. But, he added, “I’m back because I’m a perfect physical specimen and I’m extremely young.” He once again played down the severity of the disease. “Now what happens is you get better,” he said. “That’s what happens, you get better.”
Is Trump actually over the virus? No one knows. He needs to be, politically speaking. Staying in the hospital is hammering him in the polls. It’s not turning Trump voters into Biden supporters, it’s depressing his voters. Leaving the hospital helps with the politics, but if he relapses, the impact to his polling will likely worsen.
Last week I wrote that Trump’s greatest hope is that his support is soft because people who like him just aren’t responding to pollsters, or don’t show up. The key data point was a comparison between the job approval number and his head-to-head numbers against Biden. The most recent Fox News poll showed Trump losing by ten points nationally, 53 – 43. But, if you looked at the job approval in that poll, Fox showed Trump with a 47% approval rating. That would suggest a much closer race and would cut a potential ten-point Biden lead in half. Final presidential vote numbers tend to line up/trend towards job approval numbers.
If Trump can get his job approval number above 50% in swing states, that can help him out. But he has to get out of these negative news cycles that depress his voters. He needs two things at things point: his polling to revert to the previous mean, and then climb towards his job approval. He then needs negative news cycles to hit Biden to depress the Democratic base. If the race remains static, Trump loses. He needs more crazy in this race, and he needs it to hit Biden. Otherwise, come November, it will be a Biden landslide election. I only see two outcomes now: a slim Trump win or a Biden wipeout. Trump lost considerable ground this past week.
This week I’m writing about a series of newsletters and columns by David French at the Dispatch. He argues Trump isn’t pro-life. I take issue with that argument. Links to follow. My Vice Presidential debate reaction is linked below, I recorded a nearly hour-long podcast covering all the major points of the debate.
Where you can find me this week
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No one should get to change a single rule on the debates – The Conservative Institute.
Uncertainty still rules in this election – The Conservative Institute.
David French’s bad arguments against Trump’s pro-life stances.
As we head towards the election, one of the more curious things I’ve seen has been some writers’ efforts on the right to hit Trump as much as possible on his pro-life credentials. The biggest name in this effort is David French, who has argued Trump is not a pro-lifer, and that people don’t have to worry about this issue when voting.
To be blunt, after reading through his arguments, I can’t decide if they’re utterly incoherent or so impossibly principled as to be politically useless. And I say this as a person who has high respect for, reads and subscribes to his work and purchased his latest book. I’d consider myself on his side on most things. In his conservative spat with Sohrab Ahmari and the integralists/post-liberals, I sided with French, and still do.
But if French is trying to prove these post-liberal critiques of him accurate, he’s doing a perfect job of it. I’m left wondering how on earth I exist in a space where I think Sohrab Ahmari is wrong about everything, David French is wrong too, and I’m not a libertarian. Had you asked me a year ago, I’d have said that space was only theoretical, but here we are. I’d reiterate a point I made several weeks ago that I was angry about being forced into the center.
30,000-foot view: I think French is trying to build an intellectual permission structure to make pro-life evangelicals feel better about voting for someone like Joe Biden, on a pro-life basis. I disagree, and the heat needs to turn back up for those voters. It’s okay if you believe Trump isn’t a dedicated pro-life person or want to vote for Biden. However, it is unquestionable that when a person is entering the voting booth, voting on that issue in their mind, there’s only one option. And it’s not Biden.
First, let’s go through French’s argument. The best place is his most recent column in Time Magazine, “Donald Trump Is Not Pro-Life. His Response to COVID-19 Proves It.” The title gives away most of the plot. French argues that Donald Trump’s response to the coronavirus pandemic has been so inadequate that it takes away any claim Trump has to be pro-life. French says Trump is nominally anti-abortion, but not pro-life.
He’s threading a fine needle. After going through the long laundry list of failures that have plagued the administration, French caps it off with this observation:
One is flatly denying the “incomparable worth of the human person” when they fail to follow basic, common-sense masking guidelines. One is instead indulging in a form of petty selfishness that has cost an untold number of lives.
The pandemic would be challenging under any circumstances, but the United States has so far recorded one of the worst responses of any advanced democracy in the world. A terrible total of over 210,000 Americans have died, and hundreds more die every day. Excess death data indicates the true toll is likely much higher.
By any measure, the Coronavirus pandemic has been a public health catastrophe. Yet the president and his team still downplay its severity. They still mock Joe Biden’s mask-wearing.
Nothing about this is pro-life. Nothing.
He adds one more hit:
The bottom line is that Trump will end his first term with the nation’s abortion laws largely intact and without engaging in a single serious effort to defund Planned Parenthood. He will also end his first term with a legacy of deception, failure, and callous disregard for the lives and health of even his friends and colleagues in the face of an infectious disease that has killed more than 200,000 of his fellow citizens.
French points to things like the failure to defund Planned Parenthood and the June Medical abortion decision to prove his case. He claims Kavanaugh and Gorsuch failed to call for the end of the Roe/Casey standard as proof of Trump failing both on the abortion front and the broader pro-life horizon French builds.
That argument nominally makes sense, if you keep it within the narrow confines that French builds. If you broaden the concept of pro-life, as French does, and fully expand it, this argument falls apart. But we’ll hit these points one by one. First, hitting the issue of abortion and Trump, then the coronavirus, and ending with a full picture of what “pro-life” means if you expand it as French does in his arguments.
Trump and Abortion.
In a newsletter, French explained his argument with the following bullet points:
Decades of data and decades of legal, political, and cultural developments have combined to teach us a few, simple realities about abortion in the United States:
- Presidents have been irrelevant to the abortion rate;
- Judges have been forces of stability, not change, in abortion law;
- State legislatures have had more influence on abortion than Congress;
- Even if Roe is overturned, abortion will be mostly unchanged in the US; and
- The pro-life movement has an enormous cultural advantage.
These points are, to put it mildly, borderline nihilist on the pro-life front. He’s right insofar that Presidents are irrelevant to lowering the abortion rate directly. But that point is right of so many things. President’s aren’t responsible for crime rates, job numbers, or many other items. We still measure presidents to standards, though, and we point to the top if they fail.
If players on a football team consistently don’t score or tackle, it may not be the coach’s fault. It could be the player’s fault. But if things don’t change over time, it’s smart to look at the coach for lack of change, whether pursued or not. And if you know a coach can’t get players to do either, why hire them?
Ultimately, French is wrong. The president is not irrelevant because they order agencies to spend funds, promote or disfavoring positions, and prosecute laws. Like it or not, we do have the leviathan state that post-liberals like Adrian Vermeule praise and wants to build up to pursue their ends. Presidents head that up. In 2010, Barack Obama did just that when he signed an executive order enshrining abortion law funding. George W. Bush held the keys to the embryonic stem cell debate.
The points he makes on judges, pointing to Republican judges who have so often failed to overturn Roe/Casey, is a smart point. Still, it’s also one that conservatives have worked to challenge for decades. French fires off an entirely unfair shot at Kavanaugh and Gorsuch by saying:
Or take the fact that the two Supreme Court justices he nominated and confirmed (so far) did vote to uphold a mild Louisiana abortion restriction, but they notably did not join Justice Thomas’s dissenting opinion that clearly condemned Roe.
He’s blasting them for not joining a Thomas dissent as proof they aren’t pro-life enough. Do you know who else joined that dissent? No one. But you know what no one in their right mind would say? They wouldn’t say that Alito is pro-abortion or pro-Roe/Casey standard. Roberts was the one who messed that case up. Trump’s appointees were ready to uphold the restrictions and overturn the very recent abortion precedence in front of them. The whole idea of overturning the Roe/Casey standard wasn’t in front of this court. They weren’t going to rule on it. Blasting an issue, not in front of the court in a meaningless dissent is a weak argument.
The Hyde amendment and public funding of abortions have been on the books in various ways for a long time. By the standard French sets here, not only is Trump not pro-life, but neither would Reagan, George H. W. Bush, or George W. Bush be pro-life. Reagan and both Bushes nominated justices who have upheld the abortion right. Funding for abortion is still on the books. Are we now saying no one in Congress is pro-life now? Ted Cruz?
I doubt it. Saying Trump hasn’t achieved anything in Congress isn’t much of a critique. Congress hasn’t worked properly since at least the Bush administration. We haven’t passed an actual budget in ages. There are broader issues here than just Trump.
Trump and COVID-19.
The main thrust of French’s column is Trump has failed on the response to the coronavirus. That’s mostly true. He has failed. It’s also true of every single country on earth. There’s a reason they call this a global pandemic. America approaches these situations far differently than most countries; we have a federalist system. Trump has far less power than his global peers to enact localized policies.
Aside from the stupid culture wars around the coronavirus, what exactly should Trump be doing? Because contrary to popular belief, the culture wars over masks and such don’t save lives. Actual remedies and policies save lives. French places all coronavirus deaths at the feet of Trump, saying, “His selfish and reckless actions have cost lives. They’re still costing lives. By no fair measure is Donald Trump truly “pro-life.”
I get culturally why all the blame stops with Trump. In our current system, where we ascribe everything to the President, that makes sense. But I also know French is smarter than that. The impetus for our response as a nation falls just as much to governors and local leaders. And we know, for a fact, that the reason we’ve had such a worse response than other countries has more to do with specific governors than Donald Trump’s COVID-culture wars.
The Department of Justice is currently investigating the actions of four governors in four Democratic states. Why? The bulk of all US deaths have come from nursing homes, but a few states performed far worse than others:
Long-term care facilities represent less than 1% of the US population, but they account for 42% of the COVID-19 deaths, with more than 70,000 fatalities reported by the COVID Tracking Project.
In its statement announcing its request for data, the Justice Department said that hospital patients were sent “often without adequate testing” to ensure they would not spread the virus to residents. It also cited federal data showing New York, with nearly 32,600 dead, leads the nation in COVID-19 deaths, and is second only to New Jersey in the number of deaths per population.
The inquiry was aimed at nursing homes that are “owned, operated or managed by, or provide services on behalf of” the states.
The Justice Department’s civil rights division said it is evaluating whether to initiate investigations under a federal law called the Civil Rights of Institutionalized Persons Act” that protects the rights of people in state-run nursing homes and other facilities.
How many lives would have been saved if those governors didn’t make those orders? A lot. Even with that, though, we have demolished the early CDC models. In March, the first models said we faced the prospect of anywhere between 200,000 to nearly 2 million people dead. Some models showed even higher deaths and infections.
We are beating expectations for those models by a mile. We took the needed action. Some governors took wrong steps, measures that Trump couldn’t stop, and cost more lives. If we could change their efforts, we’d be beating the lowest end estimates of best-case scenarios from March.
Donald Trump pushed red and blue states to shut down their economies. And they did it. He moved ventilators and more into place. He’s fast-tracking vaccines by pushing the pharmaceutical companies and looking for red tape to cut. What more does French want? Does he want the mask-theater of Joe Biden?
In the Vice Presidential debate, Mike Pence astutely attacked the Biden “plan” for COVID-19, saying that they plagiarized it from Trump. And that’s a fact. There’s not one thing in Biden’s plan that either Trump hasn’t already done, or is actively doing now. What would Biden have done differently? He can’t answer.
The Trump administration failures on this issue, and I’ve documented them myself, were different. He shut down the borders but then wasted that time. We lost two months trying to fix out testing regime. We had purposely conflicting messages on things like masks. Fauci was part of the problem with those conflicting messages. Elite panic was an issue. French’s summary is disingenuous on these points.
Furthermore, does anyone in their right mind think that masks wouldn’t have been a culture war flashpoint? If Joe Biden told people to mask up, there’d be many conservatives who would happily go against that. Pretending Trump created that culture war flashpoint ignores all American history. Case in point, in Israel, Benjamin Netanyahu has imposed harsh regulations. In that country, the progressive left opposes the lockdowns.
Polarization isn’t unique to Donald Trump. Could we have done better on the coronavirus? Absolutely. We still have a long way to go. I’ve written and talked about in on podcasts for months now. But the fantasy that we’d have fewer dead people if we magically swapped Trump out for Biden or even Pence is wishcasting.
French cherry-picks the negative points on the virus while ignoring the positives of what Trump has done. French focuses on rhetoric and character while ignoring actions taken (and all this ignores the trillions of dollars pumped into the economy and American pockets to keep people afloat. Is that pro-life?).
Trump and a broad pro-life definition.
That brings me to my last section, and I’ll keep this one short since I’m going long this week. French makes a point in his most recent newsletter, saying we need to have a broader definition of what pro-life means. He says:
Thus, a pro-life person seeks a culture and politics that respects and protects human life in its totality. It’s not easy to create such a culture—and there will always be profound and good-faith disagreements about how to achieve the goal—but the goal is still clear.
The problem is that he broadens the meaning of pro-life to include the coronavirus, but stops there. If we’re respecting and protecting human life in its totality, why are we stopping with only virus response? Why not keep going?
Donald Trump ordered the strike on Qasem Soleimani in Iran, one of the most powerful operatives in the region responsible for American deaths. It’s doubtful Biden or Harris would have done the same. Trump bombed and hammered ISIS for years. The regular ISIS terrorist attacks we experienced at the end of the Obama administration have mostly dwindled in the last few years. It’s still a threat, but people are safer. Are these pro-life measures under this expanded definition?
How about the peace deals Trump has cut across the Middle East? Americans and Israelis are unquestionably safer with Israel’s normalization in the region, pushed by the Trump administration. Trump is “ending the endless wars,” with fewer troops in harm’s way. Question the wisdom of how we’re doing that, but are these the actions of a guy who is pro-life?
French doesn’t say because he keeps his pro-life definition narrowed to only include problems of culture wars and temperament. It’s a convenient trick to do, but it doesn’t make coherent sense. His description of the pro-life stance on abortion is so simple that it makes practically everyone but him pro-choice. And on the “broader” definition, he keeps it so narrow as to not include many other things that could get defined as pro-life. That’s what I mean when I say it’s incoherent. On the one hand, it’s an impossible goal to meet, and on the other hand, it’s pointlessly narrow.
French’s points remind me of an old story of former Senator Jim DeMint. At the height of the Tea Party, DeMint told a group:
DeMint spoke at length about principle and how he did not want to help elect “Republicans who will vote like Democrats.” He said he wanted to give the American people a clear choice because he believes that principled, constitutionally centered Republicans can be elected anywhere in the country. He said he believed that to be true even in California where he is supporting Chuck DeVore for the Republican nomination for United States Senate. He mentioned how he would rather have 30 Marco Rubios in the Senate than 60 Arlen Specters.
To say DeMint was wrong would be an understatement. Do you know what having 30 Marco Rubio’s in the Senate will get you? Nothing. It gets you the 2008-2010 Republican Party that was out of power in virtually all branches of government. Do you know what a party full of Trump’s, Susan Collins, and Marco Rubio’s get you? Better judges for starters. And in a functioning Congress, it gets you legislation.
A party with perfect principles and no power isn’t a party at all. It’s a book club.
As I said at the top, French is trying to build a permission structure for pro-life evangelicals to vote for Biden and have a clear conscience. But if Trump is a failure on being pro-life, while taking steps to advance the pro-life cause, what is Biden? Biden said this week that he “pledged his support for legal abortion on Monday evening, promising to make Roe v. Wade “the law of the land” if he’s elected president.” If Donald Trump’s COVID-19 plan is a failure, then why is Biden copying it? Biden would harm all the peace deals, go back to the Iran Deal, and more.
I don’t care if evangelicals vote for Biden. Vote for who you want. It’s your vote and your conscience. But don’t sit back and write columns claiming Trump isn’t pro-life or that Biden is. Both statements are insulting. Trump’s personality is awful. That’s nothing new. He still advances the pro-life cause more than any other candidate. And that’s doubly true if pro-life means more than just the abortion cause. Put another way, stop putting lipstick on a pig, and telling me it’s pretty. Trump has a litany of issues; he’s also the most pro-life person in the race. And that’s even more true for his Vice President.
Vote for Biden if you want. Vote against Trump. Or vice versa. But stop writing pieces that are conclusions in search of an argument.
Links of the week
How The Two-Party System Obscures The Complexity Of Black Americans’ Politics – Hakeem Jefferson, FiveThirtyEight
Pence does well hitting Harris, but election is all about Trump, Trump, Trump – John Podhoretz, NYPost
On the Peculiar Character of American ‘Racism’ – David Azerrad, The 1776 Series
Biden and Harris Need an Answer on Court Packing – Emma Green, The Atlantic
Nine Days in Wuhan, the Ground Zero of the Coronavirus Pandemic – Peter Hessler, NYMagazine
Yes, Democratic Senators Have Questioned Judicial Nominees about Their Faith – Alexandra DeSanctis, National Review
The Enlightening Evasions of the Vice-Presidential Debate – Noah Rothman, Commentary Magazine
Behold, the wretchedness of Amy Coney Barrett coverage – Timothy P. Carney, The Washington Examiner
Twitter Thread(s) of the week
Satire of the week
Trump Stuffs Coronavirus And Mounts It On His Wall – Babylon Bee
Thanks for reading!