Putin's War, and His Rule, Are In Trouble
Economics & Finance
|Heather Cox Richardson|
Today the Senate approved a short-term extension of government funding to prevent a shutdown. The deal funds the government until December 16 and also provides about $12 billion in aid to Ukraine as it fights off Russia’s invasion. The House is expected to pass the measure tomorrow.
Behind this measure is a potential nightmare scenario. MAGA Republicans have already threatened to refuse to fund the government unless President Joe Biden and the Democrats reverse all their policies. If Republicans take control of either the House or the Senate—or both—in the midterms, they have the potential to throw the government into default, something that has never happened before.
The Republicans have this weapon because the U.S. has a weird funding system put in place more than 100 years ago. Congress appropriates money for programs that the Treasury then has to fund. But there is a “debt ceiling” for how much the government can borrow. If Congress has spent more money than the debt ceiling will permit, Congress must raise that ceiling or the government will default.
The debt ceiling is not an appropriation, it simply permits the government to pay debts already incurred.
Congress actually originally intended the debt ceiling to enable the government to be flexible in its borrowing. In the era of World War I, when it needed to raise a lot of money fast, Congress stopped passing specific revenue measures and instead set a cap on how much money the government could borrow through all of the different instruments it used.
Now, though, the debt ceiling has become a political cudgel because if it is not raised when Congress spends more than it has the ability to repay, the country will default on its debts.
Congress has raised the debt ceiling more than 100 times since it first went into effect, including 18 times under Ronald Reagan, and indeed, the Republicans raised it three times under former president Donald Trump. But when they had to raise it almost exactly a year ago under Biden, Republicans refused.
Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen warned then that a default “could trigger a spike in interest rates, a steep drop in stock prices and other financial turmoil. Our current economic recovery would reverse into recession, with billions of dollars of growth and millions of jobs lost.” It would jeopardize the status of the U.S. dollar as the international reserve currency. Financial services firm Moody's Analytics warned that a default would cost up to 6 million jobs, create an unemployment rate of nearly 9%, and wipe out $15 trillion in household wealth.
And yet, Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell (R-KY), who had voted to raise or suspend the debt ceiling 32 times in his career, said, “There is no chance, no chance the Republican conference will…help Democrats…resume ramming through partisan socialism.” His stand was in part because it was not clear he had the votes he needed to support an increase, even though establishment Republicans like McConnell were quite aware of the damage a default would create.
Driving the Republican stance was former president Trump, who pushed MAGA Republicans to use the threat of default to get what they want. “The way I look at it,” he wrote, “what the Democrats are proposing, on so many different levels, will destroy our country. Therefore, Republicans have no choice but to do what they have to do, and the Democrats will have no choice but to concede all of the horror they are trying to inflict upon the future of the United States.” Trump was not happy when McConnell backed down. He issued a statement blaming McConnell for “folding” and added, “He’s got all of the cards with the debt ceiling, it’s time to play the hand.”
Now the equation has changed. With the Republican Party controlled by its MAGA members, it is not clear that a Republican-dominated House or Senate would allow the government to pay its bills. The ranking member of the House Budget Committee, Representative Jason Smith of Missouri, told Alayna Treene of Axios that he thinks the Republican should use the debt ceiling as leverage to “reverse” the administration’s “radical” policies. He indicated he would like the Republicans to pass a bill tying a higher debt ceiling to the destruction of all the Democrats’ policies and dare Biden to reject it. “Surely he wouldn’t default,” Smith said.
This plan is an echo of an effort by former Confederate leaders to destroy the federal government’s Reconstruction policies by withholding funds until the president did as they demanded. In 1879, having taken control of both houses of Congress during a recession, Democrats believed they had a mandate to get rid of federal protection of Black rights. Insisting they were fighting for liberty from a tyrannical government, they attached to appropriations bills riders that would force President Rutherford B. Hayes either to withdraw the remaining U.S. troops in the South (it’s a myth that they left in 1877) or to leave the government unfunded.
Cartoonist Thomas Nast drew an image of Fort Sumter, the installation in Charleston Harbor fired on by Confederate troops in April 1861, with the caption: “REVOLUTIONARY, AS USUAL—It is not the first time that an attempt has been made to stop the Government.” Three weeks later, the cover of Harper’s Weekly showed a skeletal U.S. soldier, starved at the infamous Andersonville prison camp, as a symbol of the starvation of the government.
Southern Democrats told newspapers they had blundered when they fought on the battlefields: far better to control the country from within Congress. Extremist newspapers threatened violence as they called for congress members to “drive or starve Mr. Hayes into signing a bill that sweeps these obnoxious laws out of existence.” But some fellow Democrats thought the southerners had gone too far. The Chicago Times deplored “the revolutionary course of attempting to subordinate the president to the dominant party in congress by menacing the very existence of the constitution.”
Republican House minority leader James Garfield (R-OH) noted: “They will let the government perish for want of supplies.” “If this is not revolution, which if persisted in will destroy the government, [then] I am wholly wrong in my conception of both the word and the thing.” A Civil War veteran who had seen battle at Shiloh and Chickamauga, Garfield understood revolution.
Garfield and Hayes refused to bow to the ex-Confederates’ demands, and their stand rallied northerners who had begun to drift toward the Democrats back to their standard. The Democrats were engaged in “a conspiracy against the government itself,” Harper’s Weekly wrote, and voters agreed. In the election of 1880, they rejected Democratic presidential candidate Winfield S. Hancock, who had been considered the frontrunner, and instead elected Garfield, who ran on a platform that emphasized a strong national government and defense of Black rights.
In 1879 the congressional fight was a continuation of the themes of the Civil War, played out over the funding of the government. If today’s Republicans retake power in the fall elections, a similar fight in 2023 will likely look much the same.
Mary L. Hinsdale, Garfield-Hinsdale Letters: Correspondence Between James Abram Garfield and Burke Aaron Hinsdale (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1949), pp. 401–427.
Chicago Times, April 4, 1879, in William Henry Jewitt [?] to R. B. Hayes, April 5, 1879, R. B. Hayes MS.
Passengers could bear the brunt of rises through higher ticket prices
SEPTEMBER 30, 2022 by Philip Georgiadis, Transport Correspondent
THE BUZZ: Gov. Gavin Newsom is running for re-election in his home state, but he spent much of the last week taking the California show on the road.
In a blue state where he was rapturously received and a red state whose leader he loves to vilify, Newsom offered a similar message: under his leadership, California is demonstrating the way forward for the nation. Especially compared to the fossil fuel industry, conservative media and Texas Gov. Greg Abbott.
Newsom started at Climate Week in New York. He emphasized how climate change’s ravages are escalating, manifesting in heat waves and droughts and town-annihilating wildfires, and he lambasted some foes: the Wall Street Journal Editorial Board (“troglodytes”), Fox News (“time to take these guys on”) and the oil industry (“big corporations that have been destroying this planet).” As he took a victory lap on a newly signed climate package, he raised some eyebrows among coequal allies by proudly noting he “had to jam my own Democratic legislature,” some of whom are “wholly owned subsidiaries of the fossil fuel industry.”
California Gov. Gavin Newsom speaks to union workers and volunteers on election day at the IBEW Local 6 union hall on Sept. 14, 2021, in San Francisco, Calif. | Justin Sullivan/Getty Images
But Newsom reserved specific animus for Abbott. He invoked his Texas nemesis by name while in New York as an example of “conservative governors” who are “just doubling down on stupid,” pausing for laughter and applause. He was back in California for roughly 48 hours before he was off again – this time to Abbott’s home turf, where Newsom’s scarcely-needed campaign funds recently went to purchase a trio of billboards extoling California’s abortion access. (Texas is among the states to which California bans publicly-funded travel; Newsom used campaign funds to get there. He also took a moment while there to fundraise for an Arizona race).
The first question to Newsom at a TribFest panel was on immigration, and he was ready to swing at that pitch. Newsom blasted Abbott for busing migrants out of state and condemned the “appalling silence within the Republican Party” – this after Newsom’s office announced on Friday he’d signed a bill creating California ID cards accessible to the undocumented “as other states cruelly target migrants.” He also took ample shots at Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis, arguing Abbott and DeSantis had miscalculated politically like California’s backers of Prop 187 and the Briggs Initiative. He trumpeted California’s environmental policies again and emphasized California would “have your back” on abortion access. He tweeted hits on Abbott and Sen. Ted Cruz in short order, winning some national plaudits.
Of course, Newsom dutifully deflected on a potential presidential bid, including a questioner’s quip about Iowa in 2023. He also again decried a national Democratic Party that is perpetually “on defense” against Republicans and urged a more aggressive approach. “I’m not willing to not have met this moment,” Newsom said, before closing on a warning that Democrats are too focused on “a guy or a gal on a white horse to come and save the day.” And then he rode out of town.
US Troops Are Volunteering to Fly Abortion Seekers Across State Lines
Manila bids to stay friends with both nations amid fears it would be on the front line of any conflict between the two
SEPTEMBER 28, 2022 by Kathrin Hille in Manila
Russian propaganda remains a potent weapon across the world and must be countered
SEPTEMBER 28, 2022 by Oleksandr Tkachenko
After a two-month stalemate, earlier this month Ukraine launched a game-changing counteroffensive against the Russians occupying their eastern territories of Donetsk, Luhansk, Kherson, and Zaporizhzhia.
Over the summer, Ukrainian forces destroyed Russian arms, command centers, and supplies behind Russian lines with U.S.-supplied long-range High Mobility Artillery Rocket System (HIMARS), then began to talk of a counteroffensive in the south, near Kherson. To guard against such a move, Russia moved many of its soldiers from the northeast to Kherson, leaving its northeastern troops stretched thin.
On September 6, Ukrainians moved, but not near Kherson in the south. Instead, they struck hard on the weakened northeastern lines, cutting quickly through the stretched and disheartened Russian occupiers and capturing more than 6000 square miles in less than a week. Russian troops abandoned their weapons and fled.
Russian president Vladimir Putin had launched the war on February 24 with the expectation that a lightning-quick attack would give him control of Ukraine before other nations could react, much as when he had invaded Crimea in 2014, or Georgia in 2008.
But he did not reckon with the careful rebuilding and training the Ukrainian military had undergone since 2014 as it worked to hold off Russia. He also misjudged the strength and commitment of the North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO), which former president Trump had worked hard to dismantle. In office only a year at that point, President Joe Biden and Secretary of State Antony Blinken had made reconstructing the world’s democratic alliances a top priority.
Those alliances held against Russia’s invasion of a sovereign nation as they had not before when Putin had bought appeasement with promises: “Don’t believe those who try to use Russia to scare you, who say that, after Crimea, other [Ukrainian] regions will follow,” he said in 2014. “We don’t want to carve up Ukraine. We don’t need this.” In 2022, international sanctions began to bite into and then to bring down the Russian economy, while shipments of weapons and economic support kept the Ukrainians supplied. Rather than a quick, successful strike, Putin found himself in a drawn-out and deeply unpopular conflict.
The Ukrainian counteroffensive tightened the screws further. Putin responded to it on September 21 by hinting that he might use nuclear weapons and calling for what initially was described as “partial” mobilization, a move he had tried to avoid because of its potential to turn the Russian people against him. Immediately, Russian men headed for the country’s borders, while civilians and draftees, provided with few supplies and no training, began to resist.
Putin also announced that the four occupied regions would hold referenda on joining Russia and would be part of Russia as soon as those referenda occurred, so any attacks on them would be considered attacks on Russian territory. With this upfront admission that the vote was predetermined, Putin’s move was clearly designed to enable him to keep the Ukrainian territory he seems about to lose. It also violated international law by attacking another nation’s sovereignty, and Biden and other democratic leaders condemned it in advance.
Then, on September 26, the Nord Stream pipelines on the floor of the Baltic Sea that send natural gas from Russia to Europe appear to have been sabotaged with TNT in what appears to have been a warning that Russia could attack the critical infrastructure of NATO countries. In this case, neither of the pipelines was in use, and blowing them up might simply have been a way to get rid of them in such a way to collect insurance on assets that are losing value as Europe turns to alternative energy.
But the explosions might also have been a warning that the seven major pipelines delivering Norwegian gas to Europe could be next. Former president Trump promptly “truthed”: “Do not make matters worse with the pipeline blowup. Be strategic, be smart (brilliant!), get a negotiated deal done NOW. Both sides need and want it. The entire World is at stake. I will head up group???”
Today, in a televised ceremony, Putin announced that the sham referenda had taken place and that “there are four new regions of Russia.” The four territories, which Russia does not fully control, cover about 18% of Ukraine. Putin’s speech seemed to indicate a concern that the countries under his sway are sliding away. He focused on the “West,” claiming that Russia itself is under attack from western democracies. “The West is looking for new opportunities to hit us and they always dreamt about breaking our state into smaller states who will be fighting against each other,” he said. “They cannot be happy with this idea that there is this large country with all [these] natural riches and people who will never live under a foreign oppression.”
He offered to negotiate for an end to the war, but said that the “four new regions of Russia aren’t up for negotiation.”
Journalist Anne Applebaum, who is a specialist on Central and Eastern Europe, identified Putin’s actions as a war not just on Ukraine, but on world order and the rule of law, a system embraced by the democratic world. It is, she writes in The Atlantic, “a statement of contempt for democracy itself.” That world order says that big countries cannot attack smaller countries and that mass slaughter is unacceptable. In contrast, in Putin’s world, she writes, “Only brutality matters.”
Secretary of State Blinken tweeted: “Today, we took swift and severe measures in response to President Putin's attempt to annex regions of Ukraine—a clear violation of international law. We will continue to impose costs on anyone that provides political or economic support for this sham.”
In turn, Ukraine’s president Volodymyr Zelensky announced that Ukraine is applying for “accelerated ascension” into NATO. Ukraine’s membership in the organization would require other NATO countries to send troops to fight Russia. Admission to NATO requires the consent of all 30 members, and that consent is unlikely to materialize in the midst of a war, but Zelenky’s announcement overshadowed Putin’s.
Zelensky appealed to the ethnic minorities conscripted into Russian armies not to fight, telling them that more than 58,000 Russian soldiers had already died in Ukraine and warning them that they do not have to die for Putin. If they do come, he warned, those who are sent without dog tags should tattoo their names on their bodies so the Ukrainian authorities can inform their relatives when they are killed.
“The United States condemns Russia’s fraudulent attempt today to annex sovereign Ukrainian territory,” President Biden said. “Russia is violating international law, trampling on the United Nations Charter, and showing its contempt for peaceful nations everywhere. Make no mistake: these actions have no legitimacy.”
The U.S. announced new sanctions against Russians and Russian entities and will continue to provide aid to the Ukrainians. In what sounded like a reference to the damaged pipelines, Biden told reporters “America’s fully prepared with our NATO allies to defend every single inch of NATO territory, every single inch,” Mr. Biden said, adding: “Mr. Putin, don’t misunderstand what I’m saying.”
Meanwhile, Ukrainian troops have advanced around the city of Lyman and appear to be on the cusp of encircling the Russian troops there. Lyman is a key logistics and transportation hub, and the Institute for the Study of War, a think tank, says its loss “will likely be highly consequential to the Russian grouping.”
Today, a Washington Post op-ed by Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny, now serving a nine-year sentence in a maximum-security penal colony on trumped up charges, bore a title unimaginable a year ago: “This is what a post-Putin Russia should look like.”
Nikki Haley is headed on tour with her new book, If You Want Something Done: Leadership Lessons from Bold Women, and is planning to campaign for several Republican candidates ahead of the midterm elections in November.
Today, House minority leader Kevin McCarthy (R-CA) and Representative Elise Stefanik (R-NY), who took over as the chair of the House Republican Conference after the party rejected Representative Liz Cheney (R-WY) for her refusal to back the January 6 insurrection, released the House Republicans’ plan for the country.
Covering just a single page, it presents vague aspirations—many of which Biden has already put in place—but focuses on the radical extremes of the MAGA party while trying to make those extremes sound mild.
The so-called “Commitment to America” calls for a strong economy, a safe nation, a free future, and an accountable government. So far, so good.
But the first topic—making the economy strong—is a paraphrase of what the Biden administration has been doing. The Republicans call for fighting inflation and lowering the cost of living, making America energy independent, bringing down gas prices, strengthening the supply chain, and ending the country’s dependence on China.
This is quite literally the platform of the Democrats, but while the Republicans offer no actual proposals to contribute to these goals, Biden has taken concrete steps to address inflation by taking on the shipping monopolies that hiked transportation costs, for example, while Democrats in Congress have passed legislation capping the cost of certain prescription medications. Biden has released reserves to help combat high gas prices, which have now fallen close to their cost last March—a barrel of oil is now under $80—while expanding our nation’s pool of truck drivers and just last week averting a train strike that would have endangered supply chains. The incentives in the Inflation Reduction Act are designed specifically to make America energy independent while addressing climate change, and Biden’s extraordinary efforts to support economic development in the Indo-Pacific region, along with the CHIPS and Science Act, were explicitly designed to reduce U.S. dependence on China.
It feels rather as if the Republicans recognize that Biden’s policies are popular, and are hoping that voters haven’t noticed that he is actually putting them in place.
Then the document gets to the heart of its argument, recycling MAGA talking points in language that makes it very attractive. Who doesn’t want national safety, for example?
But national safety is described here as securing the border and combatting illegal immigration (something already in place), adding 200,000 police officers through recruiting bonuses, cracking down on prosecutors and district attorneys who refuse to prosecute crimes (this is likely directed at those who say they will not prosecute women for obtaining abortions), criminalizing all fentanyl, and supporting our troops and exercising peace through strength (which likely means reversing Biden’s emphasis on multilateral diplomacy to return to using the U.S. military as a global enforcer)— all MAGA demands.
“A Future That’s Built on Freedom” is a similar sleight of hand, meaning something far from the freedom of the recent past. Here it means giving parents control over their childrens’ education (more book banning and laws that prohibit teaching subjects that make students “uncomfortable”), “defend[ing] fairness by ensuring that only women can compete in women’s sports” (there’s the anti-trans statement), achieving “longer, healthier lives for Americans” by what appears to be getting rid of the Affordable Care Act, and what appears to be a defense of the use of ivermectin and other quack cures popular on the right (“lower prices through transparency, choice, and competition,” “invest in lifesaving cures,” and “improve access to telemedicine”). It also demands confronting “Big Tech” to make it fair, which is likely a reference to the right wing’s conviction that social media discriminates against it by banning hate speech.
The section about accountable government calls for preserving constitutional freedoms, which they interpret as an apparent national ban on abortion—a constitutional right until this past June—saying they will “protect the lives of unborn children and their mothers.” They defend “religious freedom,” which the right wing, including the Supreme Court, has interpreted as freedom for Christian schools to receive public tax money and for Christian coaches to pray with students. The document also calls for safeguarding the Second Amendment, which the right wing has increasingly interpreted since the 1970s to mean that the government cannot regulate gun ownership.
This section of the document calls for rigorous oversight of the government “to rein in government abuse of power and corruption,” providing “real transparency,” and requiring the White House “to answer for its incompetence at home and abroad.” It also says Republicans will “save and strengthen Social Security and Medicare.”
While the part of this section that calls for stopping government abuse and incompetence seems rich coming from the MAGA Republicans, the statement that they intend to protect Social Security and Medicare strikes me as I felt when hearing Trump tell voters in 2020 that he would protect Obamacare at the very time his lawyers were in court trying to overturn the law. Now, in this moment, leading Republicans have vowed to get rid of Social Security and Medicare, which is an interesting way to “save and strengthen” them.
Similarly, the section promising to “restore the people’s voice” calls for voting restrictions.
In short, the document feels like the doublespeak from George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984. To defend the indefensible, Orwell wrote in an essay titled “Politics and the English Language,” “political language has to consist largely of euphemism, question-begging and sheer cloudy vagueness…. The great enemy of clear language is insincerity. When there is a gap between one's real and one's declared aims, one turns, as it were, instinctively to long words and exhausted idioms, like a cuttlefish spurting out ink.”
Former House speaker Newt Gingrich (R-GA), who focused on the power of language to alter reality and who helped to write the 1994 Contract with America that enabled the Republicans to take control of the House for the first time since 1954, worked on this document. The Contract with America, which party leaders called a contract as a promise that it would be binding, led the Republicans to shut down the government for 28 days between November 1995 and January 1996 to get their way before they entirely abandoned the “contract.”
To sell today’s document to voters, Republicans used a slick video, but Jennifer Bendery of HuffPost noted that the film uses stock videos from Russia and Ukraine in its “Commitment to America.” When Bendery reached out to McCarthy for comment, his spokesperson Mark Bednar responded: “Interesting how you guys aren’t remotely interested in the issues facing the American people in the video.”
But will it work? The document tries to win Trump voters without actually mentioning Trump, who now alienates all but his fervent supporters. But he continues to dominate the Republican Party and to grab the headlines. Tonight, 60 Minutes teased a story that will broadcast on Sunday and is already raising eyebrows. In it, Denver Riggleman, former senior tech advisor for the House Select Committee to Investigate the January 6th Attack on the U.S. Capitol, said that the White House switchboard connected a call to a rioter’s phone while the Capitol was under siege on January 6, 2021.