Today’s Edition (June 4, 2021)

Joe Manchin’s hostage demands.

          Joe Biden continues to negotiate with Republicans over his infrastructure bill (the “American Jobs Plan”) even though his previously announced deadline for negotiations has passed. On Thursday, Joe Biden made a significant concession to Republicans—or not, depending on which source you believe. Compare NYTimes, “Biden Narrows Infrastructure Proposal to Win Republican Support,” and Talking Points Memo, “White House Denies Biden Made Big Concession In Infrastructure Talks.” Part of the problem in discussing the infrastructure negotiations is that the competing proposals are using different metrics. For ease of comparison, two things matter: new spending and the source of funds. Biden is proposing a reduced proposal of $1 trillion in new spending while Republican negotiators are offering $200 million in new spending. That is a heck of a difference. As to the source of funds, Biden reportedly offered to forego the 28% corporate tax rate in exchange for a 15% “minimum” corporate tax rate, which Biden’s spokesperson said was already embedded in Biden’s budget proposal. It is as clear as mud.

          Inquiring minds want to know why Joe Biden continues to negotiate with Republicans who appear to be negotiating in bad faith. See Politico, “Biden can’t quit infrastructure talks and progressives are losing their minds.” Leah Greenberg, who is a co-founder of Indivisible expressed the frustration of many progressives, saying,

          We’ve seen this dynamic over and over again where Democrats are effectively negotiating with themselves, watering down their own package, not in exchange for votes but in exchange for the hope of keeping the negotiations going. And the inevitable result is that what passes is weaker and less popular than what would have passed if they had gotten bigger and bolder to begin with.

          The problem for Joe Biden is Joe Manchin. Even if Democrats can pass the American Jobs Plan through reconciliation (which avoids the filibuster), Biden still needs 50 votes in the Senate to pass a bill using the reconciliation process. Without Manchin, Biden is short of the 50 Democratic votes to pass the infrastructure bill. Worse, Joe Manchin is effectively giving Republicans veto power in the negotiations. How? By announcing publicly that he (Manchin) will not support an infrastructure bill unless it has “bipartisan support.”  See The Hill, “Manchin isn't ready to support Democrats passing infrastructure on their own.” When Manchin was asked during an interview if Democrats should pass an infrastructure package on their own, Manchin said, “I don’t think we should. I really don’t.

          Thus, Biden has no choice but to continue negotiating in the hopes of satisfying the hostage demands of Joe Manchin—even though the criticisms of progressives like Ms. Greenberg are correct. If Biden were certain of victory, he would immediately call for a vote. But Biden has no leverage unless and until Manchin decides to caucus with Democrats rather than Republicans. (The same is true for Senator Sinema.)

          One way to assign blame in this situation is to attribute the failure to the “moderate” views of Senators Manchin and Sinema. A better way to look at the current negotiating weakness of Democrats is to see it as a collective failure to flip several vulnerable GOP Senate seats in 2020 (e.g., Joni Ernst and Susan Collins). From the second viewpoint, our challenge is not only that of changing the minds of Manchin and Sinema, but of creating a margin of control in the Senate that is not dependent on one or two conservative Democrats.

          Before leaving this topic, I want to paraphrase comments from a reader with a deep background in economics who wrote in praise of Biden’s efforts to “Go Big” in the American Jobs Plan. The reader sent a note saying that an expansive infrastructure bill “is not only right for our country at this time on a humanistic, moral, and political basis, but it also works economically and should be supported from this viewpoint. Specifically, it wisely departs from the Republican economic theory of the last forty years, which was deeply embedded in the Trump tax bill, of “supply side” and “trickle down” theories, which have not worked to stimulate economic growth, or for the benefit of the middle and lower economic classes. Instead, they have only served as a charade to support tax cuts for corporations and the upper economic class.” The reader concludes with the argument that Republican claims of “fiscal responsibility, inflation, and future financial burdens” is pure political posturing designed to obstruct any and all Democratic legislation. Well said!

Why is the right-wing media attacking Dr. Fauci—and what is the “lab-leak” controversy over the origin of the coronavirus?

Dr. Anthony Fauci has been a right-wing punching bag during the entire course of the pandemic. The pillorying has intensified over the last week because of the release of 10,000 of Dr. Fauci’s emails. Conservative outlets have flyspecked those emails to find perceived inconsistencies between his public comments and internal discussions. The right-wing media has allegedly found such evidence, which is based on a blatant mischaracterization of the emails and a simplistic view that Dr. Fauci was not permitted to change his scientific views as we learned more about the virus. For a good overview of the unfair criticisms compared to the true facts, see USA Today, “Fact check: Missing context in claim about mask emails, Fauci.” The USA Today article links to source documents that show the evolving knowledge about the coronavirus and Dr. Fauci’s public statements.

          A large part of the criticism of Dr. Fauci is tied to the false assertion that he “covered-up” knowledge—or suppressed investigations—about the alleged “lab-leak” in Wuhan, China that was the supposed source of the coronavirus. As one reader said today, “Fauci’s job was not to determine the origin of the virus but to protect Americans once it emerged. And he did an excellent job of that. True, we should know the origin because it might affect our relationship with China. But that isn’t Fauci’s job. He is a fearless and dedicated public servant who deserves boundless praise.” I agree.

          The media is devoting much attention to the so-called “lab-leak” theory of the origin of SARS-CoV-2—commonly called “the coronavirus.” The reference to a “lab-leak” is vague and susceptible to misunderstanding. The origin of the coronavirus is a complicated and hotly debated subject, so I hesitate to wade into the debate, but I will anyway. Let me cut to the chase about the origin of SARS-CoV-2 with two summary conclusions: First, there is a good-faith ongoing scientific debate about the origin of the coronavirus. Second, we should do our level best to discover the origin so that we can avoid or minimize similar outbreaks.

          The controversy over the “lab-leak” theory traces back to Trump’s efforts to blame China for the coronavirus. Trump infused the “origin” question with racial overtones, calling Covid-19 the “Kung flu,” the “China virus,” and the “Wuhan flu.” Those racial slurs were amplified by Steve Bannon, who helped spread the false claim that China developed SARS-CoV-2 “as a bio-weapon and purposefully unleashed it on the world.” See Vanity Fair, “The Lab-Leak Theory: Inside the Fight to Uncover COVID-19’s Origins.” The early racial slurs and whacko bio-weapon theories made it difficult to take seriously those scientists who believed that the coronavirus “escaped” from a lab in Wuhan, China.

          There is strong evidence that SARS-CoV-2 is a zoonotic virus—one that leaped from an animal population to humans. See NIH/Zoological Research, “Zoonotic origins of human coronavirus 2019 (HCoV-19 / SARS-CoV-2).” The lab in Wuhan, China, was studying zoonotic viruses, including SARS-CoV (an earlier coronavirus). So, it is possible that the SARS-CoV-2 made its first animal-to-human transition in the lab, just as it is possible that the transmission occurred outside the lab. Responsible scientists are currently investigating both theories.

          Enter the Wall Street Journal, which broke a story two weeks ago that reported that three researchers in the Wuhan lab were hospitalized with flu-like symptoms in November 2019. Although the Journal did not claim that the researchers were infected with SARS-CoV-2, the WSJ story raised that possibility. Hence, the “lab-leak” theory gained new traction. See WSJ, “Intelligence on Sick Staff at Wuhan Lab Fuels Debate on Covid-19 Origin.”

          Notably, the WSJ story did not assert that the researchers were infected with SARS-CoV-2, only that they had flu-like symptoms and sought care at a hospital. It is worth noting that when the three lab workers sought medical attention for flu-like symptoms, influenza was near its annual peak in Wuhan. Moreover, when the World Health Organization conducted its joint investigation with China in 2020, it found that “none of [Wuhan researchers] had antibodies for the virus, and no coronavirus sample matching Sars-CoV-2 exists in their lab.” See Slate, “A Very Calm Guide to the Lab Leak Theory.”

          The WHO study is here: WHO-convened global study of origins of SARS-CoV-2: China Part.” Many people are suspicious about the integrity of the WHO investigation. I have no way of judging whether WHO’s findings are accurate or complete; I can only report on the findings based on press reports and by reference to the original report itself. The report states on page 119 that there was “no serological evidence of infection in [lab] workers through SARS-CoV-2-specific serology-screening.”

          There is a reasonable basis for believing that SARS-CoV-2 made the animal-to-human transition outside the laboratory. I can’t cover all of those reasons, but if you are scientifically inclined, those reasons are outlined in the NIH article, linked above, and in the WHO report. Moreover, as noted in the Vanity Fair article, above, “There is a long, well-documented history of natural spillovers leading to outbreaks, even when the initial and intermediate host animals have remained a mystery for months and years.”

          So, did SARS-CoV-2 jump to humans in a lab in Wuhan? It’s possible. But there is a simpler explanation: It is a zoonotic virus that made the leap to humans like dozens of other such viruses—through human contact with animals, including consumption of meat and handling of infected carcasses.

          So, after that long-winded explanation, here’s my point: Scientists don’t yet know where and when SARS-CoV-2 jumped from animals to humans. Answering that still-unanswered question was never within Dr. Fauci’s portfolio of responsibilities. But the right-wing media is now claiming that he “conspired” to “cover-up” the unproven hypothesis that SARS-CoV-2 jumped to humans in a lab in Wuhan, China.

          I hope the above was helpful and not too tedious. Let me know what you think, either in the comment section to this newsletter (available to paying subscribers by clicking on the “comment” icon at the top of the newsletter), or by sending me an email (by “replying” to the email containing this newsletter).

Concluding Thoughts.

Does Trump really believe that he will be reinstated as president in August 2021? Probably not. See MSN, “'Well-placed' CNN source says Trump doesn't appear to believe he'll be reinstated this year.” But Trump is doing his best to keep that false hope alive. He will be giving a “Presidential Address” to the North Carolina Republican Party this weekend. Should we worry that Trump is using language that suggests he is still president? Yes, and no. Yes, because Trump will delude some of his followers into believing that he is still president, and they pose a threat to our national security—as the events of January 6th demonstrate. No, because most people know Trump is not the president. His claim that he is still president makes him look desperate, weak, and clownish. Despite his death-grip on congressional Republicans, his vaunted base couldn’t be bothered to navigate their browsers to his new, pathetic, and now-defunct website.

          So, is Trump fading? Can we relax? The answer to those questions shouldn’t matter to us. Trump’s positions and outlook remain entrenched in one-third of the electorate. We can out-vote Trump’s base, but only if our focus is on ensuring that we will win, rather than on hoping that Trump will lose. We can do that.

          Talk to you Monday!