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Bill Owens: Confounding And Confusing Events 8/24/20

Israel and the United Arab Emirates announced an accord resulting in the re-establishment of diplomatic relations and the cessation of certain Israeli expansions. This comes at a time when Prime Minister Netanyahu is under extreme pressure as a result of his ongoing trial for corruption, his mishandling of the pandemic the Israeli economy and the threat of a fourth election hanging over his head. Mr. Trump, of course, as we know, is behind in the polls and has mishandled the COVID-19 crisis in the United States, the economy has fallen apart as a result of that mishandling, and many of his foreign policy initiatives have flopped – North Korea, China, just to name a few. It was announced later last week, that the UAE wants to buy some advanced fighter aircraft which Israel objects to. Detante, maybe on hold, where do the Palestinians stand? They both needed a positive story with little risk of a substantive outcome.

The Post Office, under the leadership of a Trump crony, has notified election officials in Pennsylvania and Michigan that the Post Office may not be able to handle the delivery of absentee ballots to citizens and back to the Board of Elections. Democrats are going to have to think of a different approach other than continually raising the alarm and come up with some practical steps that they can take. It used to be that members of each party would drive their voters to the voting place, so maybe it is appropriate to figure out a methodology to pickup absentee ballots and deliver them to voters and return those ballots to the Board of Elections. In each state it will be different, as there will be different rules, but I am sure that given the interest in voting this year that there will be opportunities to utilize the forces on the ground to do it. There is always more than one way to skin a cat.

As we noted last week, the US and Canada, again delayed the opening of the US/Canada border until September 21, 2020. Again, this is not a surprise since no significant progress has been made in controlling the COVID outbreak in the United States. In addition, the Canadians have a number of other issues to be annoyed with the US about, including our failure to control COVID-19, the recent tariffs, renewed complaints about lumber exports to the United States, and in general, a dismissive attitude towards the concerns of Canadians. Political leaders in the United States have continued their call for various partial re-opening scenarios beyond the current business travel that is permitted. None of the commentary explains to the US public why Canada continues to refuse to reopen the border. It might be appropriate to note that we are a country of 350 million people and Canada about 35 million, and there is no way to create a manageable system that would screen people so that only those from low case areas would be let into Canada. Assuming a system could be deployed, can you imagine the waits at the border? Let’s get COVID under control for all our sakes.

Our debt surpassed our GDP for the first time this week with little fanfare. More on this next week and Modern Monetary Policy.

In Wednesday, August 19th’s Wall Street Journal a lengthy article appeared under the caption “What Derailed America’s Covid Testing: 3 Lost Weeks”.The three reporters who contributed to the story did a lengthy, thorough and thoughtful investigation filled with much information, and pointed out the conflicting twists and turns that occurred, some deliberate, some circumstantial, as well as a number of scientific and policy missteps.The later, again, were more in the nature of mistakes than deliberate actions.The only theme that is repeated throughout is the fact that the Trump administration was taking the position that the virus was not that serious and could be “easily and quickly” contained. Obviously, we know that to be untrue. This attitude impacted decision-making for months and still does – refusal to wear masks, Florida’s actions, etc. The article is clearly worth reading because it is objective and fair in terms of how it presents complex issues and the decision-making process that occurred. It is obvious though, that the authors believe that had that gap of 3-weeks not occurred, and testing began earlier, that there was a strong likelihood that the virus would have been easier to contain, whether or not the policies implemented in various states would have resulted in containment is, of course, open to speculation.

As a delegate to the National Democratic Convention, as well as the New York State Convention, I had the opportunity to listen to any number of speakers who did not necessarily appear on television. The Trump administration has failed to expand it’s base because the of extreme positions that it has taken on any number of issues, and its failure to seek compromise. The same risk exists for a Biden administration, that as you tack either hard left or right, you deliberately alienate a significant number of voters, your actions have unintended consequences that may alienate not only the other party’s base, but also moderates and independents. It is a very tricky process in today’s world, but I am hopeful that Mr. Biden’s tack will be toward the middle and seek real compromise. The question is, will Republicans do the same, because unfortunately we know from recent history with Mr. Obama that although I believe John Boehner and Paul Ryan would have moved to the middle had they not been faced with a sixty member freedom caucus and Mitch McConnell, thus they were unable to get done things which would have been valuable to the country and supported by the Obama administration. Let’s hope we do better.

The Senate, in a bi-partisan report, made a number of findings that were far more precise and condemning than the Muller Report on Russia. It found Mr. Manafort to be a national security threat, it contradicted Mr. Stone and Mr. Trump about contacts with the Russians, concluded as did Mr. Mueller that the Russians had interfered in our elections, and in broad stokes refuted positions taken by Mr. Trump. This was a real surprise because of the specificity of the findings, and the fact that they were contrary to Mr. Trump’s positions and that it was agreed to by Republicans. In a related matter, Mr. Trump lost another round with the Manhattan District Attorney’s Office in federal court with the dismissal of his lawsuit to attempt to stop the disclosure of his tax returns to that office. If there was ever a public disclosure of this information, I suspect it will paint a far different picture of Mr. Trump, his business and his wealth than he has portrayed.

The House passed a USPS bill, that’s not going anywhere. The Postmaster General promised USPS can get the job done in November. I guess we will wait and see.

Bill Owens is a former member of Congress representing the New York 21st, a partner in Stafford, Owens, Piller, Murnane, Kelleher and Trombley in Plattsburgh, NY and a Strategic Advisor at Dentons to Washington, DC.

The views expressed by commentators are solely those of the authors. They do not necessarily reflect the views of this station or its management.

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