Happy Friday! The Dispatch’s fantasy football season kicks off today with a draft after our end-of-week editorial meeting. Any advice on which players to target this year? Steve can use all the help he can get.
Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories
The National Center for Education Statistics released its latest assessment of educational progress on Thursday, finding decades of progress were erased during the pandemic. The average reading test score for 9-year-old students in the U.S. dropped five points from 2020 to 2022—the largest such decline since 1990—and the average math test score for 9-year-old students fell seven points, the first decline since the assessment began in the 1970s. Black students—who were more likely to attend schools that stayed remote during the pandemic and more likely to lose relatives to COVID-19—lost 13 points in math, while white students lost five.
The months-long ceasefire in Ethiopia appears on the verge of collapsing, with Tigray People’s Liberation Front officials claiming troops aligned with the Ethiopian and Eritrean governments recently began an offensive in four areas of the country’s northern Tigray region. Ethiopian Foreign Minister Demeke Mekonnen didn’t dispute the charges on Thursday, saying the TPLF has been “violating the spirit of the humanitarian truce” with hostile rhetoric and child soldier recruitment—and that the government had acted with “utmost care to avoid civilian casualties.” U.S. Secretary of State Antony Blinken called on both sides of the conflict to “halt military operations and redouble efforts to bring a permanent end” to the fighting.
After several incidents involving warning flares earlier this week, Taiwanese troops reportedly shot down a civilian drone flying near Kinmen Island on Thursday after efforts to repel it failed. Geopolitical experts see the continued incursions as part of China’s “gray-zone” tactics and an attempt to humiliate Taiwan’s military.
Beginning Thursday, Finland is drastically reducing the number of Russian tourists it will allow in the country, cutting the number of visas it issues to 10 percent of the typical amount. “It’s important that we show that at the same time when Ukrainians are suffering, normal tourism shouldn’t continue business as usual,” Finnish Foreign Minister Pekka Haavisto said earlier this week.
The International Monetary Fund announced Thursday it had reached a preliminary agreement with the Sri Lankan government to extend a $2.9 billion loan—disbursed over four years—to “restore macroeconomic stability and debt sustainability” on the South Asian island that has been plagued by inflation and shortages. The financial rescue package is contingent on Sri Lanka adopting a number of austerity measures and the country’s creditors cooperating on debt restructuring.
A bipartisan group of 50 House members sent a letter to President Joe Biden on Thursday requesting his administration provide Congress with the full text of any proposal to rejoin the Iran nuclear deal and consult with Congress prior to rejoining. “We are deeply concerned about multiple provisions that reportedly may be contained in the final language of any agreement with the world’s leading state sponsor of terrorism,” the lawmakers wrote. A State Department spokesperson said Thursday night Iran’s latest offer in negotiations was “not constructive.”
U.S. District Court Judge Aileen Cannon signaled at a hearing in Florida on Thursday that she’s considering an order temporarily barring Justice Department investigators from reviewing the material FBI agents seized during their search of Mar-a-Lago last month, though she has not directed the agency to stop yet. Cannon also indicated she is still weighing the Trump legal team’s request for a special master to screen the documents for privileged material, telling Justice Department counterintelligence officials she’s not sure the issue of a former president’s executive privilege is “as cut and dried as you suggest.”
A Centers for Disease Control advisory panel on Thursday formally recommended Moderna and Pfizer/BioNTech’s updated COVID-19 booster doses designed to target both the original SARS-CoV-2 strain and the BA.4/BA.5 strains of the Omicron variant. CDC Director Dr. Rochelle Walensky endorsed the panel’s recommendation, clearing the way for the updated shots to hit pharmacies, hospitals, and doctor’s offices as soon as this weekend. The Pfizer-BioNTech booster is authorized for anyone 12 and older, while the Moderna booster is authorized for those 18 and older.
The average number of daily confirmed COVID-19 cases in the United States declined about 11.8 percent over the past two weeks according to the CDC, while the average number of daily deaths attributed to the virus—a lagging indicator—fell 13.3 percent. About 31,100 people are currently hospitalized with COVID-19 in the U.S., down from approximately 35,300 two weeks ago.
Biden Denounces ‘MAGA Republicans’ in Speech
Americans browsing the three broadcast networks last night at 8 p.m. had their pick of Law & Order, Young Sheldon, and a game show episode about preparing for the zombie apocalypse. Not on offer: a foreboding and apocalyptic speech from President Joe Biden in Philadelphia, which the networks didn’t carry live.
Backed by Marines in uniform and speaking over frequent hecklers and sirens in front of Independence Hall—lit a lurid red and blue behind him—Biden devoted 24 minutes to casting “MAGA Republicans” as an existential threat to America’s democracy. “Donald Trump and MAGA Republicans represent an extremism that threatens the very republic,” the president said. “Democracy cannot survive when one side believes there are only two outcomes to an election: Either they win or they were cheated.”
The tone of the speech wasn’t a surprise. Biden has departed in recent months from his initial reluctance to talk much about Trump, setting aside his appeals for national unity to highlight what he sees as the current GOP’s radicalism. At a Democratic fundraiser last week, he referred to the philosophy underpinning Trump’s movement as “semi-fascism.”
Biden took care in last night’s speech to highlight the differences between “mainstream” members of the GOP and those of Trump’s ilk, claiming “the majority” of Republicans are not “MAGA Republicans.” But that didn’t change his overall assessment of the party. “There’s no question the Republican Party today is dominated, driven, and intimidated by Donald Trump and the MAGA Republicans, and that is a threat to democracy,” Biden said. “History tells us that blind loyalty to a single leader and a willingness to engage in political violence is fatal to democracy.”
If Biden truly believes that, he should let his political team know. PACs, committees, and nonprofits aligned with the Democratic Party have spent tens of millions of dollars this election cycle propping up those “MAGA Republicans” in GOP primaries, boosting their name recognition in the hopes they’ll be easier to defeat in a general election. Several of the more “mainstream” Republicans Biden lauded—Rep. Peter Meijer in Michigan, Aurora, Illinois, Mayor Richard Irvin, former Maryland Commerce Secretary Kelly Schulz, and many more—have fallen victim to the scheme.
Biden’s speech on Thursday wasn’t officially a campaign event—it was taxpayer-funded, and the White House press shop argued that “democracy is not a partisan issue.” But it’s hard not to see it as an attempt to fire up the Democratic base before the midterms. The president highlighted a string of recent legislative accomplishments he wants voters to remember at the ballot box—infrastructure funding, prescription drug price changes, climate measures—and accused MAGA Republicans of wanting to ban abortion, contraception, and same-sex marriage. An increasing number of Democrats have cited abortion as a major motivation for voting after the Supreme Court overturned Roe v. Wade this summer.
There was plenty in Biden’s speech that should be unobjectionable to both parties: He denounced threats to election workers and FBI agents and reiterated that there is never a place for political violence in the United States.But his remarks’ laserlike focus on Trump and MAGA Republicans was almost assuredly driven entirely by political calculations. Biden’s no prom king when it comes to his current popularity with the American public, but by repeatedly invoking his predecessor, he’s baiting Republicans to tether themselves even more closely to one of the few remaining political figures with an even worse favorability rating and reminding independent voters why they’ve recently skewed toward Democrats.
“Trump being back in the news with this raid—or sorry, this unlawful entry, whatever the hell these people are calling it—it’s just reminding independents why they don’t like Trump,” a Republican strategist working on Senate races told The Dispatch, explaining why he thought polling has shifted in Democrats’ favor in recent weeks. “We just can’t help ourselves. We keep getting wrapped around the axle of stolen elections, and having Trump being back is reminding independents why they voted in 2018 and 2020 for the Democrats. It’s making them forget about the economy and gas prices.”
Some Republicans tried to remind them yesterday. “What would help the ‘soul of the nation’ much more than a condescending lecture from President Biden is getting inflation under control instead of actively spending more money to make it worse,” Sen. Bill Hagerty of Tennessee said. His fellow Tennessean, Sen. Marsha Blackburn, chimed in as well: “Don’t allow Joe Biden to distract from the real problem: inflation is at a 40-year high, there is a crisis at our southern border, and our adversaries don’t fear us.” Republican National Committee Chair Ronna McDaniel labeled Biden the “divider-in-chief” and blamed his “wretched” rhetorical attacks on Republicans for the real-world attacks on pregnancy centers and the June assassination attempt on Brett Kavanaugh.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy focused on similar themes in his prebuttal to Biden’s address, outlining how a Republican congressional majority would address inflation, immigration, the opioid crisis, any remaining pandemic restrictions, education, and more. But the aspiring House speaker was also quick to play up his MAGA bona fides, calling on Biden to apologize to the “tens of millions of Americans” he slandered as fascists and highlighting what he sees as the true danger to our system of government. “Joe Biden often says our democracy is under threat. He’s right, but not for the reason he thinks,” McCarthy said. “Joe Biden and a politicized DOJ launched a raid on the home of his top political rival, Donald Trump. That is an assault on democracy.”
And Trump? He had some notes for his successor last night. “Someone should explain to Joe Biden, slowly but passionately, that MAGA means, as powerfully as mere words can get, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN!” he wrote on Truth Social. He then shared a couple memes, amplified some Gateway Pundit content about Maricopa County, Arizona, and the 2020 election, and posted a picture of himself kissing an American flag.
Worth Your Time
For Politico, Rich Lowry unpacks the reality that Trump and Biden are simultaneously mortal political foes and also pretty dang good for each other’s political prospects. “To the extent the president can define himself as the last, best obstacle to Trump returning to the White House, it helps quell the extensive doubts about him within his own party,” Lowry writes. “Biden is barely above 40 percent approval in polling averages, a nightmarish position that should doom his party in the midterms and himself in 2024, and yet he’s only down 2.2 percent in the RealClearPolitics average in a hypothetical rematch with Trump in 2024. Trump is his life preserver and comfort blanket, providing a political boost based on the easiest political argument in the world—‘See that guy over there obsessed with fanciful theories about the 2020 election? I may not be a very good president. But at least I’m not him.’ Meantime, the Trump phenomenon has always been a form of political jiujitsu, using the force deployed against it as a source of strength. The more Trump is called names and investigated, the better.”
Biden’s student debt forgiveness is bad policy, Elizabeth Goitein argues in the Washington Post, but it’s also on shaky legal footing, undermining the purpose of emergency powers. “Emergency powers serve a limited role in our constitutional system,” Goitein writes. “Their purpose is to give presidents a short-term boost in power to handle a sudden, unforeseen crisis (the definition of ‘emergency’) that is moving too quickly or unpredictably for Congress to address. They often involve extraordinary delegations of authority, such as the power to assert control over domestic transportation. Congress provides these sweeping powers on the assumption that presidents will exercise them rarely and briefly. Emergency powers are not meant to address long-standing problems, however dire. Nor are they meant to provide long-term solutions. And using them to get around Congress, when Congress has considered a course of action and rejected it, is a clear misuse of emergency powers.”
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Toeing the Company Line
In Thursday’s edition of The Current, Klon examines opposition to a bill that would ban federal agencies from using Chinese-made drones and notes that local law enforcement officers have been brought to D.C. to lobby against it. “Manipulation and use of local and state law enforcement is part of a broader political influence campaign inside of and targeting the United States,” Klon writes. “And, while regional officials can be forgiven for not being wise to the con, the federal government needs to shut it down and help local and state leaders become more sophisticated.”
Democrats’ electoral star has been on the rise of late, Chris writes in Thursday’s Stirewaltisms (🔒), but they don’t seem to understand why and are making avoidable blunders—starting with misinterpreting negative partisanship among voters for positive partisanship.
On the latest episode of The Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and Declan discuss the latest twists and turns in the Mar-a-Lago legal drama, Alaska’s rejection of Sarah Palin, and how to view Mikhail Gorbachev’s legacy. Plus: Is it weird Leonardo DiCaprio exclusively dates women half his age?
And on today’s episode of Advisory Opinions, David and Sarah dive into details on the the fight between the Justice Department and the Trump legal team, plus consider the legal merits of Biden’s student loan forgiveness plan.
On the site today, James C. Capretta argues that Democrats’ ever-increasing enthusiasm for government spending and central planning gives Republicans a political opportunity to present a reasonable alternative—if they can shake the temptation to just be Democrats-lite on economic issues.
Let Us Know
Do Republicans blasting Biden’s speech last night as overly partisan have a point? Was there any way the president might have drawn attention to concerns about Republicans’ democratic backsliding without being accused of being divisive?