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The Morning Dispatch: Suez Stoppage Stretches On
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The Morning Dispatch: Suez Stoppage Stretches On

Plus: The Senate begins its fight over Democrats' elections bill.

Happy Thursday! We are one week away from the start of baseball season. Isn’t it glorious?

Quick Hits: Today’s Top Stories

  • Japanese officials said North Korea fired two ballistic missiles early this morning, the country’s second weapons test in less than a week. Yoshihide Suga, Japan’s prime minister, said the missile test “threatens the peace and security of Japan and the region, and is a violation of United Nations resolutions.”

  • Facebook announced on Wednesday it blocked a group of Chinese hackers that had “abused” its platform to target Uyghur Muslims living outside of China with malware to enable surveillance.

  • AstraZeneca issued updated Phase III clinical trial data for its COVID-19 vaccine finding it to be 100 percent effective against severe illness and hospitalization, and 76 percent effective against symptomatic COVID-19. The pharmaceutical company had been criticized by public health officials for publishing “outdated” data earlier this week.

  • Gov. Ralph Northam signed a law Wednesday abolishing the death penalty in Virginia. It is the 23rd state to do so.

  • The United States confirmed 87,283 new cases of COVID-19 yesterday per the Johns Hopkins University COVID-19 Dashboard, with 7.5 percent of the 1,170,233 tests reported coming back positive. An additional 1,501 deaths were attributed to the virus on Wednesday, bringing the pandemic’s American death toll to 545,245. According to the Centers for Disease Control, 32,959 Americans are currently hospitalized with COVID-19, and 2,256,824 COVID-19 vaccine doses were administered yesterday. 85,472,166 Americans have now received at least one dose.

Why Suez Serious? 

When a container vessel ran aground in the Suez Canal on Tuesday evening, the sheer scale of the massive ship wedged forlornly across the waterway instantly became the subject of memes and jokes across social media. “You may make mistakes, but at least they’re usually not ‘we can see your mistake from space’ bad,” one reporter mused alongside satellite imagery of the blockage. “Day 2 of sitting behind the ship stuck in the Suez Canal, just laying on the horn. ‘COME ON!’” tweeted another.

But as the Suez Canal Authority endeavors—mostly in vain—to remove the beached vessel, its obstruction of the vital waterway threatens to inflict very real economic damage and disrupt global supply chains. 

The “Ever Given,” one of the world’s largest container ships at more than 1,300 feet long and 220,000 tons, became wedged into a banking earlier this week when a sandstorm led to powerful winds and low visibility. All 25 crew members disembarked safely with no reports of injury, but the vessel itself is in a much more precarious position, its bow and stern firmly grounded and hull suspended in water. The ship’s enormous size makes it difficult to tow via tugboat, and canal operators are monitoring the tides in an effort to extract the vessel without damage to its body.

“The best analogy I can give you is to imagine putting your car up on cinder blocks and you put the cinder blocks under your bumpers. Because her bow and stern are aground, which means her middle is floating, but it’s not very well supported,” Dr. Sal Mercogliano, a maritime historian from North Carolina, told The Dispatch. “The catastrophic thing would be for literally to break her back and fall apart right across the channel. And that would be months of delays. They’d much rather take a few days and do it right to get her off than cause something catastrophic.”

Other cargo ships quickly accumulated at both ends of the bustling waterway, which separates Egypt and the Arabian peninsula. The canal transports about 12 percent of the world’s trade by volume, as well as 8 percent of its liquified natural gas. Without it, there are few viable maritime routes connecting Europe to Asia and—by extension—the Persian Gulf and its oil supplies to European countries and North America.

“This is the classic definition of a maritime chokepoint, where if you can block this one thing, you’ve killed commerce. And that’s exactly what’s happening,” Mercogliano said. “This is a well-orchestrated machine. Ships pull in on set times, unload, and the next vessel comes in. … Every day the canal is closed you’re adding a delay, so consumer goods are going to slow down.”

Mercogliano also noted that oil prices in Europe are liable to rise if the situation isn’t resolved in short order. And Egypt, the operator of the canal, loses roughly $700,000 in toll revenue for every ship that can’t traverse the maritime route. Vessels that would otherwise travel the Suez are likely already considering other passages as the blockage persists, like the more circuitous route around South Africa’s Cape of Good Hope. 

There’s an incredible amount of money at stake. Among those most invested in keeping the canal operational are the United States, Egypt (for obvious reasons), and China—the latter of which sees the waterway as vital to its continued domination of global supply chains. 

“One of the things that China has been very concerned with is its flow of goods. We talk a lot about the South Sea, for example, militarizing the South China Sea. What China, in my opinion, is worried about is protecting its supply line,” Mercogliano said. “If China cannot get its goods to Europe then it’s going to seek an alternative route.”

These state-backed stakeholders add a diplomatic dimension to the crisis. The Suez Canal has long been at the center of various geopolitical disputes—with its two most memorable closures unfolding amid conflicts between Israel and surrounding Arab states. Transit briefly halted in 1956 after a joint military offensive by France, Britain, and Israel in response to Egyptian President Gamal Abdel Nasser’s nationalization of the canal. Between 1967 and 1975, the waterway was closed again during the Six-Day War and Israel’s subsequent occupation of the Sinai Peninsula.

Trade and international security have always been deeply intertwined, and the 120-mile passage is a good example. “Most of the maritime industry is largely invisible, yet we move 90 percent of our world’s goods on the world’s oceans,” Mercogliano said. “Yet the only time it becomes visible is in a period of disaster emergency like you’re seeing right now. I think we need to be conscious of the fact that we are very interdependent upon each other for trade.”

Senate Clashes Over Democrats’ Voting Bill

The Senate Rules Committee convened Wednesday to discuss S. 1, a lightly edited version of H.R. 1, the “For the People Act”, which passed the House almost entirely along party lines earlier this month. (One Democrat, Rep. Bennie Thompson of Mississippi, voted against it.)

Yesterday’s hearing was predictably heated. There are few things politicians care more about than their own reelection, and the legislation at hand would fundamentally alter America’s voting process. 

“This is a solution in search of a problem. … This is, clearly, an effort by one party to rewrite the rules of our political system,” Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell said. “This legislation is not ready for primetime. It’s an invitation to chaos.”

“Chaos,” Democratic Sen. Amy Klobuchar retorted, “is what we saw happen at the Capitol when people heard for an entire year that our election isn’t sound and they decided to come here and take it under their own hands. That angry mob, that was chaos. What this bill tries to do is to simply make it easier for people to vote and take the best practices that we’ve seen across the country, and put it into law as we are allowed to do under the Constitution.”

Senate Majority Leader Chuck Schumer likened recent GOP proposals to tighten voting rules to Jim Crow-era suppression. “I would like to ask my Republican colleagues: Why are you so afraid of democracy? Why, instead of trying to win voters over that you lost in the last election, are you trying to prevent them from voting?”

But Schumer may have to pose that same question to his fellow Democrat, Sen. Joe Manchin, who told reporters yesterday that while there are “many good things” about the bill, he likely won’t support it without some significant changes.

“We should not at all attempt to do anything that will create more distrust and division,” the West Virginian said Wednesday, indicating he wants any reform to have Republican support. “So I think there’s enough good that we can all come together. That’s what we should work on.”

In a 50-50 Senate, Democrats can’t afford to shrug off Manchin’s concerns. Several senators—including Klobuchar and independent Sen. Angus King of Maine, who caucuses with Democrats—have indicated that voting reform is an issue over which they would support abolishing the legislative filibuster. But that move too would require Manchin’s support.

Bipartisan federal voting reform would not be unprecedented. The Help America Vote Act—drafted largely in response to the confusion surrounding the 2000 presidential election—passed the Senate 92-2 in 2002. Only Schumer and then-Sen. Hillary Clinton voted against it.

Manchin predicted that passing such sweeping legislation along purely partisan lines would only serve to divide the country further. “We had an insurrection, Jan. 6, because of voting, right?” Manchin said, warning against making “more of a divisive and partisan issue out of the most divisive issue America has going on right now.”

Why do Republicans oppose H.R. 1 so fervently? A TMD earlier this month broke down the contents of the bill:

H.R. 1 would create a baseline set of federal requirements for how states across the country administer elections. It would mandate that states automatically register all eligible citizens to vote, and require same-day voter registration to be offered to all eligible voters. It would allow voters to meet any state’s voter identification requirements with a “sworn written statement” signed under penalty of perjury, establish Election Day as a national holiday, implement no-excuse absentee voting, and require 15 days of early voting at a minimum. The legislation would restrict the reasons states could remove a name from its voter rolls, and restore the franchise to all incarcerated individuals released from jail. It would also attempt to curb gerrymandering by requiring states to create independent redistricting commissions to redraw congressional districts as necessary.

And that’s just the voting rights section. The bill’s campaign finance reforms—which include public funding for candidates paid for by a new tax on administrative fees—are incredibly unpopular among voters on both sides of the aisle.

“As a former election administrator—first as the Greene County Clerk and later as Missouri’s Secretary of State—I am greatly concerned by the one-size-fits-all federal takeover of our elections,” said GOP Sen. Roy Blunt, ranking member on the Rules Committee. “Since the beginning of this country, states have been responsible for elections. The diversity of our election system is one of the great strengths of our election system. S. 1 would force a single, partisan view of elections on more than 10,000 jurisdictions across the country.”

Democrats called on a series of witnesses to testify on behalf of the bill, including Eric Holder, who served as attorney general during the Obama administration, and Michigan’s Democratic Secretary of State Jocelyn Benson.

“Clearly history instructs—and the current moment demands—that the United States government once again step in and defend democracy against the reprehensible rollback of the right to vote that is sweeping our state legislatures,” Benson said in her opening statement. “And at this moment you, our federal government, represent our greatest hope—and this legislation our best chance—to stop this rollback and ensure the voice and vote of every citizen—no matter where they live or who they vote for—is protected.”

Indiana Attorney General Todd Rokita spoke for Republicans. “As a former Secretary of State who has witnessed first-hand that Americans in every community can be trusted with running free and fair elections, I urge you to resist the urge to federalize U.S. elections,” he said. “Federalized, national elections run from Washington, D.C. will inevitably result in the exertion of partisan influence on U.S. elections that is national in scope and oppressive in practice.”

Rokita, however, is emblematic of the credibility challenge many Republicans have created for themselves on election issues. Back in December, he threw his weight behind Texas Attorney General Ken Paxton’s lawsuit aimed at disenfranchising millions of voters by overturning election results in four states.

Worth Your Time

  • Boulder Police Officer Eric Talley was one of 10 killed in the tragic supermarket shooting earlier this week. It’s worth spending a little time getting to know the man he was. Talley worked as an IT professional, but quit and enrolled in the police academy at age 40 after a close friend died in a DUI crash. He and his wife had seven children, whom he drove around town in a 15-passenger van so they would “be more comfortable on the road.” His father, Homer Talley, told a local TV station that Eric was working to become a drone operator, further from the frontlines. “He loved his kids and his family more than anything,” Homer said. “He didn’t want to put his family through something like this and he believed in Jesus Christ.”

  • There’s a lot of bad-faith commentary about “cancel culture” out there, but we promise this podcast is worth your time. Jane Coaston talks to Robby Soave, senior editor at Reason, and Will Wilkinson, a policy wonk who lost his job at the Niskanen Center over a sarcastic tweet, about how to define cancel culture, and how big a problem it actually is. “I think it’s the climate that we live in now of being held accountable in a very severe and punitive way for things you’ve said or done maybe recently, but maybe in the distant past, that don’t totally reflect who you are as a person but come to define you and come to cause you to really suffer,” Soave said.

  • It’s increasingly looking like—due to excessive partisanship on both sides of the aisle—we’re not going to get a 9/11-style commission digging into the events of January 6, leaving media outlets, which lack subpoena power, to fill in the gaps. The New York Times does an admirable job here, piecing together video clips that show Officer Brian Sicknick, who died on January 7, being attacked by rioters. “The grainy videos showed [Julian] Khater raising his hand and discharging a chemical spray at the officers, who stumble back, cover their eyes and at times call out in pain,” the five Times reporters working on the project write. “That evening, Officer Sicknick texted his brother to say he had been ‘pepper-sprayed’ but was in ‘good shape,’ his brother told ProPublica. But shortly before 10 p.m., according to the Capitol Police, he collapsed after returning to his division office and was taken to a local hospital. At some point over the next 24 hours, Officer Sicknick’s condition apparently deteriorated. He was put on a ventilator and treated for a blood clot and a stroke, his brother said. He died at about 9:30 p.m. on Jan. 7.”

Presented Without Comment

Also Presented Without Comment

Toeing the Company Line

  • On the site today: Christian Schneider on Sen. Ron Johnson’s evolution—or lack thereof—and Weifeng Zhong on China, Hong Kong, and New Zealand.

  • On Wednesday’s Dispatch Podcast, Sarah, Steve, Jonah, and David discuss the two mass shootings of the past week and subsequent calls for gun reform, revisit the southern border and what the Biden administration should do to ease the crisis, break down Secretary Blinken’s rhetoric at the summit with Chinese diplomats last week, and dissect Sidney Powell’s Kraken backtrackin’ (yes, we’re going to re-use that pun).

  • Jonah expands on that Blinken/China point in his Midweek G-File (🔒). “It is very difficult for many in both parties to speak clearly, accurately, comprehensively, credibly and most of all, patriotically, about why this is indeed a very good country, worthy of our love and gratitude,” he writes. “Our shortcomings are real, but those shortcomings are in relation to our principles and our ideals. Even on our worst days, we are better by our own standards. And whatever China’s standards are, it’s worth remembering they are trying to claim they are on equal footing with us when it comes to our standards. That is preposterous.”

  • Scott Lincicome’s latest Capitolism newsletter (🔒) focuses on corporate tax rates. Taxing corporations “might make for good politics and great soundbites, [but] it’s pretty bad tax policy,” he writes. “High corporate tax burdens have … been tied to lower productivity and distorted corporate decision-making. It’s thus no wonder that countries around the world have been lowering their corporate tax rates for the last 40 years. Biden’s team, apparently, doesn’t care about this research and will seek to increase U.S. corporate tax rates substantially.”

Let Us Know

Hit us with your best Suez Canal joke.

Reporting by Declan Garvey (@declanpgarvey), Andrew Egger (@EggerDC), Haley Byrd Wilt (@byrdinator), Audrey Fahlberg (@FahlOutBerg), Charlotte Lawson (@charlotteUVA), Ryan Brown (@RyanP_Brown), and Steve Hayes (@stephenfhayes).