Unknown warriors

Every so often an American political figure emerges from relative obscurity into a high-profile position portending important consequences for the country. Think Barack Obama, a freshman senator from Illinois whose rousing speech at the 2004 Democratic national convention helped catapult him into the White House four years later.

Now we have two more aspirants to history, one from each party and neither known to the general public, who have turned up in roles well beyond their previous stations. Each can exert major influence on the shape of the nation.

Raise your hand if you have heard of Dean Phillips, a Democrat lawmaker from a suburban district of Minnesota in the House of Representatives. Now in his third term, he has distinguished himself less by any legislative feat than by voting 100 per cent of the time for policies favoured by President Joe Biden. Now he’s running for president. Against Joe Biden.

It’s true that lots of people run for president in any given year. But on the Democrat side this go-round is chiefly notable for concerns over Biden’s age, 81, superseding any credit he might deserve for programmes that fight climate change, lower unemployment, kickstart manufacturing and re-engage the US with international partners.

Despite the accomplishments, Biden’s approval numbers have hovered at consistently (sometimes historically) low levels, owing to constant reminders that he’s slowing down. The evidence is his sleepy-eyed appearances and occasional missteps in speech and movement. Polls routinely show that majorities of Democratic voters would prefer a different Democrat in next year’s presidential election, if only there were a viable replacement.

If Phillips is a Biden clone, Johnson is Trump in quadruplicate

Already, two other left-leaning candidates have entered the race as independents, neither with much of a chance to win, but popular enough to siphon off critical votes from Biden’s base. One is Robert F Kennedy Jr, nephew of a former president, son of a former senator and attorney general, vaccine sceptic and conspiracy enthusiast. The other is Cornel West, a loquacious left-wing philosopher, professor and black activist. He holds the interest of the growing number of Democrats sympathetic to the ordinary citizens of Gaza who have become victims in Israel’s response to the Hamas massacre in October.

One recent poll showed Kennedy with more than 20 per cent in a three-way race with Biden and his presumed Republican opponent, Donald Trump. Another had Kennedy and West with a combined 25 per cent support in a four-way race, with Biden holding a razor-thin edge over Trump, 36 per cent to 35.

Now comes Phillips, a moderate like Biden, whose launching pad to Congress came as a wealthy entrepreneur with ties to liquor, gelato and coffee companies. At 54, he offers himself as the avatar of a new, younger generation of leaders to carry the mantle of progressivism.

It’s doubtful he’s The One. Despite a widespread yearning for a younger option, Phillips’ candidacy has angered many Democrats, who argue that his run is little more than a vanity project that only accentuates Biden’s age and provides Democrat voters with a rationale for switching to support Trump, no spring chicken at 77, or not voting at all. In what is forecast as another tight race, even a small number of lost votes in key states could cost Biden re-election.

Mike Johnson, a Republican House member and lawyer from Louisiana, was possibly even less known than Phillips. Now, as the newly elected Speaker of the House, he is second-in-line to the presidency after Vice President Kamala Harris.

His rise from anonymity was the final act in a three-week drama during which the Republicans, who control the House, kicked out Speaker Kevin McCarthy, failed to elect three other members, then voted unanimously for Johnson, owing to his hard-right and Trump-endorsed bona fides. If Phillips is a Biden clone, Johnson is Trump in quadruplicate.

The power vested in the speaker makes them one of the most important figures in the federal government. The speaker controls the flow of legislation that reaches the House floor for a vote and influences the shape of each bill that gets there. For example, with Democrats calling for passage of Biden’s $104 billion foreign aid package that included money for Ukraine, Israel, Taiwan and efforts to tighten the southern border with Mexico, Johnson favoured a bill providing $14 billion for Israel only and offsetting the amount by slashing the Internal Revenue Service budget, limiting its ability to chase down (rich) tax cheats.

To Democrats, that approach was very MAGA-like, in keeping with Trump’s inward-looking America First vision of the world, reducing spending and gifting his friends. Indeed, many of Johnson’s conservative credentials reflect both Trump’s and the combative Republican party that has moved far to the right.

Johnson is at the forefront of it all, describing himself as a “Bible-believing Christian” and encouraging people to “pick up a Bible off your shelf and read it. That’s my world view,” as he told a Fox News commentator.

He strongly opposes abortion rights, gay marriage and homosexuality, insisting that being gay “is something you do, not who you are”. He has expressed support for conversion therapy and holds the biblical view that the universe was created 6,000 years ago, not the 13 billion that scientists believe. He also professes not to have a bank account, not even for savings.

Trump had no hesitation endorsing Johnson for speaker. As Trump was fighting to overturn the 2020 election he lost to Biden, Johnson helped craft an argument to the Supreme Court to block the results in four battleground states that Biden won. Later, he provided lawmakers with a legal rationale to vote against certifying the election results.

House Democrats routinely oppose all of Johnson’s positions even if they contributed to his first legislative victory, pyrrhic as it was. Only days away from the November 2023 deadline to fund the government for the next fiscal year, he proposed a kick-the-can-down-the-road compromise to keep money flowing into January, for some departments, and early February for others with no spending cuts.

That infuriated the House’s most conservative members who want smaller budgets across the board. About three dozen of them voted against the measure, which is why Johnson needed Democrats to get it passed. Democrats have little love for the new speaker, but they didn’t want to get blamed for the government shutting down.

The same sort of budget deal with Democrats much earlier in the year cost McCarthy his speakership, in a coup engineered by hard-right members. They took no similar action against Johnson, but in retaliation, the same members blocked a procedural vote to fund the State, Justice and Commerce departments, leaving that for a future showdown.

The Senate went along with Johnson’s ploy and Biden signed it into law. Phillips’s campaign, meanwhile, is still in its nascent stage. But with so much intra-party jostling, it will be interesting to see who remains prominent on the national stage in the months ahead… Phillips or Johnson. Maybe neither.

No time to diet

The US holiday season in November generally kicks off at the White House with the president pardoning two turkeys to commemorate Thanksgiving. This year it was Joe Biden sparing a pair of 42-pounders, Liberty and Bell (get it?), an act that promised they wouldn’t end up in bits at the family gathering three days later.
“I hereby pardon Liberty and Bell. Congratulations, birds,”

Biden said, making things official.

The fact is that no matter the main course – turkey, ham or some vegan concoction – the Thanksgiving meal is meant as a unifying exercise, a safe zone where conservative Uncle Festus can set aside differences with liberal relatives to talk about things other than politics, economic policy and man’s inhumanity to man.
Never mind that such a period of comity only lasts about ten minutes. Someone slips and mutters disgust over one thing or another, and the floodgates open, with both sides wishing the potatoes weren’t already mashed.

At this point the hosts calm things down and most guests finish the meal distressed, not for failing to make a convincing argument but for eating too much: second servings, followed by third servings, then all manner of pies. We galumph away from the table, vowing to restrict our intake once the holiday season ends.

If there’s one thing most Americans agree on it is that the holidays, Thanksgiving through to 1 January, are not for counting calories. They’re for socialising, eating and drinking – all in vast quantities: which explains why the leading New Year’s resolution is: “I’ve got to lose some weight.”

But maybe that’s a wasted promise. Doctors say the urgency to diet in January might be a misplaced emphasis. For all the volumes of food and drink consumed in the merry part of the year, studies show that prodigious holiday weight gain is uncommon.

One antidote to over-indulging is to sit next to the biggest person – Monty Python’s Mr Creosote comes to mind

A study in the New England Journal of Medicine a few years ago found that the average person gained less than a pound over the holidays, and a majority stayed within two pounds or so of their pre-holiday weight. Which is remarkable given that holiday celebrations are notorious for the continued presence of high-cholesterol drinks such as eggnog, and diabetes invitations masquerading as sugary desserts.

One antidote to overindulging could be to find a seat next to the biggest person in the group. Watching someone stuff themselves – Monty Python’s Mr Creosote comes to mind – can be an instant turnoff.

But maybe it’s too late no matter where one sits. Here in the US, already one of the fattest countries in the world and getting fatter, the larger issue is year-round diet, not holiday consumption. The federal Centers for Disease Control and Prevention examined population data for 2022 and found that 22 states had adult obesity rates of 35 per cent or higher, compared with 19 per cent the year before. The current national average is 42.4 per cent, making the US the most obese among wealthy nations.

Lots of causes are to blame: the high cost of quality foods, a proliferation of fast-food restaurants, processed packaged foods loaded with chemical preservatives, junk food and sugary soft drinks.

So maybe holiday menus don’t really matter. Eat, drink and be merry. It’s the rest of the year we need to think about. Cutting back on favourite foods may be mood-altering and antithetical to holiday revelry, but it’s the perfect time to call Uncle Festus and start an argument.

Michael Janofsky is a writer and editor in Los Angeles. He previously spent 24 years as a correspondent for The New York Times

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Columns, December 23 / January 24, Stateside

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