Memorandum Review of ABC’s Fall 2023 meeting

by John Endean

January 25, 2024 at 9:45PM EST


This memorandum briefly reviews ABC’s Fall 2023 meeting at the Willard Hotel on November 7 and 8.  Keep in mind these sessions are off-the-record and I therefore cannot go into great detail.  My goal is to give the reader a sense of what was discussed.

My thanks as always to my colleague Andre Thomas for his indispensable help, particularly, but not limited to, serving as our liaison with the Willard.  It is no easy task preparing for these meetings.

The email carrying this memorandum also has a copy of Marc Goldwein’s PowerPoint on the federal debt and the factors that might lead to a disastrous debt spiral.  This presentation is well worth your attention.

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Our meeting began at 3:15 pm with Deputy Secretary of Energy David Turk.  Dave’s schedule was a cramped one, but he was generous with his time despite that fact.  This was an extremely substantive meeting, touching on climate change, nuclear power, including the promise of fusion, the Administration’s work to develop clean hydrogen centers around the country, and his Department’s work on quantum computing and, by extension, artificial intelligence.

Following Dave was Marc Goldwein.  Mark is an economist who made his bones as one of the authors of the Bowles-Simpson project.  He is today the Executive Vice President of the Committee for a Responsible Federal Budget.  As noted, he presented a very compelling PowerPoint that demonstrates how potentially catastrophic is the current fiscal road on which we are travelling.  Look, I know you think you know that already.  I invite you nevertheless to consider his analysis, which is glum in the extreme.  He offered little reason for hope in the near term, but he and his group are pressing for the establishment of a fiscal commission to tackle comprehensively the problem and offer serious reform ideas. 

Our last guest on the afternoon of November 7 was Amy Walter, who now runs the Cook Report (Charlie Cook remains as an eminence grise).  Naturally most of our discussion involved the outlook for the 2024 Presidential election and the somewhat anomalous fact that many Americans are not happy with the choice they likely will be presented with, i.e., Biden v. Trump.  Amy offered her analysis regarding why neither party seems able to find more attractive candidates.  She also discussed the possible effect of serious third-party challenges, whether posed by Robert F. Kennedy, Jr. or, perhaps, No Labels.  Regarding Congress, Amy suggested that the GOP has a shot at gaining control of the Senate, which, while not a prediction, gained some credence yesterday when Senator Joe Manchin announced his retirement (perhaps in preparation for a No Labels Presidential campaign).  Manchin is probably the only Democrat who could have held office in the very red state of West Virginia.

Breakfast on November 8 was with Representative Christina “Chrissy” Houlahan, of Pennsylvania’s 6th congressional district.  The 6th congressional district is a purple district that encompasses almost all of Chester County and the southern portion of Berks County including Reading.

I first noticed Representative Houlahan when she signed with other colleagues a letter sent to then-Speaker Kevin McCarthy and Minority Leader Hakeem Jeffries calling for the establishment of a fiscal commission along the lines of what Marc Goldwein was talking about.  At breakfast she offered a few thoughts about this proposal which, as she noted, is in its very early stages.  Because she sits on both Armed Services and the Intelligence committees, she also discussed our policy toward Israel and Ukraine (she supports funding for both).  A Stanford and MIT-trained engineer as well as a veteran of the Air Force, Representative Houlahan also discussed the personnel difficulties now faced by the military as well as the need to reconfigure the defense budget so as to provide more funding for cutting- edge, defense-related technologies.  Finally, she told an interesting story about what happened when she crossed the aisle and introduced herself to Kevin McCarthy.  Let’s just say, a warm welcome she did not receive. 

Following Representative Houlahan, we hosted Richard Fontaine, CEO of the Center for a New American Security.  A Hill, NSC, and Department of State veteran who advised John McCain in the 2008 campaign, Richard is also an executive director for the Trilateral Commission.  He offered ABC members something akin to a graduate seminar in current American foreign relations (except it wasn’t boring as grad school classes tend to be).  His key messages:  we cannot afford isolation and must instead focus on the need for American leadership.  A very impressive tour de force I found wholly convincing.  By the way, some members present asked me for his website address.  Here it is:

Ambassador John Herbst followed Richard.  A retired and celebrated member of the Foreign Service, Ambassador Herbst, was, among many other assignments, Ambassador to Ukraine.  Here is a tough veteran of the old school, reminiscent, perhaps, of Dean Acheson, who sees the current Ukraine war as a matter of hard-nosed power politics that the United States must be involved in both to drain Putin’s Russia and to make clear to China (and Hamas) that America will pursue its interests unstintingly while supporting its allies.  A Republican, he praised President Biden’s recent statements on Ukraine, Israel, and China, although he lamented that others in the Administration have not repeated the President’s views clearly and often.  To a question about Congress’s willingness to provide Ukraine with more resources, the Ambassador said he was cautiously optimistic that the funding will be passed.

Byron York of the Washington Examiner came to our lunch.  Like Amy Walter, he assumes the 2024 Presidential match-up will be Biden v. Trump redux, although he conceded that President Biden is one bad fall away from political retirement (Trump too).  As for Kamala Harris, Byron rejects any notion that she will be removed from the ticket.  He agrees that it is remarkable that Trump, who faces multiple indictments, will win renomination.  By extension, Byron believes there is a degree of magical thinking on the part of Trump critics who believe that he can be defenestrated via the courts.  He must be beaten at the polls next November and Byron thinks Trump is likely to be defeated.

And about Trump’s message?  Byron, who has been following Trump on the campaign trail, cites greater discipline in the candidate’s speeches.  Yes, Trump still bleats about how he won in 2020, but lately he tends to focus on the economy and inflation.  Byron suggested that the chattering classes and other affluent observers are severely discounting the importance of the economic message.  

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I hope this summary of our meeting is of interest.  I will be back to you soon about a date for our spring 2024 meeting.

  Happy Thanksgiving.