Negotiating When There’s Nothing to Lose

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“Mitch gonna deal? If $3.5 trillion in purely social spending that can never be repealed, funded with higher taxes on business and the upper brackets, to reward voters in your progressive base and turn them out in coming elections isn’t a good hill to die on, then I have it wrong, I guess.”

Most young mothers tell you their first true test arrives with the Terrible Twos. But what of the challenge of restraining that rambunctious toddler’s energy, of suppressing his instinct to fly, of crushing his spirit? Such was the task to which Julia Odene “Dean” McConnell was called to fulfill to save her son in 1944. Her husband had just been deployed to World War II prompting the young family to relocate from Sheffield, Alabama to her sister’s home in Five Points, in a more rural part of Alabama. It was then, 11 years before the polio vaccine was first administered in the United States, that two-year old came down with what presented as the flu, from which he recovered, but emerged with a paralyzed left leg. Nothing short of a mother’s devotion and the divine hand of fate saved him from being crippled for the rest of his life.

In a twist of fate, the then occupant of the White House had contracted polio in 1921. The best therapy Roosevelt could find was in Warm Springs, Georgia, which is just as it sounds. In 1927, the one-day president bought the property and established a center there for those similarly ailed. But the work was not complete with that step. In 1934, Basil O’Connor, a close friend of the recently elected president and one-time law partner, began organizing an annual fundraiser set each year around Roosevelt’s birthday to support the Warm Springs Foundation. Within four years, $1.35 million had been raised equivalent to about $27 million today. The foundation was reconstituted as the National Foundation for Infantile Paralysis as polio was then known.

The culmination of this wonderous journey arrived in 1938 in the depth of the Great Depression. Vaudeville star Eddie Cantor funneled his fame into promoting a new cause launched by the directors of the institute called the “March of Dimes,” a fitting name for an era in which a charitable ten cents went a long way. More than two and a half million dimes were mailed in, some of which went to pay for the treatment of Mitchell McConnell.

Just 50 miles away from her sister’s home, it would seem providence and proximity were on the side of Dean McConnell. Unable to cover the cost of being inpatient, those at the institute taught her a physical therapy regime she performed on him four times a day. All the while, the doctors had but one strict order: “We don’t want him to try to walk.” As absurd as the notion was, the fear was that a fall would do irreparable harm, rendering him captive to a brace for the rest of his life. “So my mother, like a drill sergeant, literally watched me every waking moment for two years,” McConnell recalled in a 2018 speech. “After two years, my first memory in life was our last visit to Warm Springs, where the nurse told my mother, ‘I think he’s going to be OK.’” Before they arrived home, a new pair of saddle oxfords would be procured.

The rest of Mitch McConnell’s life is that of a textbook politician, from student council president his junior year in high school to Senate Majority Leader. And though he has only vague recollections of those first tender years, he’s never forgotten one the sensation elicited. In an April 2020 Associated Press interview, shortly after the coronavirus washed onto American shores, he likened his brush with a debilitating disease to the moment at hand: “Why does this current pandemic remind me of that? I think No. 1 is the fear,” he said. “And the uncertainty you have when there’s no pathway forward on either treatment or a vaccine, and that was the situation largely with polio before 1954.”

Now, the fear market participants seem to have forgotten what was endemic prior to the pandemic. “Not QE” was not doing the trick. And credit veterans had begun to flag default risk despite the Fed opening the spigots to facilitate extending and pretending in a multitude of stretched asset classes. While Federal Reserve Chair Jerome Powell was insisting that the system would have “ample reserves” by the second quarter of 2020, high yield spreads refused to tamp down.


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