The best blog from the best author you've never heard of. Assorted thoughts ranging from comic books to politics. Sometimes I even talk about writing.

Tuesday, September 27, 2016

Clinton's Competence Campaign

Those tuning into Monday night’s debate hoping for a reality show—Presidential Apprentice starring Donald Trump—were rewarded with a character-assault boxing match that had virtually nothing to do with the issues involved in running the country. This was bad news for viewers like me who watched in the vain hope that one of these two candidates would pull back the curtain and shed light, however little, on specific policy actions and how they’ll achieve them. It turns out the presidency is so base a job that mere competency is all that’s required.

Debate topics covered jobs, taxes, Trump’s tax returns, race and implicit bias, Trump’s birtherism, cyber security, preventing homegrown terrorist attacks, Trump’s judgment, President Obama’s nuclear policy, and Clinton’s “presidential look.” The night started out with a glimmer of hope as both Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton talked, if vaguely, on substantive issues; it devolved quickly, though, with Clinton baiting trap after trap and Trump dutifully springing each one. Debate moderator Lester Holt was the invisible man through the first almost two-thirds of the debate as both candidates dodged his questions, such as they were. The political jiu jitsu benefited Clinton whose graceful pirouetting cut a stark contrast to Trump’s more awkward lumbering. The only significant moments of detailed policy talk came in the beginning when Trump spoke of trade and Clinton of taxes, but even these discussions were less than informative with Trump making no effort to allay concerns that his trade proposals won’t start trade wars and Clinton avoiding specifics on how much revenue would have to be raised through taxes to pay for her proposals.

The debate’s value as an informative discussion on the candidate’s policy proposals fell apart as soon as the subject turned to Trump’s tax returns. Trump seemed to internalize everything from that point on and couldn’t resist responding to every attack as though allowing even one slight to go unanswered would leave him mortally wounded. Trump careened wildly off topic, especially when pressed on more controversial matters such as his tax returns during the tax discussion and his birtherism during the race discussion. Holt conspicuously expressed no interest in Clinton’s judgment regarding her poorly secured email server when asking the secretary about cybersecurity. For her part, Clinton kept sprinkling notions of policy into each section; she commented on the need for better community/police relations and better police training, she repeated her “intelligence surge” explanation as how her foreign policy differs from President Obama’s, and she talked tough on Russian despite her previous efforts (and Obama’s current ones) to reach a less touchy equilibrium with that country. But Clinton’s strategy coming in looked to be one of simply poking Trump in the hopes that he would foam at the mouth in response and do the heavy lifting for her; for much of the debate Trump obliged which spared Clinton any rigorous cross-examination on her proposals.

Despite Clinton’s expressed desire to run a more positive campaign focused on voters and their needs, she used last night’s enormous audience to do the same thing she’s done all along—sidestepping substance in the hope that Trump will be seen as unfit for the office. Unfortunately she continues to do nothing to endear fence sitters to her, and last night’s debate likely did nothing except motivate people who don’t like her and don’t trust her to vote for her for now. The strategy makes sense as the path of least resistance to victory, and it’s a strategy I continue to think will lead her to a modest win providing nothing else goes wrong in her campaign. It strikes me as a sad state of affairs, though, that as voters we’ve gone from seeking greatness (if sometimes not finding it) to hoping for tolerable competency.

Monday, September 19, 2016

Sure to Fail Prognostication

I’ve dinged both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump as this general election cycle has gone on. I’ve tried to speak to specific issues about their candidacy rather than compare and contrast the two. What I’m going to do come November 8th is still a mystery to me. I suspect getting blind drunk might be involved. But, in the interest of seeing—come November 9th—whether I knew what I was talking about for four months, I thought I would let loose a few predictions.

Everything that follows is based on information gained by 6:49 pm PST Sunday, September 18. The fivethirtyeight.com polls only forecast has Hillary Clinton at 61.3% probability and Donald Trump at 38.7%.

I wish I had some kind of secret insight I could dazzle people with, but a Hillary Clinton victory is the likeliest result I see. Clinton wins, the Democrats take the Senate at 50/50 with a tie-breaker or 51-49 (same difference either way), and Republicans hold the House. Republicans hold Florida, Indiana, and Ohio; in a purely symbolic move (and the only good news the GOP has) they pick up Harry Reid’s seat in Nevada. Clinton’s Electoral College victory is below 332 (Barack Obama’s total in 2012) and she wins the popular vote with a single digit (in millions) plurality.

Trump’s only path to victory (as I see it) is to rely on Clinton missteps. I’ve posted on how I think Trump, through instinct or happenstance, seems to take advantage of short attention spans while simultaneously manipulating the media. Under the right combination of circumstances—namely a Clinton collapse motivated by either new scandals that further erode her trustworthiness in the eyes of voters or a serious relapse of her pneumonia—Trump pulls out a narrow electoral college victory. This might be aided by terrorism related events that play into his message (there were incidents in New Jersey and New York yesterday that haven’t yet been explained). Because Trump’s support in polls has topped out at 42-42%, I expect any Trump electoral college victory will come with a slim loss in the popular vote.

Setting aside prognostication, I foresee two possible wild cards (neither I consider likely). The first is that Clinton, true to her speech in Greensboro this past Thursday, resets her campaign for a positive, affirmative message. She stops hitting back at Trump’s assorted generated topics of controversy and through her refusal to engage him relegates Trump to a subordinate position. She still wins a plurality popular vote but wins an Electoral College victory by more than the 332 Obama won in 2012.

The second wild card would be a Donald Trump implosion—faced with long odds as a result of a more popular Clinton campaign (see above), Trump lashes out on a more regular basis, offending a greater share of the independent/undecided voter base that might side with him. Clinton wins an Electoral College victory beyond 332 and wins a majority of the popular vote.

It’s important to note that my expectations stem not just from available news and polls to this point, but also a conceit that Hillary Clinton effectively holds victory in her hands today; I don’t see how Clinton loses without additional unforced errors (see “deplorables” and pneumonia secrecy) or additional visible health issues. I think the chances of either of those concerns affecting her is greatly reduced if she retools her campaign as she’s indicated to give people an affirmative reason to vote for her.


There we go. I look forward to a November 9th post mortem. I don’t look forward to my November 9th hangover.

Saturday, September 17, 2016

Fighting on Trump's Battlefields

The Civil War period of American history fascinates me for a number of reasons, not least among them the military campaigns. Any small amount of reading about the campaigns in and around Virginia will lead to the understanding that one of the reasons Robert E. Lee, despite having fewer men and resources, proved so successful was his ability to seize the initiative and force Union generals to give battle at locations of his choosing. Donald Trump shares a similar quality when it comes to manipulating the media and his opponents. The key difference—aside from one of these two men being a general—is that Trump doesn’t always choose winning battlefields.

Trump Punks the Media” was the headline of Hadas Gold’s article on Politico yesterday evening. Claiming to have a big announcement on the Barack Obama birther conspiracy, Trump maneuvered networks to train their cameras on an empty podium before finally treating them to a plug for his new DC hotel and a showcase of his veterans’ endorsements before at last saying the Barack Obama was an American citizen and the conspiracy to claim he wasn’t had been started by Hillary Clinton. If Gold’s article is any indication there was a lot of media consternation over the whole affair (CNN’s Jake Tapper said the media had been Rick-rolled).  But this is only half the narrative. Yes, Trump manipulated the media—as he’s done so well since his campaign began. But he just as successfully manipulated the Clinton campaign’s messaging.

Hillary Clinton’s return to the campaign trail Thursday was accompanied by an explanation that the rest of her campaign would be about ideas—about what she can do for the American people and about why they should vote for her. A cynic could doubt the motivation behind Clinton’s pivot—she did have a pretty rough week in the polls, after all—but not the pivot itself; while betting on her status as the less unpopular of two deeply unpopular candidates has looked like a path to victory, presenting a positive agenda and giving voters an affirmative reason to support her would help sew up nervous undecideds from bolting every time she stumbles. Clinton’s new focus would get a high octane boost Friday when both Obamas hit the stump for her. Could she stop the slide going into the weekend and reset the conversation—especially given the apparent short memories of voters this election cycle?

We may never get an answer to part of that question. Trump’s birther announcement led Clinton, Michelle Obama, Barack Obama, Harry Reid, and others to spend time speaking to the absurdity of the issue. What’s more, Friday coverage of Clinton and the Obamas primarily led with their response to the topic. Where was that positive ideas driven agenda Clinton tantalized us with? Not in any of Friday’s headlines. Trump had picked Friday’s battlefield; the media and Clinton camp obliged him.

The question coming out of Friday is whether this battlefield was a great choice for Trump—especially given his quickly repudiated claim of Clinton’s connection to birtherism. Would dipping his toe back into birtherism become as long running a catastrophe as his feud with the Kahns and his attack on Judge Curiel? Or would it be one more inflammatory eccentricity spouted into the wind and forgotten by the next news cycle? Trump’s nonsense on this topic isn’t exactly a recent development, and if he lets the matter die as he has so many other controversial things he’s said the cost in polls may be a minor one. Something new will happen Monday and in the meantime Trump’s robbed Clinton of the entire weekend.

When Robert E. Lee picked his battlefields there were strategic reasons, be them short or long-term, for doing so. Where political battlefields are involved, Trump’s no less adept at manipulating his opponents (and to a degree the media falls into this category) but the reasons—beside a seeming refusal to concede attention—are murky at best. If there’s a strategy at all, it seems to be as basic as denying Clinton oxygen—keeping her from breaking through to voters so that Trump is able to frame both her and her message. It could work, but it probably requires Clinton to commit more errors like “deplorables” or the pneumonia flap along the way. On the other hand, if Clinton stops playing by Trump’s rules—stops hitting back on his topics and his terms—she might be able to avoid Trump’s battlefield altogether and march around him to victory.

Friday, September 16, 2016

Who Needs a Memory in a 60/24 World?

If not for my Twitter posts and Facebook status updates, I doubt I would know what I did with all my time. And who can blame me? Information moves so fast these days that it’s hard to catch up. The news cycle isn’t just 24/7—it’s 60/24. 60 minutes an hour, 24 hours a day. Stories of news and gossip sprout on the internet almost as fast as we can click refresh. And in between the new stories we can take to social media to gasp and talk and shout about the old. The pace at which we’re bowled over by new information resembles a runaway freight train with an infinite number of cars. Our long term memory for minutia has been obliterated.

I was first struck by this idea during the Cecil the Lion hullaballoo. Remember Cecil? He captivated the nation’s interest for five minutes back in 2015. Americans who’d never heard of either Cecil or Zimbabwe were outraged when they saw pictures of Minnesota dentist Walter Palmer with his trophy from the kill. Social media was in such an uproar over Cecil that arguments over the Confederate flag, raging since shortly after Dylan Roof gunned down innocent people in a South Carolina church, slipped to the back burner so that people could let fly their fury over this wealthy man going trophy hunting.

Then, before the story could get old enough to bore us, we shrugged and said, “What’s next?” Actual animal rights activists, abandoned by their casual allies of the moment, were left carrying the banner. And the news moved on to something else.

Considered in the light of instant gratification consciousness, Donald Trump’s ability to sidestep his missteps looks less like he has a Teflon coating and more like he’s a marathon runner whose opponents, mostly unable to keep up with him, are his own verbal gaffes. Little Marco, Lyin’ Ted, big hands, rapists and murderers, Carly Fiorina’s appearance, shooting someone and never losing a vote—all of it seemingly disqualifying and all of it lost down the memory (black) hole when the next news cycle comes ‘round. Controversies last only so long he as keeps them alive—see his feud with the Khan family. Is this just happenstance or is it the result of calculation—or even instinct? Trump’s inability to stay disciplined and on-message throws cold water on the idea that he’s gamed out this strategy. But either way, it’s working.

Why then isn’t Hillary Clinton helped by the same memory blind spot? Non-stop instant news and commentary is a relatively new phenomenon. Hillary Clinton and the public’s perception of her—unfortunately for the secretary—predates the digital erosion of our minds. Meanwhile Clinton’s controversies tend to be long, drawn out affairs. Consider the email story: every time it’s slipped from the news over the past year, something—new documents, a Congressional hearing, a FBI announcement—revive it. Meanwhile the flap over long-time Clinton friend and surrogate Terry McAuliffe suggesting that Clinton would flip flop on the TPP after her election vanished in a matter of days—replaced by other news from the Democratic National Convention.

Impassioned detractors of Trump, who remember all of his missteps, grow frustrated by people’s willingness to forgive Trump’s errors. But this election cycle, flooded with information and a candidate in Trump who often dominates media coverage, it’s just as likely there’s too many missteps to effectively remember all of them and unless the most infuriating are front and center the rage over them recedes.

George Orwell suggested in 1984 that influencing memory and imposing mass forgetfulness required a one-two punch of repression and control of language—the ability to change the way people think. Through technology we’ve achieved something quite similar without meaning to; it turns out that the opposite of Orwell’s argument is true—exposure to too much information can adversely impact a society’s willingness to retain any of it for a long period of time. Donald Trump has found in our collective forgetfulness his path to the presidency.

Wednesday, September 14, 2016

Clinton’s Sunday Stumbles ™

Sunday’s political news had me thinking about the latest string of Geico commercials: “If you’re Hillary Clinton, you unnecessarily keep things from the American people. It’s what you do.” It’s hard to know whether Clinton’s Sunday Stumbles ™ will impact the race in any serious way. The unfavorables of both candidates are so high that the needle may not shift significantly in either direction barring the appearance of a literal smoking gun (Donald Trump has, after all, suggested both he and Clinton could be capable of shooting people this election season). But it’s impossible to argue that Clinton’s decision not to preemptively reveal her pneumonia diagnosis led to the worst possible result.

Looking at before and after pictures of recent presidents is proof enough of the job’s stresses. The last two presidents especially appear to have aged years if not decades more than the length of their terms while presiding over a polarized nation that’s been on a perpetual war footing. I don’t even know if I think a candidate is obligated to reveal a pneumonia diagnosis if it’s not a chronic condition, but aside from a vague notion of privacy I’m not sure one can fashion a logical argument that candidates for the presidency—especially candidates that fall under the heading of senior citizens—should be allowed to keep secret matters of their health. But given Clinton’s penchant for privacy and a small, close knit circle of advisors I have no idea that the fashioning went something like this: “We won’t get credit for revealing the pneumonia, and the condition is easily treatable and will be cleared up before Election Day so let’s not reveal it.” The movie World War Z had an interesting notion in it; the Israeli representative meeting Brad Pitt’s character explains that his government instituted a rule that if the advisors unanimously agree on a course of action, someone must investigate the alternative. Clinton’s staff should include someone whose sole job is to spin out the worst case political scenario because what unfolded Sunday was almost that.

Rewind the Friday diagnosis and consider. Hillary Clinton learns she has pneumonia. Rather than follow her instincts to hide the news, she reveals it to the press on her plane: “The American people have a right to know about the health of those running for the highest office in the land.” The fringes that have been arguing about hidden Clinton ailments would take the revelation as truth, but her upfront choice to announce the diagnosis would likely keep that fringe argument from pilling into the mainstream. Additionally, while the press may not give her any credit, the average voter would finally get a glimpse of Hillary Clinton being preemptively truthful—revealing more information than she needed to because she thinks the American public deserve to have it. Trump either beats Clinton up for it—looking like a monster in the process—or does what he is doing now which is to leave the story to its own devices. There’s the added benefit of dropping the news on Friday afternoon and letting her rest over the weekend which likely means the story is likely out of the news by Monday. Worst case it’s a wash for Clinton. Best case a candidate who is seen as habitually untrustworthy looks honest and forthcoming.

What happened instead has to rank near that “worst case scenario” end of the spectrum that I’m sure didn’t receive near enough consideration. A skeptical electorate received one more reason to distrust Clinton—something that may not even matter given her historic levels of disapproval. Perhaps more damaging is that the incident vindicates Trump and his fringe supporters who have been spinning out conspiracy theories about her health for weeks. Speculation about Clinton’s health has been shoved into the realm of responsible journalism. There’s no question that this speculation will play into existing gender bias regarding a woman’s strength relative to a man. And contrary to Patton Oswalt and others, Clinton’s campaigning while ill—effectively going to work while ill—will not be seen as heroic by voters not already committed to supporting her because many Americans not only have gone to work while sick but have been in a position where they’ve had no choice.

Every day Clinton isn’t on the campaign trail is a day that Sunday’s incident is discussed. Once she returns, every long speech and arduous campaign day will be subjected to scrutiny because under the best circumstances pneumonia’s effects last more than one week. Like the email controversy, Clinton’s own actions have exposed her to a potential drip-drip-drip of ongoing negative coverage. Someone on Clinton’s staff better get charged with fighting the candidate’s tendency toward the secretive or she just might find out that losing a general election is worse than losing a primary.

Tuesday, September 6, 2016

Hillary Clinton's Inevitability Curse

Inevitability and momentum have spent much of this election cycle in conflict. The Democratic primary showcased this more than once: no matter the wins strung together by insurgent candidate Bernie Sanders—no matter the surprise at some of his successes—Hillary Clinton’s victory was never really in question. If Sanders supporters are any indication, though, not all voters respond well to inevitability; her “coronation” as it was derogatorily called was derided as the primary dragged on, and as her general election post-convention bounce extended throughout August and Trump’s demise came to appear certain, inevitability may have once again soured voters on Clinton despite her momentum.

Hillary Clinton’s odds to win dropped below 70% today according to Fivethirtyeight’s polls-only election forecaster. This is her lowest showing since the Democratic National Convention and the result of poll after poll showing a tightening race both nationally and in battleground states. Clinton’s favorability numbers have reached their lowest point ever, dropping into the doldrums usually reserved for Donald Trump. The good news in all of this for Clinton: her loss of support hasn’t translated into as big an uptick for Trump. In the polls that include Jill Stein and Gary Johnson—the polls where her support has eroded the most—her drop seems to correspond more with an increase in third party support rather than a bump for The Donald (Politico has a fairly comprehensive summary of recent polls with links here). But all this flagging momentum hasn’t dented the expectations for Clinton; regardless of whom they support, the latest CNN poll shows 59 percent of respondents expect Clinton to win the election. So which supporters is Clinton losing even as they remain convinced she will win?

Clinton’s strategy since her speech at the Democratic convention has been to turn the election into a referendum on Trump’s unsuitability for the presidency. To that end she’s made frequent appeals to moderate Republicans, assuring them that they have a home with her and implying borderline apocalyptic consequences if they help elect Trump. With Trump currently commanding a smaller percentage of Republican support than a GOP nominee usually enjoys there’s evidence that Clinton’s strategy is working. Politico compared this strategy to one used by LBJ against Barry Goldwater and cautions that it creates a deceptive appearance of bipartisan support where none exists; LBJ found he lacked a broad popular mandate following Goldwater’s defeat because the moderates on the right never truly supported him. Likewise, no one who has paid attention to Republican politics for the last twenty years would believe that the moderate Republicans Clinton has peeled away from Trump truly support her candidacy or yearn for her success; rather, they’re holding their nose to vote for Clinton because Donald Trump’s proportional response to a tin-plated third-world despot’s suggestion that he has small hands likely involves nuclear codes.

These Republicans (combined with independents feeling Clinton fatigue and progressives who doubt Clinton’s intentions) will give Clinton their vote if they have to; for the good of the country, the planet, and possibly the time-space continuum they will unite in common cause to deny Donald Trump the presidency. However, in a year where the phrase “lesser of two evils” has put all the emphasis on evil, these voters won’t go along quietly. If a voter’s sole reason to vote for Clinton is to deny Trump, then every poll showing Clinton with a commanding lead is one more reason for that voter’s ballot to be cast for a third party or write-in candidate. Trump’s inability to make significant gains in polls as Clinton’s support erodes bears this out.

Even as her near-inevitable victory saps all the energy and momentum from poll results, though, the former secretary of state needn’t worry. The majority of the country’s voters seem both perfectly happy to vote against Donald Trump and largely willing to vote for Clinton in sufficient number to give her the win. But if I were Hillary Clinton, I wouldn’t bank on receiving a commanding popular vote mandate with which to govern. Her win may be the plurality victory that comes with being the least unpopular.

Wednesday, August 31, 2016

Bully in Chief

Donald Trump’s day was going so well.

The bomb-throwing, fire-breathing Republican nominee flew down Mexico way and acted presidential, clearing a bar set so low as to be unremarkable for other presidential candidates. Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto offered Trump precisely what he needed: the opportunity to stand side-by-side with a world leader discussing substantive policy. What’s more, Peña Nieto offered no harsh words for Trump—demanded no apologies. The takeaway from their joint press conference was the astonishing suggestion that the two men could work together. Even the assertion made hours later via Twitter by Peña Nieto—after the Mexican press had pilloried their president for looking weak next to Trump—that the Republican candidate lied when he said the men did not discuss paying for the border wall was easily dismissed because the president had elected to stay silent in the joint press conference when Trump made his claim. In an election that’s become a race to the bottom on popularity and fitness for the job, Trump struck a critical blow against Hillary Clinton’s argument that he’s temperamentally unfit for the job.

Hours later Trump stood before a group of ardent supporters, outlying his ten point immigration plan in a speech full of red meat, and compared America to the big bully who keeps getting beat up.

Goodbye goodwill. Trump’s intent with the comment was to describe how undocumented immigrants are taking advantage of and abusing the country by living in America illegally; as Trump tells it the country is weak now but will be strong once he is in charge. Unfortunately Trump picked possibly the worst metaphor possible. Bullies are widely equated with cruelty and weakness—preying on those who can’t defend themselves and withdrawing at the first sign of challenge. How many of the undecided voters that Trump needs were bullied in school? How many have had to listen to stories of being bullied from their children?

Even at their most dire, complaints about America are largely aspirational; people want the country to be better than it is. Most people would agree there is nothing in a bully to aspire to—least of all the tradition of attacking the weak. I suspect most of the undecideds in Trump’s audience will recognize that he thinks otherwise—recognize and disapprove. Compared to everything else Trump has done the statement is rather innocuous, but the honest revelation that he proudly thinks of America—and by extension himself—as a bully will likely cost him all the progress he’d made just eight hours earlier.

Obamacare Becoming Little More than Medicaid Expansion?

Megan McArdle published a great piece, “Modesty Could Have Averted the Anguish of Obamacare,” on Bloomberg yesterday. Parts of it read like a soliloquy over what could have been had the Obama administration pursued incremental changes to the healthcare market rather than sweeping transformation. The ACA has been less of a hot-button issue this election cycle than in the past three, but the ongoing deterioration of the exchanges promises it will visit us in the headlines for a long time to come. The ACA has insured millions of new people—so in that regard it has been successful—but with the mass exodus from employer plans not materializing and the exchanges absorbing a high percentage of previously uninsurable customers it looks to be devolving into little more than a Medicaid expansion that will continue to cost taxpayers thanks to subsidies. President Obama expended an extraordinary amount of political capital passing the law, and one wonders whether that effort—to say nothing of the market disruptions—will have been worth when all is said and done.

Trump's Visit to Prove he is Slightly Less Unfit?

The Donald Trump Show is many things but it’s never dull. As the Republican nominee makes a Mexican detour ahead of a highly anticipated speech meant to expound on and clarify his immigration policy—which may or may not be waffling depending on who one asks—the biggest question on everyone’s mind is: what is he up to?

The Washington Post’s Daniel Drezner puts it bluntly: “Donald Trump is going to Mexico because he is losing.” It’s hard to argue with that assessment. The risk for Trump is huge, and the potential gains are…unclear. In isolation the likeliest best outcome (because there’s no way Mexican President Enrique Peña Nieto is going to agree to pay for a wall) is that the trip goes off without a hitch and Trump, staying disciplined and on his best behavior, walks away looking vaguely presidential—an image that may run counter to Hillary Clinton’s effort to paint him as temperamentally unfit for the presidency but hardly a compelling argument in and of itself.

This election, though, is unusual not least because of the two candidates involved. As has been repeated since the primary campaigns ended, Trump and Clinton are the two least popular major party nominees in modern history; included in the strategy of both candidates has been the argument that their opponent is unfit for office. In that context a win for Trump is little more than proving he is not as unfit for office as Clinton claims—and perhaps that he is less unfit than she is. It may be the lowest bar ever set in the contest for presidential politics, but with Clinton’s favorables continuing to drop and her recent absence from the campaign trail allowing questions about emails and the Clinton Foundation to grab headlines Trump’s risky Mexican gambit—coming just as the campaign hits its final stretch—could reset the conversation. The question is whether Trump has already wasted too much time flailing for it to matter.

Wednesday, July 20, 2016

GOP Convention Day 2: Stop the World...

...Ben Carson fell off. For better or worse Donald Trump is the nominee for the Republican Party. Ben Carson joked about Satan, Donald Jr plagiarized but didn't, and no one can explain Melania's speech. But the convention marches on.
Paul Ryan’s speech was a welcome change of pace. I was hoping for some specific ideas; Ryan is an idea man and policy wonk, after all. What Ryan lacked in specificity, though, he made up for in vision. He reminded people that Republicans stand for—or, in Ryan’s telling, are supposed to stand for—the opportunity for people to live their lives to the fullest potential without onerous government intervention. He also spoke to the need to address poverty—a recent passion of his and an issue that Trump hasn’t spoke of directly but that dovetails into Trump’s broader economic message. Ryan’s philosophical musings—and attacks against the Democratic Party that didn’t hinge on invoking Hillary Clinton—didn’t receive thunderous applause in the arena, but as the man shepherding a conservative agenda through Washington he at least enunciated broad themes about the Republican Party. This could serve the dual purpose of turning some of Trump’s support into actual Republicans and a reassuring conservative Republicans that the party hasn’t completely abandoned its principles. Ryan finished with a call for unity—implicitly stating that no matter what voters on the right think about Trump, Clinton will be worse.

Chris Christie’s speech was relentless but felt out of place on the second night’s prime time line-up which, compared to Monday, was more optimistic (slightly) and more about Donald Trump (slightly). We get it, Christie—you’d have been a great attack dog. But Trump is an attack dog in his own right, and in anticipation of Mike Pence’s speech Wednesday I find myself wondering whether Trump needed another attack dog as his VP nominee.

The Trump children, Donald Jr and Tiffany, were the easy standouts. Their poise alone said a lot about their father—parents everywhere will wonder how bad he can really be if his kids are that exceptional. The fact that Trump’s children proved so impressive may also help disarm character criticism over his three marriages; there’s been no evidence of dysfunction between Trump and his children, and there was nothing in Tiffany’s or Donald Jr’s speeches to suggest they were less than genuine. Tiffany’s speech was by far the more humanizing, and the report card anecdote was the highlight. Donald Jr tied character observations—such as Trump’s tendency to interact with and talk to the people doing actual work—into his father’s leadership philosophy. Both speeches spoke of Trump as a man who believes the impossible is possible, who believes anyone can rise to the top through merit and hard work, and who implicitly lives by the classic American dream than anyone can do anything. Ryan’s speech expressed this same sentiment but in a more abstract way. In a country where people—despite unemployment figures and jobs reports—may not believe the American dream is working anymore, will voters invest their hope for its return in a wealthy businessman whose attitude supposedly embodies it?

On both days there’s been a weird cadence to the presentation order. This was on display Monday night when Melania Trump’s speech was sandwiched among a cavalcade of Clinton take-downs. This has been blamed both on a lack of star power and on campaign mismanagement. It seems unlikely that political star power would make a difference. If reaction to speakers thus far is any indication, the hardcore Trump supporters aren’t passionate for Republican politicians; they’re only concerned with Trump winning and Clinton losing. Meanwhile the establishment Republican faction that is present doesn’t seem to know what to make of the serious Trump supporters and is less interested in the “celebrity” speakers. Regardless of whether voters coalesce around Trump, the party has a long way to go to integrate the successful insurgency and the rank and file. On the matter of the schedule—and the pundits’ belief that it should be arranged like a television show building to climax—I find myself wondering how relevant that thinking is. Donald Trump’s and Bernie Sanders’ campaigns demonstrated the value of free media and social media—both of which center around clips and segments rather than lengthy presentations. Add to that the changes in technology that have transformed the way Americans watch television—not necessarily all at once and with the ability to watch the same thing over and over again—and I am wondering how much linear scheduling matters anymore. Does it matter that Tiffany Trump’s speech wasn’t in the crucial prime time hour when it can be found all over social media?

My biggest take away of the night was just how much counter programming it contained. Kimberlin Brown, former soap star turned small business owner, delivered a passionate and well-reasoned argument for supporting Trump that appealed directly to fellow women business owners. She hit back hard against the notion that women are monolithic single-issue voters and denounced the idea that Hillary Clinton is a defender of women by virtue of her gender. The closing benediction was given by a Muslim. Trump’s children and winery manager launched a pre-emptive assault on the expected attack line that Trump isn’t successful in business and doesn’t care about ordinary workers. The night was still largely a tear down of Clinton, and much more work has to be put into telling voters not just who Trump is but also what his ideas are. But Clinton has been in the national spotlight for twenty-five years while Trump is a relative unknown who people mostly know thanks to a television show. Both candidates have high unfavorables, but Trump has the greater potential for rehabilitation even if he can’t fully salvage his character. The question is whether he and his surrogates can stay on message long enough to make that impact.

Tuesday, July 19, 2016

GOP Convention Day 1: Good Writers Borrow...

...Great writers steal outright. Or so the saying goes. The Republican National Convention is off to a rip roaring start. As a warm up act we almost got to watch a roll call vote on the rules. And then it really got entertaining. Highlights for me:

Scott Baio delivered his speech in such a dull, off-kilter way that hopefully I could be forgiven for forgetting he was an actor. Or maybe he was a bad actor, and I’m too young to remember. Baio’s performance made me worry that, like Chris Christie before him, he was being held hostage by Trump; I started watching Baio’s eye blinks, looking for a hidden Morse code message. “Donald Trump is running for all of us,” delivered as it was in monotone by a not quite smiling Baio was the most freakishly awkward sentence I’ve ever heard. Pod People awkward.

The text of Rudy Giuliani’s speech, had it been delivered by someone who wasn’t arm-flailingly insane, might have been effective as a general effort to speak to Americans’ anxieties. A lot of the sentiment in his speech was dead on, and most people would find elements within it to agree with at a time when our everyday security sometimes feels like it’s balanced on knife edge. Unfortunately Giuliani has long since abandoned reality and become a caricature of himself. It was a hell of a convention speech, but while it stirred Republicans it probably scarred the crap out of everyone else. The high point surely was when he took President Obama’s one America idea and threw it back in Democrats’ faces as an indictment. With Hillary Clinton running so close to the president, could there be mileage in that criticism?

Donald Trump sure knows how to make an entrance, doesn’t he?

Melania Trump. I’ll hit the controversy at the end. Her speech did what it had and introduced her as a potential first lady. For those people who, somehow, don’t have fully formed set in stone ideas about this election, Melania beats out Bill for least creepy First Spouse. Whether she successfully humanized her husband I don’t know. But her story is one of an immigrant that came here legally so that alone is ammunition to attack the charge that Trump is xenophobic and anti-immigrant. Perhaps it’s best to find ways to keep that story as part of the campaign without utilizing Melania who is obviously not comfortable in these environments.

Woman Iraq war veteran and sitting US senator. If I were the Trump campaign I’d have Joni Ernst front and center until Election Day or Ernst is somehow destroyed by a Trump campaign unforced error—whichever comes first. Ernst took FBI Director Comey’s assertion before Congress that Hillary Clinton may not have been sophisticated enough to understand top secret classifications, distilled it down to Hillary Clinton “may not be intelligent enough” and suggested that was a scary trait for someone running to be president. A smart campaign would grab on to that idea and run with it until Election Day. The jury is still out on whether the Trump campaign is smart.

Holding speeches after Melania’s and as the convention audience streamed out of the arena looked silly. Ernst dropping big applause lines to a smattering of people who offered polite clapping was a visual and auditory non sequitur to her otherwise strong delivery.

A consistent theme throughout the night was the idea that Donald Trump was running for president out of a sense of duty--that he genuinely wants to help "us." I'm not sure whether undecideds--to the extent that they actually exist--will buy that line, but it made a striking contrast to Hillary Clinton's slogan of "I'm with her" and plays further into the notion that Hillary Clinton is running for president and expects to win out of a sense of entitlement. This is another theme I'd expect a smart campaign--so not necessarily Trump's--to hit from not until Election Day.

The Melania Trump plagiarism issue hangs over what was otherwise a reasonable-to-successful first night of the convention. I side with the people saying that either Melanie should come out and say “whoops” because America will forgive her, or the campaign should identify a culprit who they can fire. On the other hand, Melania is likely to disappear after the convention and Trump has frequently shown a Teflon characteristic uncommon in American politics so perhaps this will be much ado about nothing by tomorrow. To the point that there is a double standard between Melania Trump and Michelle Obama—yes the Slovenian born model to whom English is a second language is probably getting lighter criticism than Michelle Obama (and many other former first ladies) would have. If someone wants to hang his or her hat on that as an opinion piece call to arms so be it, but given Melania’s virtually nonexistent public role in the campaign I’m not sure such criticism does anything but preach to the Democratic choir.

Speaking of preaching to the choir, Politico referred to Trump’s supporters painting “a dark and dystopian portrait of an America in decline” and suggested there was little effort at across-the-aisle outreach. The red meat in the speeches, though, served up a powerful reminder to vacillating Republicans—of which there are many—that the only realistic alternative to a Donald Trump who they may not like is a Hillary Clinton who they likely loathe. As for reaching across the aisle, in an election that will almost certainly be determined by which candidate is less disliked such outreach need not be conciliatory; if the Trump campaign can highlight and reinforce Hillary Clinton’s negatives, advertising his positives may be less crucial. Clinton’s strategy to hew so close to President Obama’s policies give Republicans an opening to say: “All those things you haven’t liked about the last eight years—that you think have made us less safe and that you think have made it harder for you get a better paying job—Hillary Clinton is responsible for some of them and she’s going to keep doing all of them.” That was largely last night’s message, and I suspect it will be the message Tuesday and Wednesday as well. The question will be whether all of that will sync with Thursday’s “Making America One Again” theme when the convention will likely see its biggest audience and Trump will speak.

Monday, July 18, 2016

A Vote for Hillary Clinton is a Vote for...the GOP?

Republican pundits and operatives who have publicly stated intent to vote for Hillary Clinton have managed all kinds of logical contortions to justify the decision. Many people assert a “country over party” motive, paying lip service to the great sacrifice of voting for Hillary Clinton who stands against their deeply held conservative beliefs. I’m the cynical sort, though, and I can’t help but view the actual strength of these people’s principles with skepticism in light of the lack of any real effort on their part to drum up an honest conservative candidate as an alternative. Such a split vote on the right would have had the same effect of denying Trump the victory. Meanwhile a conservative voter could hold his or her head up high at having not sold out on principles, and the after-effect of uplifting an alternative new standard bearer in such a split might induce the GOP to take a long hard look at itself as it moves into the future. I might feel bad about this cynicism if not for columns like the one Donald Brand penned for Fortune where he laid out a different case for Republicans to vote for Hillary—this one a full throated endorsement of sacrificing principles on the altar of party status quo.

In “Why Republicans Should Actually Vote for Hillary Clinton” Brand appeals to history—and pop culture of the moment—by asserting that Alexander Hamilton would vote for Hillary Clinton. First off, with his love of centralized federal power, there’s no evidence that Hamilton would be anything but a Democrat in today’s political climate; of course Hamilton would vote for Clinton. It’s a cheap hook and one that has no real bearing on his later point except to add the faux weight of an historical appeal to authority since we’re practically trained from birth to revere everything the founding fathers did.

For his real argument, Brand describes the election of 1800 when the Democratic-Republican party nominated Thomas Jefferson for president and Aaron Burr for vice president. At the time, the Constitution’s electoral procedure didn’t recognize this understanding. Brand describes the ensuing situation:
Each elector had two ballots to cast, but the ballots for president and vice president were not separated. The final result was Jefferson and Burr getting the same number of ballots, producing a tie that could only be resolved by a special voting procedure in the House of Representatives. Burr ignored his informal agreement to serve as Jefferson’s vice president and tried to convince the House to choose him as president.

Brand goes on to explain the dilemma before Hamilton’s party—the Federalists—in the House. Voting for Jefferson, a champion of returning power to the states, was the kind of choice that was no choice; Jefferson and his ideas were anathema to the Federalists. Burr, though, was unattractive in his own rights; Brand quotes historian John Ferling: “Throughout his career, many detected in him a frenetic ambition, an insatiable, indomitable craving for wealth, material possessions, power, and acclaim—more of everything, a gluttonous avidity that they assumed drove him relentlessly.” Hamilton, not a member of the House but an influential voice in the Federalist Party, supported his nemesis Jefferson. Hamilton reasoned that if the Federalists supported Burr, “they adopt him and become answerable for him,” and Brand argues that Hamilton believed it was better to remain a party of opposition in retention of its principles than defeat the opposing party at the cost of principles. Brand takes this example from history and imposes it on our current situation, concluding that:
If elected, Republicans would be blamed for [Trump’s] failures. To support Trump, we must sacrifice our principles and reconcile our minds to his. Better we should follow Hamilton’s example and support an opposing party whose principles we reject—and remain a principle[d] party of opposition.

But there are no principles at stake in Brand’s column—nor, arguably, in Hamilton’s decision 216 years earlier. Hamilton saw Jefferson as a predictable opponent “desirous of something like orderly government” whereas Burr “thinks of nothing but his own aggrandizement.” Further, Hamilton’s concern that the Federalists supporting Burr would “adopt him” doesn’t speak toward intent to safeguard principles while leading the opposition but to a fear that the Federalists would be blamed for any mess that Aaron Burr might make after they handed him victory. Hamilton’s better-the-devil-you-know approach is a political calculation that does little more than benefit the Federalist Party of the moment.


Despite using the word three times, Brand’s concluding paragraph isn’t appealing to principles but to partisanship. After arguing against sacrificing one’s principles to support Trump, he urges putting in power a party whose principles stand in opposition to his own. It’s interesting to me that in his telling a vote for Trump is unprincipled while a vote Clinton, a representative of “an opposing party whose principles we reject” is not; perhaps this is because Brand’s hypothetical Republican voter, through individual sacrifice of voting for Clinton, is lending his or her principles to the GOP at large like human cattle to a vampire. I find Brand’s appeal to Republicans a self-serving argument designed to maintain the Republican Party as it existed before Donald Trump upended it—an attempt to pretend the primary voter rebellion never happened and another sign that the we-know-better crowd is increasingly clueless about life for the everyday voter. Call me cynical, but I’m not sure propping up a decrepit GOP is a goal worthy of sacrificing principles—certainly not to vote for Clinton whose sense of personal honesty is dubious and whose policy proposals are, from a conservative standpoint, deeply flawed. A time traveling Alexander Hamilton may well agree with Brand’s reasoning—and would probably vote for Hillary Clinton either way; wanting to look myself in a mirror on November 9th, though, I’ll keep my principles and leave the GOP to rediscover its own.

Tuesday, July 12, 2016

This is How a Revolution Ends

Not with a bang but with a whimper.

Endorsing Hillary Clinton today, Bernie Sanders at last ended the Democratic primary in more than just a mathematical sense. The last two months have seen his people in negotiation over convention committee representation and the official Democratic platform. There’s also a plum speaking slot at the convention set aside for him. But unfortunately for so many people who believed in his political revolution, Sanders’ endorsement was a full-throated backslide on principles that achieved little tangible gain other than cementing Sanders’ personal position in the Democratic party.

The words “honest” and “authentic” were used to describe Sanders so frequently during his campaign that I started thinking there must be a sponsorship deal in place. This refreshing honesty and authenticity was frequently contrasted with Hillary Clinton—not least by Sanders himself. He charged that consistent policy beliefs are instructive to one’s character. He frequently called on Clinton to release transcripts of her Goldman Sachs speeches and pointed out that a politician taking money from large banks may not be able to effectively regulate them. He asserted that when it came to Clinton’s judgment “something is clearly lacking” and cited her Wall Street donations, her support for the war in Iraq, and her use of a super PAC to raise money. He identified all the ways she was a flawed candidate, unsuitable to be president of a country that had been harmed—he claimed—by the very policies she had and still did support.

Fast forward to today. The argument that allows Sanders to endorse Clinton and retain his halo is that he has pulled the Democratic Party to the left, succeeded in adding policies such as a $15 minimum wage to the party platform, and made Hillary Clinton a more liberal candidate. But did he? As Bill Scher points out on Politico, the one policy subject to immediate action that Sanders and Clinton disagreed on—the TPP—received no mention in the platform at all and that likely signals the end of Sanders’ ability to influence the Democratic party: “The TPP fight was nothing less than a proxy battle over who really steers the party ship. And the evidence is that Hillary still has the conn.” So Sanders got his $15 dollar minimum wage and other concessions, but—as has been widely noted—the party platforms become irrelevant almost immediately after the conventions. And after Election Day the goals on that platform are easily derailed by Congressional opposition. The various platform planks and policy proposals may remain nothing more than lofty sentiments no matter who wins the White House. But the TPP is a live issue now, is before Congress now, and could be impacted by a candidate making a full-throated argument against it. Its defeat would be a shot in the arm to Sanders’ followers—a sign that the political revolution hadn’t been turned into platitudes by a triumphant Hillary Clinton but was alive and well in her campaign and—maybe—her future administration. Such a victory would have been worthy of an endorsement from the authentic and honest Bernie Sanders, but it was not to be.


Far from an honest leader holding the line on real principles, Sanders’ failure to achieve anything concrete and actionable before offering his endorsement to a candidate who he has suggested in strong terms is unfit to be president betrays his surrender to the Clinton as the action of a candidate who—whatever his reason for running at the outset—had become focused on winning and on personal success. Despite his strong rhetoric in opposition to the Democrats, Sanders owes all he is in Congress to the party. Sanders ran without Democratic opposition thanks to the party. He’s been a useful fundraiser for Democrats and received money from such events. He holds his committee positions through their magnanimity. Failing to endorse Clinton—to say nothing of continuing to oppose her—would have put all that at risk. Rather than commanding a position of power and visibility in a Democrat held senate under a President Hillary Clinton, he likely would have been banished to irrelevance—something he perhaps could no longer tolerate after spending time under the spotlights. Whether Bernie Sanders was authentic and honest when his wild ride began, his final performance at the head of his political revolution fell in line with his behavior throughout his career and was nothing more than a bending the knee tribute to politics as usual.

Friday, July 8, 2016

Where Did it All Go Wrong?

Seems like it’s all coming apart, doesn’t it? 320 million Americans yanking on a piece of fabric—all pulling in different directions.

I remember September 11th and the shock of it. I remember the horror. I remember the perception that for one brief moment just about everyone in the country was on the same side—the idea that no matter what else we did and said to each other we were fundamentally the same. The old “things that unite us are far greater than the things that divide us” idea. Maybe, in a world before social media, it was imagined. But it felt real.

That sure was a long time ago, wasn’t it? Dallas was a tragedy in a long line of tragedies that include many questionable police shootings and a very unquestionable shooting in a South Carolina church. We don’t seem to unite behind tragedies like we used to.

A friend of mine was discussing the president’s remarks in the aftermath of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile. He was lamenting that more people aren’t outraged and aren’t involved. I offered an idea I’ve offered before: that if one isn’t personally affected by these events it’s easy to tune out due to the rhetoric. It’s hostile. It’s angry. It’s sometimes petty. Emotions run hot—I understand that. But it becomes adversarial. This is a national problem but no one seems to be trying to find a national solution. What are the goals for Black Lives Matter? Can any casual observer answer that question? And when the only thing that makes the news are the protests, are we surprised that casual observers can’t answer the question? Meanwhile, aside from getting defensive, what steps are law enforcement agencies taking to understand and eliminate these shootings? Does anyone know? Or are the only thing that’s hitting the mainstream the “thin blue line” and efforts to outshout “black lives matter” with “blue lives matter?”

Adversarial. So much so that while the area was still being secured you see people on social media already blaming news reporters for lying about the timing of the shootings in order to cast blame on the protesters. So much so that while the suspects are being hunted for, pundits are pointing out mistakes made by political opponents. So much so that that night a former Congressman is raving about “war” and “real Americans” coming after Obama. So much so that less than twelve hours after the incident the president is blaming the availability of certain guns for helping to incite violence.







Shootings. Corruption. Racism and inequality. We should be collectively horrified by what’s going on around us and working together to fix it. But we’re not. From Washington on down we’re too busy blaming the thing we don’t like for whatever’s going wrong at the moment. I feel like we’ve lost something and I’m not sure when it happened. A lot of people were shocked by Dallas. Deeply. I passed shock a long time ago. I sat there last night wondering what would be next.

Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Will the Clinton Double Standard Unite an Angry Electorate?

“To be clear, this is not to suggest that in similar circumstances, a person who engaged in this activity would face no consequences. To the contrary, those individuals are often subject to security or administrative sanctions.”

Has a double standard ever been made plainer than that? When the FBI director stands up and says, “Yes, other people would face consequences for these actions but this one individual will not,” it’s hard not to wonder on the state of justice—hard not to consider whether a system that nakedly benefits the powerful elite to which Secretary Clinton can claim membership would ever find fairness for the powerless. Hillary Clinton’s non-indictment lays another stone in a foundation of anger and dissatisfaction that’s not just underpinning this election cycle but perhaps building toward something worse down the line.

That this election cycle feels different is not earth shattering revelation. But it doesn’t feel surprising. This anger has been bubbling, in fits and starts and among disparate groups, for years. The Tea Party. Occupy Wall Street. Black Lives Matter. Sanders supporters. Trump supporters. Everyone’s angry. If I’m looking at this from atop an ivory tower the one thought that gives me solace is that while everyone is angry at people in power, they’re angry and different people in power for different reasons. And what’s more—these are not groups of people likely to work together. Not without a little persuasion, anyway.

The lack of an indictment for Hillary Clinton is one of those rare events that pulls together a lot of otherwise disconnected anger. Writing for the reliably right Townhall.com, Kurt Schlichter—convinced that Hillary Clinton is guilty of multiple felonies—assaults the very idea that rule of law still exists in this country. Meanwhile, Glenn Greenwald—who believes that the FBI’s decision was correct and who never thought Clinton’s actions rose to the level of criminality, slams the decision not to indict by placing it in the larger context of a secrecy obsessed Washington and stating in no uncertain terms that anyone not named Hillary Clinton would long ago have been hauled off in leg irons for this activity:
But this case does not exist in isolation. It exists in a political climate where secrecy is regarded as the highest end, where people have their lives destroyed for the most trivial—or, worse, the most well-intentioned—violations of secrecy laws, even in the absence of any evidence of harm or malignant intent. And these are injustices that Hillary Clinton and most of her stalwart Democratic followers have never once opposed—but rather enthusiastically cheered. In 2011, Army Private Chelsea Manning was charged with multiple felonies and faced decades in prison for leaking documents that she firmly believed the public had the right to see; unlike the documents Clinton recklessly mishandled, none of these was classified.

To be sure, Greenwald is not a champion of the American left. But he finds the decision no less an indictment of the state of the rule of law than does Schlichter who seems to be foaming at the mouth over a Hillary Clinton he perceives to be guilty. Keeping in mind that Black Lives Matter has been railing against a systematically unequal criminal justice system for almost two years—a cause taken up belatedly by the Sanders campaign—it doesn’t take a genius to see where the disparate angry voices begin to intersect.

Having not gone to law school, I have no idea whether or not Clinton should be indicted. Andrew McCarthy seems to think she should have been and explains the relevant statute that involves gross negligence. McCarthy’s argument combined with the meeting between Bill Clinton and Attorney General Loretta Lynch, Secretary Clinton’s comments that she’d consider keeping Lynch on a sattorney general, and the prosecution of a navy sailor for an arguably similar offense that lacked intent paints a picture of a process that was rigged from the start. Comey’s unusual press conference—detailing violations and blowing holes in Clinton’s public defense—before recommending no consequences for her actions only adds fuel to the fire.


I’ve begun considering what the 2020 election will look like if Hillary Clinton wins this election. The Trump and Sanders campaigns brought a lot of disparate fringe anger much closer to the political center and focused all of it on the wealthy, the punditry, the powerful, and the political. Meanwhile the clear favorite to win is a career politician who is distrusted on a basic level by approximately half the country, is running on a platform of maintaining the Barack Obama status quo, and who may or may not have committed felonies depending on one’s interpretation of a lot of circumstantial evidence. A short term gain for Hillary Clinton may be a long term loss for the country if all the FBI did was validate the public’s belief that the powerful live and rule without consequences.

Thursday, June 30, 2016

On Brexit: Let's Ignore the Angry People Some More!

Angry people in the UK seemingly got their way last week when the referendum on EU membership favored Leave by a slim margin. Disagreement on the long term consequences is widespread, but the immediate result was clear: the UK was cast down into the deepest level of hell while the delicate seams of the remaining EU began unraveling and Vladimir Putin laughed a super villain laugh somewhere off camera. But every breakup has an initial rough patch filled with blackout drunkenness, and before I knew it columnists everywhere were spouting reasons why Brexit might not happen—“It’s not really over. She still loves me!”

I for one hope they’re wrong.

The Brexit results seemingly caught everyone off guard—even Leave campaigners. I’ve been scratching my head wondering why. A number of EU countries have seen dissatisfaction over the EU—fusions of extreme right and left that at the very least wants Brussels to ratchet down the regulating and at the most want their countries to exit, stage left, right along with the UK. Journalists are already handicapping whether additional Brexit-like referendums will happen in other countries. Months ago when Greece’s economy teetered on the edge of a black hole, the voters tried their hardest to send the EU a populist message by electing the most anti-austerity guys they could find only to have the iron-spined, pro-Grexit, willing to go all in before the flop Tsipras government bend the knee and accept arguably humiliating terms to remain in the EU. For all the talk among the political elites of an ever closer union, the sentiment is having as much success reaching the people as wealth did with trickle-down economics.

Meanwhile across the pond a virtually unknown socialist from Vermont and widely loathed businessman from New York read history’s cues perfectly and dusted off the handbook for American populism. Thanks to a crowded field and winner take all rules, Donald Trump secured the Republican nomination while Bernie Sanders was reminded that close only counts in horseshoes and hand grenades. Both men, despite a myriad of policy differences, have been running on the same idea: that ordinary people can’t get ahead because the system is rigged by an elite class. They’ve sounded off against free trade and its impact on the domestic job market. Trump has thrown down a wall-shaped gauntlet on immigration.

As the UK ramps up toward the historic referendum, it’s watching populist anger rear its head in multiple western countries. The motives are different but the scapegoats are the same: the unaccountable elites in charge of the system. And have there ever been more unaccountable elites than there are in Brussels—bureaucrats and regulators elected by no one who make decisions that impact the laws of 28 countries?

David Cameron, despite the pasting he’s taking from some critics on holding a referendum that he couldn’t win, may have started out as the cleverest guy in this whole affair. By promising the referendum he captured voter discontent and made it work for him. He also claimed a weapon to use against the EU in negotiations—a smart move given Boris Johnson’s statement that the EU only negotiates when they hear the word “No.” But either the weapon was less impressive than Cameron hoped or he wielded it poorly because he didn’t win the concession—his “emergency brake” on immigration—that many believe would have led to a Remain victory. The referendum Cameron promised is a perfect example of handing someone a gun when one doesn’t know where the gun will get pointed.

But it’s the aftermath of the vote that interests me. The last couple days have seen piles and piles of spin over how Brexit might not happen. Cameron won’t start the process before he resigns from office—arguably a move of political cowardice that underscores his late stage failure in losing the vote. There’s question over whether or not Parliament has to consent. It’s been suggested that the referendum, which technically isn’t binding, should be treated as advisory and then ignored. The idea of a second referendum has been floated—no doubt because Remain voters are certain they can win it. Someone must be watching Dumb and Dumber because I can here Lloyd saying, “So you’re telling me there’s a chance.”


These machinations in support of a Remain result rising out of a Leave victory remind me of the American Republican primary—and not because various commentators have tried blaming both on xenophobic white people. But rather that as the campaign went on and Trump picked up a little speed and then a little more and then a little more, the “establishment” darlings—Jeb Bush, Marco Rubio, John Kasich, and (to a degree) Chris Christie all tried pushing back only to be rewarded with electoral smackdowns; the darlings would hit Trump on his lack of Republican bona fides only to be rewarded by shrugs from voters who either didn’t agree with those supposed bona fides or simply didn’t care about them anymore. As the field winnowed down conventional wisdom suggested that Trump would hit a ceiling and voters would rally behind a remaining establishment candidate. But there was no ceiling, and as Trump’s foes diminished his victories became more impressive. Prominent Republicans talked (and some still do) of using convention shenanigans to avoid nominating Trump only to see polls underscore that Republicans in general think the winner should, in fact, win--that even if they don't support Donald Trump they don't support a cabal of GOP politicians stealing the nomination from him in some back room. I wonder how UK voters would feel if polled on a similar question about the referendum; I'd be willing to bet that some Remain voters would grit their teeth and respond identically.


If Trump and Leave are what happens when voters—feeling ignored by politicians and pundits and elites—are no longer willing to simply go along with what leadership tells them and instead register their dissatisfaction by voting for extremes, then what happens when the politicians and elites simply ignore the voters’ choice? What’s the response from the Leave camp if the UK government ignores them? What’s the response from people in other EU countries if a referendum on EU membership is disregarded? All these people dismayed by a looming Brexit who seem to think—and maybe hope—it won’t happen should cast their eyes down the road a little ways toward what happens if this great mass of angry people continue to feel ignored or betrayed by their leaders. The implications of Leave may be frightening now, but imagine the thing that comes after it if half the UK feels betrayed.

Saturday, June 11, 2016

Bags & Boards 6/8/16

Sharing my thoughts on the weekly comic book haul. The issue that most holds my attention (and not always for good reason) lands the Book of the Week, and I offer brief takes on everything else. Spoilers likely.

Old Business: To finish my thoughts from last week on Civil War II #1, the apparent deaths of Rhodes and She-Hulk feel blatantly manipulative—meant to galvanize both sides of the argument but most especially Tony. That Rhodes was essentially killed “off screen” simply reinforces the sense of it as a nuts-and-bolts plot decision that wasted a good character.

Book of the Week
 Civil War II: Amazing Spider-Man #1
“With your help we could save money and man-hours by not running down dead ends, and instead focus on what’s most likely to succeed.”
Landing the top spot not because it was a particularly inspired read or because it portends great significance, this Civil War II tie-in grabs the honor because it highlights the most serious flaw in the new Amazing Spider-Man concept: Peter is too successful. A disclaimer first: I have enjoyed the new Amazing Spider-Man. Reversing the so-called Parker Luck and putting Peter in a position of success is the freshest take on the character in a long time. The fresh take on Spider-Man creates a weird dynamic in this issue, though, and I found myself feeling that part of the story was lifted from some other series. The plot is straightforward. The first half of the issue sees Spider-Man working with Ulysses to stop a relatively simple crime—an action that convinces Spider-Man both of the authenticity of Ulysses’ powers and the goodness of Ulysses’ character. This whole opening subplot feels redundant after Civil War II #1 and unnecessary since this story isn’t hijacking the main Amazing Spider-Man series—an intrusion that might confuse readers who aren’t following Civil War II. The next day Spider-Man spins a scenario where Ulysses could use his powers to help guide research at Parker Industries, promising that Ulysses’ help with the medical and security fields will lead to countless lives saved. A cliffhanger ending spins a standard jeopardy scenario where Ulysses warns Spider-Man that a Parker Industries employee will don a costume and fight him in the near future. I could be a victim of my own expectations (though the issue’s cover certainly invites big expectations) but I had imaged a little more introspection from Peter before he jumped on board with divining the future. Here’s a guy who’s been haunted his entire life by the unexpected consequences of one decision—to say nothing of the chaos he found himself in when he sided with Tony Stark on Stark’s last great moral flag planting. While there’s an argument that Ulysses, burdened by great power, is burdened by great responsibility, the question remains whether that responsibility is toward action or inaction. Unfortunately the issue goes nowhere near those ideas as Peter, perhaps a little too carefree in his role at Parker Industries, sees only the benefit to his company. While his goals are arguably philanthropic, this Peter Parker feels incalculable distances removed from the perpetually down on his luck young man who worried about the moral implications of almost everything. It’s possible that the depth I’m seeking will come in future issues, but the story in this first issue has such a paint-by-numbers feel to it that I have no desire to bring home the second.

Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Hints of a Campaign Strategy in Trump's Speech?

Trump subdued his scrappy, junkyard dog campaign style last night for and engaged the teleprompters to mark the end of his primary campaign. Subdued or not, though, it was still Trump behind the podium, somehow remaining the gruff populist—a man standing on a car talking through a bullhorn rather than a presidential candidate at a podium—despite being tied to a teleprompter.

Trump started by reassuring Republicans that he understood the responsibility of being the nominee, effectively telling them not to worry. It’s almost a pointless exercise at this point. For most Republicans in office, the decision to endorse Trump or not is going to come down to a tactical analysis of which choice is more likely to keep them in office. Trump’s reassurances about his own behavior are immaterial because by now we all know—if not what he believes—what he is willing to say.

But lest the GOP forget who’s in charge, couched in Trump’s words of reassurance was a statement that he would make Republicans proud of “our movement”—a cautionary reminder that a large share of his support isn’t beholden to the GOP and to keep them they have to keep Trump. Trump’s own association with the party is a marriage of convenience—one-sided though it may be. Regardless of what he needs from the GOP in a logistics and infrastructure capacity, Trump is happy to run his train right over the odd Republican politician if need be.

The meat of the speech started with an attack on politics in general. He borrowed from Bernie Sanders’ playbook and lambasted a rigged political system. When he asks why politicians would “want to change a system that’s made them and their friends very, very wealthy” and asserts that “we can’t fix the rigged system by relying on…the very people who rigged it,” his disagreements with Republicans lend him a perverse credibility. In a naked bid to aggrieved Sanders supporters he appealed to disaffected Democrats by recycling the complaint about a rigged system of superdelegates—a fallacious charge Sanders never grew tired of spouting. Then he tied President Obama into this argument, reminding the audience that the president promised change but that the system remains the same.

“The Clintons have turned the politics of personal enrichment into an art form.” Easily the best line of the speech, this led into Trump’s Clinton-specific attacks and played right into underlying concerns about Hillary Clinton: that she’s beholden to people who give her money; that she sells access; that she cares about herself and uses politics as a means to an end. As much as this is red meat for Republicans, it is not far removed from Bernie Sanders’ case against Clinton as a politician who takes expensive speaking gigs and big fundraising dollars and whose judgment is corrupted by that money. Trump ties the personal enrichment charge in with Clinton’s email server—something  there’s as yet no evidence to back up—and basically accuses President Obama, “a president in a corrupt system,” of keeping her from being indicted.

This line of attack—and variations on it—is probably Trump’s best bet in the general election. In what is sure to be a scorched earth total war campaign that will make Sherman’s March to the Sea look like a square dance, Clinton will hit Trump with everything she can (and certainly he won’t pull any punches). Trump’s erratic statements, penchant for insults, and stoking of racial animus offer Clinton quite the grab bag to choose from. Clinton’s trust issues, though, give Trump the perfect opening to assert that she will say and do anything to be elected president because she is only out for herself; it’s an effective shield against her attacks if he can make his case.

The speech rounded out with much ado about nothing on Trump’s America First platform. He spoke in broad generalities, never nailing himself to a specific platform. He came the closest I’ve yet seen to tying together opposition to illegal immigration and reclaiming jobs for Americans out of work. What little he’s made (sort of) clear about his policies suggest these would be natural companions—and maybe his best bet at winning some goodwill among the minority voters he continues to alienate—but he never quite connects the dots.

The America First section of the speech also brought the most awkward moment when he said “we’re going to take care of our African-American people.” Trump too often refers to minorities in a way that sets them apart as a kind of “other”—a distinct subset that’s not quite part of the whole. At the very least it’s a clumsy example of the patronizing that all politicians engage in when they play identity politics. At its worst this is more evidence to back up a racism charge.

This is the kind of performance Trump probably should have sprinkled in earlier. Even on teleprompter Trump let fly little extemporaneous burps. He was still Trump—just a Trump less likely to get into trouble. The question is whether he can balance performances like these with the big rallies that are his bread and butter—where he can tell it like it is and punch the establishment in the nose. As a standalone performance this wasn’t his best. But as a taste of things to come it hints toward a more formidable than expected general election candidate.

Monday, June 6, 2016

Democracy for Thee but Not for Me

I’ve spent no shortage of time and energy complaining about Bernie Sanders over the course of this election. Part of my dislike for Sanders is motivated by a general opposition to heavy handed government intervention in free markets; part of it is motivated by a concern that the numbers he’s presented, either by accident or by design, do not represent the true cost of his programs—a concern given weight by looking at the cost to European countries that offer similar programs; and part of it is motivated by a sense that Sanders is not truly conversant on the issues he talks about. But all along, as I’ve complained about Sanders, I’ve been assured—both by his supporters and critics—that he’s the only candidate who can save our democracy from a developing oligarchy of the wealthy, that he is most concerned by the actual will of the people, and that he is the most authentic and least opportunistic of the candidates. How ironic, then, that as Sanders’ campaign has stretched on it has more and more revealed itself as an agent opposed to the will of the people—an ends justifies the means struggle to stoke the political revolution necessary to achieve Sanders’ goals.

One of Sanders’ chief arguments on the stump is that money has to be removed from politics. He distrusts Super PAC’s (never mind that he has at least one supporting him and advertising for him). He rails against big donors contributing to campaigns on the suggestion that candidates would be beholden to them. He opposes self-financed candidates because they can effectively buy the election. Meanwhile, while speaking often and loudly about these campaign financing evils, Sanders has outspent every other candidate in the race. Supporters will often claim some kind of moral high ground on this point—citing the great number of small dollar donations from ordinary people. But if it’s unacceptable to buy an election in the first place, how has the candidate who spent the most not been trying to do just that? Sanders has condemned big money in politics while lavishing in the largest pile of it.

Sanders’ excess spending has unfortunately not catapulted him quite high enough in the esteem of registered Democrats, and back in April during New York’s primary he lamented the fact that the state barred anyone other than registered Democrats from voting in the Democratic primary. Sanders combined this argument—speciously claiming non-Democrats had been somehow disenfranchised—with his contention that he wins when voter turnout is high. The implicit suggestion was that Sanders fares far better in states with open primaries. This of course is not true; Hillary Clinton has won the majority of open primaries. Where Sanders does excel, however, is in caucuses. For anyone not familiar with a caucus, the basic process is as follows.

The caucus begins at a set time. Everyone who is going to participate in the caucus has to be inside at that time. People sort themselves according to their chosen candidate. The first ballot is taken. Then people re-sort themselves for additional ballots and candidates below an arbitrary viability threshold are eliminated. The caucus can take up to several hours, and leaving early risks having one’s vote not counted. It forces face to face interaction with voters and robs people of the anonymity of the voting booth. And thanks to the viability threshold it can prevent people from voting for their chosen candidate. The caucus process by design is highly exclusionary, certainly far less democratic than a closed primary, as it rewards only the most ardent activists. Senator Sanders has no negative words for the inherent undemocratic nature of the caucuses, though—likely because he has won so many of them.

Unfortunately for Sanders, his ongoing success in caucuses—mostly taking place in smaller states—has been unable to change the fact that as the contest has gone on, Clinton’s lead in pledged delegates and the popular vote has held steady and increased. This has left Sanders’ campaign performing rhetorical gymnastics as it pursues a strategy of convincing Democratic superdelegates to switch their vote to support him as the party’s nominee. This strategy, pursued since the end of March when Clinton’s lead cemented her as the probable nominee, runs counter to his months-long insistence that superdelegates shouldn’t vote counter to their state’s voters. His argument is that polls show him to be a stronger opponent against Donald Trump, and the superdelegates should give the party the best chance to win in November; an unkind person might translate that as Sanders claiming to know better than the voters. Meanwhile Sanders has already stated that he will carry on his campaign beyond the end of primary voting to the Democratic convention, promising a contested convention weeks after the people who make up the Democratic electorate have finished choosing their preferred candidate.


A few months ago, in a debate prior to the Florida primary, Bernie Sanders was asked about remarks he’d previously made regarding Fidel Castro, leader of a revolution and oppressive authoritarian government; Sanders had spoken positively about the revolution and policies enacted since while ignoring Castro's atrocious human rights legacy. When pressed on those earlier remarks with regard to Castro, Sanders managed a brief criticism before immediately following his criticism with praise for Cuba’s healthcare system under Castro. I argued at the time that this praise for an ends-justifies-the-means authoritarian ruler offered a glimpse at Sanders’ priorities, and while I don’t think he has the makings of a late-blooming Castro, Sanders’ own behavior has shown us just how much he values the voice of the people when the people don’t see things his way.