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.

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.