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.