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Year of the Smackdown

 

          “Highly negative views of 2016’s leading candidates may reflect the hyperpartisan climate that has been building in recent years, also evident in previously unseen levels of ideological polarization among primary voters this year. There’s also the level of in-party factionalism this year, especially on the Republican side.”

Recent ABC News poll showing high levels of Trump/Clinton unpopularity

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We all know that this political year is an outlier, a set of conditions and candidates so far from the norm that it has confounded pundits, politicians and most of the public. We haven’t seen this combination of nastiness, nativism and nonsense for many a year. Unusual it is, but also perhaps a bitter taste of all that is to come.

Maybe, just maybe, the interminable, dispiriting process of selecting a new president, and the choices the process has produced, merely offers a sour sample of the new face of American democracy. It’s not even close to morning in America, more like nightfall. Cloudy with a chance of chaos.

Disliked and not trusted

Disliked and not trusted

A gnawing realization is settling in. The current campaign may represent nothing less than what the nation will look like far into the future – profoundly divided, deeply cynical, irrationally angry and distressingly unable to confront, let alone solve, big and pressing problems.

Call it the death of aspiration. Label it democracy in decline. This new normal is accelerating the country toward an ominous political cliff. Where once we aspired to the optimistic, sunny uplands of a Kennedy or a Reagan we now settle for so much less. It’s not like we haven’t seen this coming. Now its here.

If things continue as they have over the last six months both Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump will limp across the finish line, struggling and fussing all the way, to capture the nomination of their parties. Yet, each will also have been broadly rejected by significant numbers of voters in their own parties.

One party, angry, disillusioned and ready for a fight, at least with itself, seems prepared to embrace a man who wants nothing so much as to be taken seriously, but who is also the most seriously unprepared candidate for national office since, well, since Sarah Palin. The other party will likely nominate a candidate whose overriding rationale for running is that she’ll be the first, but who is unable to excite a younger generation of women (or men) who view her as both yesterday’s recycled news and as profoundly untrustworthy.

People who will not win nominations this year are vastly more respected than those who will. Republican voters like John Kasich much better than their likely candidate. Ditto for Democrats and Bernie Sanders. If it is Clinton v. Trump in November we will see a contest between two of the most unpopular, least trusted and most severely flawed candidates in modern times. It will be like Andrew Johnson running against Warren Harding.

From a historical standpoint the election of 2016 may be remembered as the moment that defined new political boundaries, or more likely limitations. Ironically, both of the leading candidates have defied political tradition by basing their campaigns on the past: Clinton finds herself both invoking and rejecting the presidency of her husband – an administration now a quarter century distant – with all of its messy and tawdry contradictions, while Trump promises to “Make America Great Again” without ever suggesting what era of American greatness he has in mind. In both cases the candidates present a yearning for something lost and not a realistic vision for a renewed America.

The Age of Trumpism and Clintonism…

Still, the two frontrunners, as Michael Lind wrote recently in the New York Times, define, distressingly so, the future of American politics. “No matter who wins the New York primaries on Tuesday or which candidates end up as the presidential nominees of the two major parties, one thing is already clear: Trumpism represents the future of the Republicans and Clintonism the future of the Democrats.

“Those who see the nationalist populism of Mr. Trump as an aberration in a party that will soon return to free-market, limited government orthodoxy are mistaken,” Lind writes. “So are those who believe that the appeal of Senator Bernie Sanders to the young represents a repudiation of the center-left synthesis shared by Bill Clinton, Barack Obama and Hillary Clinton. In one form or another, Trumpism and Clintonism will define conservatism and progressivism in America.”

Or, put another way, the holy war for the future shape of the American political experiment will play out as it has for most of the last quarter century with likely even more anger and division and with less middle ground and common sense. Both candidates promise something new, but Trumpism and Clintonism are more correctly a doubling down on the politics of dysfunction that have given us repeated fights over issues like the debt ceiling and repeal of Obamacare.

Does anyone really think a Hillary Clinton nominee to the Supreme Court will offer anything but a further politicization of the court or that a Republican Party that Trump has led into the fevered swamps of anti-Mexican and anti-Muslim hatred will suddenly come to its senses on the immigration and refugee crisis?

Clinton has never met a war she didn’t like and Trump can’t spell NATO, but would do away with it nonetheless. Don’t expect either candidate – or president – to fundamentally rethink, as it so obviously necessary, America’s frequently disastrous commitments in the Middle East.

Goldman Sachs’ favorite Democrat isn’t any more likely to address the fundamentals of national and global income inequality than is a flaky billionaire given to gold plated bathroom fixtures.

You would think that the anger and disaffection coursing through the American body politic would prompt some serious reflection from serious people about how to accomplish a course correction, but Trump’s idea of reflection is to admire himself in a mirror, while Clinton seems to believe admitting an error, or even an uncertainty, is a sign of weakness. As Maureen Dowd writes Clinton “has shown an unwillingness to be introspective and learn from her mistakes. From health care to Iraq to the email server, she only apologizes at the pointing of a gun. And even then, she leaves the impression that she is merely sorry to be facing criticism, not that she miscalculated in the first place.”

To quote Trump, it’s just “sad.” Months and months of debates, town halls, the Sabbath gasbags, millions – if not billions – in vacuous ads gets us what: A nation horribly divided, unable to generate broad national agreement on any serious priority and led by people most of us don’t trust. This is the new normal. If you liked the last eight years, you’ll love the next four – or forty.

History tells us it is virtually impossible to identify a political crisis until it smacks us in the head, but more and more this feels like the year we get smacked.

 

Lights and Wires in a Box…

   

    “One of the basic troubles with radio and television news is that both instruments have grown up as an incompatible combination of show business, advertising and news. Each of the three is a rather bizarre and, at times, demanding profession. And when you get all three under one roof, the dust never settles.”

                                                                                 – Edward R. Murrow in 1958

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The front-runner for the Republican presidential nomination is many things – a narcissist, a psychopath, misogynist, authoritarian, Islamophobic, racist, but also the most accomplished manipulator of mass communication maybe in the history of American politics.

A typical Trump cable TV "hit"

A typical Trump cable TV “hit”

Donald Trump has completely figured out the relentless ebb and flow of modern political communication. He understands in detail the need to “feed the beast” and that the feedstock for television has little to do with substance. The modern news cycle is about always being available, responding immediately and constantly raising the bar of outrageousness. Trump’s unhinged personality and incessant need to be the center of attention is a perfect match for the tools of social media and 24-hour cable news.

Near as I can tell Trump never turns down an interview request unless it’s from Megyn Kelly on Fox, a level of accommodation for cable television’s conflict driven programming that has been irresistible as CNN’s president confirmed recently. Trump “has been much more available than many of the others who have been or are still in the race,” Jeff Zucker said. “Just because he says ‘yes’ and has subjected himself to those interviews, and [other candidates] don’t, I’m not going to penalize him for saying ‘yes.’”

Indeed. why penalize Trump when it is so lucrative to ratings and cash flow to constantly provide a forum? CNN has been charging 40 times it’s normal price for a commercial during the “Republican Debates Starring Donald J. Trump.” Co-dependency is obviously lucrative.

Trump has re-written the rules for the Sunday morning shows featuring what the great Calvin Trillin correctly terms “the Sabbath Gasbags.” Twenty-nine different times since the beginning of the campaign Trump has “phoned it in” to one of the Sunday programs and almost daily he does the same with television’s morning shows.

The telephone “interview” gives the small-fingered vulgarian a home field advantage. He tends to easily dominate these exchanges by filibustering and refusing to be interrupted. By conducting his media outreach by phone, Trump doesn’t have to put himself out by actually showing up in a studio and facing a questioner. As a result he rarely gets asked a follow up question, although he almost never provides a real answer in the first place. The “journalists” know, of course, that they are being played, but until recently everyone played along. Only when Trump’s tactics finally became the focus of print media coverage did Chuck Todd on NBC, for example, call a halt to the phone-a-phon.

CBS Chairman Moonves:

CBS Chairman Moonves: “The money’s rolling in.”

Trump completely understands the weirdly perverse symbiotic relationship that links a no-nothing big-mouthed candidate with the venality that has come to characterize modern television news. The vicious and almost always vacuous cycle of personality and enabler goes something like this: TV needs ratings in order to sell commercial time. Outrage and spectacle drive ratings. Trump delivers outrage and spectacle. TV gives time to Trump. Ratings sore and cash registers ring. Voila!

“Man, who would have expected the ride we’re all having right now? … The money’s rolling in and this is fun.” That is a quote from CBS Chairman Les Moonves who spoke last month to a media conference in San Francisco. It was a rare moment of illuminating candor from the top guy at the network that was once home to Cronkite and Murrow. “I’ve never seen anything like this,” Moonves continued, “and this going to be a very good year for us. Sorry. It’s a terrible thing to say. But, bring it on, Donald. Keep going.”

“There is always a mutually beneficial relationship between candidates and news organizations during presidential years,” writes the New York Times media columnist Jim Rutenberg. “But in my lifetime it’s never seemed so singularly focused on a single candidacy. And the financial stakes have never been so intertwined with the journalistic and political stakes.” Just ask Les Moonves.

Vulgarity Meets the Broadcaster’s Bottom Line…

By one measure Trump has received nearly two billion dollars in free media coverage since his announcement of candidacy was, of course, carried live on cable television last summer. At one level the Trump phenomenon is easily explained: free advertising works. At least it works with 35-40 percent of the Republican electorate.

The “old media” – read “print” – scrutiny of Trump, by contrast, has been unrelenting and often excellent, with the New York Times and Washington Post producing detailed and often fascinating (as well as disturbing) accounts of the billionaire (is he really?) blowhard’s often unsuccessful business practices. The Post’s recent story on the lawyer Trump tried to conflict out of a lawsuit is both a great piece of reporting and one suspects a genuine glimpse into Trump’s sleazy approach to business and everything else.

Columnists like the Times’ Tim Egan and Frank Bruni have laid bare Trump’s complete disregard of facts and his fourth grade grasp of policy. Conservatives like David Brooks and Michael Gerson, a former George W. Bush speechwriter, have taken on Trump from the right with Gerson particularly challenging Trump enablers like Chris Christie and Ben Carson. Politico’s Roger Simon has a wonderful ability to burst the media bubble around El Trumpo and get to the essence of why he is so unprepared for the job and so dangerous in even seeking the job.

Even the sanctimonious George Will, a Sabbath Gasbag if ever there was one, has consistently hammered Trump, although Will’s groping for the principled high ground is increasingly hard to take since he has been among the chief conservative enablers to the “establishment” Republican Party that has done so much to create a genuine American demagogue.

Still every candidate for alderman knows that in politics you want to get your mug on tube. Trump rails against the “dishonest media,” but really could care less when a well-informed columnist calls him what he is. Trump is all about the airtime.

While media moguls like Moonves and Zucker count their millions it is worth remembering a simpler time when another powerful demagogue ranged across the land. Ed Murrow, the North Carolina-born broadcaster who came of age in the Pacific Northwest, was accused at the time of being late to the dissection of the demagogue from Wisconsin, Joseph R. McCarthy. Still, watching Murrow’s riveting thirty-minute takedown of “the junior senator from Wisconsin” in 1954 is a reminder of what television can do to puncture the bloated ego of a dangerous authoritarian.

When Murrow Took on McCarthy…

Senator McCarthy responds to Edward R. Murrow in 1954

Senator McCarthy responds to Edward R. Murrow in 1954

Murrow (and his producer Fred Friendly) used McCarthy’s own words to do him in during their famous See it Now broadcast. In his concluding essay Murrow, the Washington State University grad, reminded his generation that every citizen has a responsibility to speak out when evil lurks in the body politic.

Substitute “Trump” for “McCarthy” and you may experience an eerie sense of déjà vu when reading Murrow’s words from 1954.

“This is no time for men who oppose Senator McCarthy’s methods to keep silent, or for those who approve. We can deny our heritage and our history, but we cannot escape responsibility for the result. There is no way for a citizen of a republic to abdicate his responsibilities. As a nation we have come into our full inheritance at a tender age. We proclaim ourselves, as indeed we are, the defenders of freedom, wherever it continues to exist in the world, but we cannot defend freedom abroad by deserting it at home.

“The actions of the junior Senator from Wisconsin have caused alarm and dismay amongst our allies abroad, and given considerable comfort to our enemies. And whose fault is that? Not really his. He didn’t create this situation of fear; he merely exploited it — and rather successfully. Cassius was right. ‘The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars, but in ourselves.’ Good night, and good luck.”

McCarthy responded the following week, of course, by labeling Murrow a communist dupe. A few months late the Senate censured McCarthy and his influence rapidly cascaded into history.

In his engaging 1970 study of McCarthy and the United States Senate, which for too long abetted his undemocratic tactics, historian Robert Griffith used words that might have been written by a contemporary observer of our politics.

Murrow on the cover of Newsweek in 1954

Murrow on the cover of Newsweek in 1954

“To a considerable degree ‘Joe McCarthy’ was the creation of our communications system,” Griffith wrote in “The Politics of Fear,” his scholarly study of McCarthy, his methods and the Senate. “Like most instruments through which the past is mediated the press was an active and not a passive agent. They very questions asked determined the answers it reported. And these answers in turn shaped the total political context. Nor were these actions always conscious, consistent, or premeditated. The nation’s prestige press was overwhelmingly opposed to McCarthy, yet by the very intensity of its coverage it helped to assure his permanence as a symbol of Republican partisanship.”

Once upon a time executives at CBS, no doubt reluctantly and even frightened by what might happen, had the guts to allow Ed Murrow to unmask Joe McCarthy’s methods. The moment stands as one of the greatest in the history of a medium that has few enough great moments.

In his most famous speech to the Radio-Television News Directors Association in 1958, Murrow offered what is still a remarkably trenchant observation about television. “This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise, it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box. There is a great and perhaps decisive battle to be fought against ignorance, intolerance and indifference. This weapon of television could be useful.”

But does anyone in a position of authority at the big television conglomerates have the guts and the integrity to make it useful? The network run by the guy who says “Bring it on, Donald. Keep going,” doesn’t seem too likely to turn ’60 Minutes loose, even on a dangerous demagogue.

 

Waiting for President Trump

 

    “I believe the overwhelming view of the Republican Conference in the Senate is that this nomination should not be filled, this vacancy should not be filled by this lame duck president.” 

Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell

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Barack Obama has confounded his political foes by nominating a moderate, consensus-focused, precedent-deferential federal judge to the United States Supreme Court as a replacement for the late Justice Antonin Scalia.

Judge Garland and President Obama

Judge Garland and President Obama

Federal Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Merrick Garland is, in short, just the kind of justice we should want on the Supreme Court. With the Court increasingly becoming just another venue to practice a judicial version of our toxic partisan politics, the Garland nomination should be an antidote that begins to correct the broad impression that judges are just politicians in robes. But Mitch McConnell and Company have ruled that out on the completely specious grounds that Obama’s term ended last year and any nomination to the Court is just politics, nothing more or less.

Not that most politicians would waste a split second thinking about what rank partisanship does to public confidence in the judiciary, it is worth nothing that confidence in the Court has been steadily eroding for thirty years according to data from the Pew Center. Those declines correlate nicely – or depressingly – with the partisan battles over the Court that stretch at least back to Robert Bork.

Even Chief Justice John Roberts thinks the confirmation “process is not functioning very well.” Call that a judicial understatement.

All the players have the judicial blood of petty partisanship on their hands. Politicizing the Court is one thing Republicans and Democrats agree upon, even as McConnell and his not-so-merry band lead us into a wholly new judicial confirmation cul-de-sac. Both sides have mined the depths of confirmation history to try and find any weak precedent on which to hang the current partisan fight, but the Republican logic – that the “people” need to be heard and no nominee can be considered until after the election – is particularly devoid of intellectual honesty. In his newfound role as a Republican truth-teller, South Carolina Senator Lindsey Graham admitted as much.

“We’re setting a precedent here today, the Republicans are, that in the last year — at least of a lame-duck, eight-year term, I would say it’s going to be a four-year term — that you’re not going to fill a vacancy on the Supreme Court, based on what we’re doing here today,” Graham said. “That’s going to be the new rule.”

Even if the late Justice Scalia often ignored precedent that didn’t correspond with his personal views of the Constitution, don’t count on the U.S. Senate to ignore in the future the path they have now set for themselves in 2016. The Court becomes one more partisan pawn. It wasn’t always so, or at least it wasn’t always as bad as it is now.

Searching for Precedent…

Republicans have correctly pointed out that it was one hundred years ago when a president of one party had a justice confirmed by a Senate controlled by the other party. The president was Democrat Woodrow Wilson, who actually made two appointments in 1916 – an election year – and both were confirmed. One of those appointments, Louis Brandeis, was controversial. Brandeis was not only the first Jewish member of the Court, but a renowned progressive who had made his career opposing monopoly and the abuses of unregulated capitalism. Still, Brandeis was confirmed by a Republican controlled Senate and went on to become, by most every measure, one of the greatest justices in the history of the Court.

Charles Evans Hughes

Charles Evans Hughes

But consider for a moment the other vacancy Wilson filled in 1916, the seat vacated by the resignation of Associate Justice Charles Evans Hughes. Hughes, the former Republican governor of New York, resigned his Supreme Court seat in order to run for president against Wilson, arguably one of the most partisan acts by any member of the Court in our history.

Hughes narrowly lost that election and then slipped easily back into Republican politics. He served as Secretary of State under Presidents Harding and Coolidge, represented Wall Street and big business interests as an attorney – Hughes argued more than 50 cases before the Supreme Court – and might have been a presidential candidate again in 1928 had he not declined citing his age.

As more proof that the current Senate politics of rejection by inaction is truly unprecedented, consider Hughes’ return to the Supreme Court in 1930, as the nominee to become chief justice, appointed by the beleaguered President Herbert Hoover. With the catastrophic impacts of the Great Depression settling over the nation, Hoover appeared more and more like a one-term president, even two years before another election and his appointment of a partisan Republican, not to mention a big-time corporate lawyer like Hughes, was too much for a bipartisan group of Senate progressives. They determined to oppose Hughes, perhaps the most broadly qualified person ever appointed to the Court.

Still, there was no talk or apparently even any thought to not bringing Hughes’ nomination to a vote and certainly no hint that senators who opposed his appointment would filibuster. Instead the Senate did what the Constitution calls for – it offers advice and consent (or if it doesn’t like the nominee for whatever reason it withholds its consent).

Idaho Republican William E. Borah led the Senate opposition to Hughes. While admitting that Hughes was “a man of high standing” and a person “of wide reputation and acknowledge ability,” Borah said he was also an unreconstructed big business Republican whose views should not be made “a permanent part of our legal and economic system.”

Hughes: An Example of the Sweet Irony of Politics 

Hughes was confirmed and served with great distinction until 1941. When Franklin Roosevelt attempted to “pack” the Supreme Court in 1937, Hughes quietly and effectively made common cause with Borah and others who had once objected to his confirmation. Hughes’ role in those pivotal events, as well as his often progressive record on the Court is a prime example of the sweet irony or unintended consequences that can occasionally grace the grubby business of politics, and judicial appointments.

Benjamin Cardozo

Benjamin Cardozo

Herbert Hoover made another Court appointment in 1932, a decision made much closer to the election of 1932, which he subsequently lost to Roosevelt. That appointment, suggested by Borah – talk about advice as well as consent – was of Benjamin Cardozo, a brilliant legal mind who Hoover initially thought was too liberal to be considered. Borah convinced the president of Cardozo’s merits and he also turned out to be a great justice.

Politics can never – and perhaps should never – be completely removed from any president’s decision about any Supreme Court appointment, but for the process to work as the Founders envisioned everyone has to play their role, and play it responsibly. Obama has made a superlative choice in an awful time of political upheaval – a judge of proven ability, upmost integrity, not a political choice, but rather a nominee who would normally be seen as a moderate, consensus-demanding choice. In other words, just the kind of person we need on the Court, The Senate should rush to confirm him.

The political commentator Ezra Klein puts it more starkly. By edging ever closer to the nomination of Donald Trump and playing blatant partisan politics with the Supreme Court, the GOP has adopted a position “that they will refuse to confirm any nominee, no matter how qualified or appealing, until the next president is inaugurated. In practice, what this means is they are hoping to hold the Supreme Court vacancy so it can be filled by … President Donald Trump.”

Klein quotes the prescient observations of Congressional scholars Norm Ornstein and Thomas Mann. “The GOP has become an insurgent outlier in American politics,” as they wrote in an important 2012 book. “It is ideologically extreme; scornful of compromise; unmoved by conventional understanding of facts, evidence and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.

“When one party moves this far from the mainstream, it makes it nearly impossible for the political system to deal constructively with the country’s challenges.”

Those who follow Mitch McConnell blindly into this dark partisan political thicket are playing with fire and one suspects many of them know that. They will live to rue the day they refused even to consider a demonstrably qualified and moderate appointment. They may think it can’t get worse. They would be wrong.

The November election will determine the shape of the Supreme Court for a generation or more. Mitch McConnell is betting the country on Donald Trump. Would you bet even a Starbucks latte that Trump has any clue about what a Supreme Court appointee ought to look like?

 

America’s Battles with Demagogues

 

     “With his victories yesterday, I believe it is now time for Republicans to accept and respect the will of the voters and coalesce behind Donald Trump.”

Florida Republican Governor Rick Scott.

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Two years into his first term and with the rosy bloom of the New Deal’s earliest days fading, Franklin Roosevelt faced attacks from the left and the right. Unemployment was still off the charts. Farmers continued to struggle. The elderly demanded economic security. Populists insisted on more from the president, including specifically more punitive action against Wall Street and the wealthy, while west coast longshoremen, motivated in part by radical leftists, closed down ports prompting an often-vicious police and military response.

Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues

Roosevelt: Battling his own demagogues

A Louisiana showman named Huey Long was making noises about a direct challenge to Roosevelt – from the left. The great journalistic observer A.J. Leibling described Long as “a chubby man, he had ginger hair and tight skin that was the color of a sunburn coming on. It was an uneasy combination, like an orange tie on a pink shirt.”

Long’s other uneasy combination was a gift for moving audiences and devising clever and simple rhetoric, the kind of entertaining, divisive talk that attracts those looking for simple answers that are wrong. Reporters loved him even while acknowledging his excesses.

Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers

Father Charles Coughlin at the height of his powers

A Michigan Catholic priest’s rich Irish brogue mesmerized his millions of radio listeners every week with tales of how the economy and American society must be reformed in the interest of “social justice.” Father Charles Coughlin wanted to make America Great Again and eventually turned on Roosevelt and began calling the president’s program “the Jew Deal.”

A well-intentioned if misguided physician in California hatched a crackpot old age pension plan – The Townsend Plan – that virtually overnight attracted the support of millions of desperate elderly Americans. There was no Social Security, most states had no welfare programs, and the daily life for many, many Americans was beyond bleak. Dr. Francis Townsend’s pension plan was simple, understandable, economically crazy and had it been implemented might well have bankrupt the country. It was also widely popular. It took guts to oppose it and not many did, at least directly.

FDR Had It Easy…

For his part Roosevelt lamented that his presidency had been reduced to “fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism…to save the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.”

Huey Long. The media loved him

Huey Long. The media loved him

In retrospect the great 32nd president had it easy. Within a few months of Roosevelt’s comment about what he was fighting against, Long was dead at the hand of an assassin and Coughlin was brought down by his own outrageous language, with his own bishop eventually ordering him off the radio. Townsend, always in over his head, continued to try and rally his followers, but FDR’s own Social Security program, approved by Congress in 1935, took any remaining breeze from his sails.

Through the looking glass of our time its tempting to view the 1930’s – the Great Depression, vast economic dislocation, the rise of totalitarian movements in Europe and elsewhere – as a fading anomaly, a one-off set of circumstances that America survived.

Yet, waking from yet another post-primary hangover to realize once again that a qualification deficient, serially lying, race baiting demagogue has taken another long step toward the nomination of a major political party and might – just might – con his way into the White House should remind us that our democracy is a fragile thing. We are only one chubby, ginger-haired, short-fingered vulgarian away from a much different and much more dangerous country. We have been there before and escaped the trap. Will we be so lucky again?

George Wallace on the campaign trail in 1968 --- Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

George Wallace on the campaign trail in 1968 — Image by Bettmann/CORBIS

Pundits struggle to find parallels to what confronts America. Is Donald Trump a latter day Barry Goldwater, a right wing, anti-civil rights libertarian who threatened to use nuclear weapons in Southeast Asia? Or is he a new George Wallace, a race baiting segregationist who actually won four southern states as an independent in 1968? All states, by the way, that Trump has won in primaries.

But the comparisons don’t do justice to Trump. Goldwater and Wallace had actually held office and they advocated real programs however misguided. Trump combines the worst of the earlier dangerous men, his rhetoric and indeed his demeanor are more toxic, his mastery of the tools of the authoritarian more absolute. He is truly in a special class.

I’ll return one day to analysis of why Donald J. Trump has risen so high based on so little in the way of intellect, preparation, temperament and judgment, but today the only question that remains is whether “real” Republicans; those not swept up by Trump’s grandiose, substance-free promises to build walls, deport millions and torture our enemies into submission, will disavow this truly dangerous demagogue? Trump, always able to climb one more rug higher on the ladder of outrage, now predicts – and in the process encourages – riots if he is denied the Republican nomination. That alone should be enough to scare frightened Republicans into action against him.

The Political Courage to Say “No” To a Charlatan…

Again, a historical parallel might be instructive. As Huey Long – even at his most outrageous, never as offensive or dangerous as Trump – rose in popularity in the early 1930’s, fellow southern Democrats were among his most outspoken critics. Powerful senators from Arkansas and Mississippi hated Long and did everything in their power to thwart his ambition. They took him on in Senate debate, worked with Roosevelt to limit his appeal and never would have supported him for the White House.

Contrast that with Senator John McCain in Arizona who faces a Tea Party challenge this year from his political right. McCain, the war hero kept captive in North Vietnam for five and a half years, was one of Trump’s first targets. The draft-deferred Trump – he reportedly had bone spurs in his heels, but has never fully explained his defermentdissed McCain as a loser for having his plane shot down and for being tortured in captivity. McCain finally roused himself to lamely lament Trump’s divisiveness, but would not reject the con man as his party’s nominee. Same with Mitch McConnell, Paul Ryan, and near as can be known every other member of the Senate save Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, who has had the political courage to disown Trump.

The Man Who Would be President

The Man Who Would be President

McCain surely knows the principled and correct thing to do is to completely disavow the man who will soon head his party, but he’s unwilling to risk a backlash from the hard right who want to take him down at home. Undoubtedly, it’s a tough political position. Yet, why work so hard to go back to the Senate if you can’t muster the courage to stand and be counted by really opposing a dangerous charlatan like Trump? What’s the point of being a United States senator if you’re willing to accept the unacceptable?

It’s worth noting that when Trump was asked about McCain’s mild criticism the real estate developer told CBS News correspondent Major Garrett that McCain, “has to be very careful.” When pressed as to why, Trump threatened: “He’ll find out.” Sounds like the basis of a good, solid working relationship doesn’t it?

There will be a special place in political hell for the likes of Chris Christie and Ben Carson, the co-chairs of the Trump Opportunism Caucus. One suspects they endorsed the bloviator-in-chief after removing all the mirrors from their homes. After all, how could they possible face themselves while shaving?

All That’s Left is Refusing to Support Him…

Still, it is the collective political impotence of the Republican “elites” which will be one of the great artifacts of the 2016 election. They originally celebrated the depth of their dream team of candidates, raised vast sums for many of them and completely missed the rise of the vulgarian until they were powerless to deny him ownership by eminent domain of their party. The only thing they have left is the power of refusal, the power of one-by-one to say “I’ll not support him.” When all is said and done, when all the primary ballots are cast, who will stand up with Mitt Romney – so far he’s in lonesome company – and call his man a sham?

When Trump is standing before the Republican convention in Cleveland in a few months who will crowd into the picture with him? It will be the photo of the year,  maybe the image of the young century. Who other than Christie and Carson will share the stage with the genuine American demagogue and who will have the political courage and personal integrity to disavow the most dangerous man to get this close to real political power in anyone’s lifetime? Who among the Republican “elite” will have the courage to denounce, distance, disavow and in the end not vote for Trump?

It once was said in American politics that political power wasn’t worth holding unless you were prepared to lose it over a matter of high principle and conscience. One day our kids and grandkids may well ask, “What did you do to stop him?” That might just become a defining question of our time.

For Republicans, so long guilty of denying, abetting and even encouraging him, stopping Trump has come down to saying you cannot and will not vote for him.

 

It’s the Racism, Stupid…

 

       “Well, just so you understand, I don’t know anything about David Duke. okay? I don’t know anything about what you’re even talking about with white supremacy or white supremacists. So, I don’t know.” 

Donald J. Trump pretending not to know “anything” about KKK leader David Duke

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The election results from Super Tuesday show conclusively that a serially lying egomaniac’s hostile takeover – or is it a leveraged lie-out – of the Republican Party is nearly complete. With an overtly racist appeal, Donald Trump has locked up the real base of the GOP – the “birther,” nativist element that, almost eight years on, completely and comfortably repudiates the nation’s first African-American president.

Hostage photo of latest Trump endorser

Hostage photo of latest Trump endorser

Amid all the bombast it is easy to forget how Trump kept himself in the national limelight before riding down his Trump Tower escalator into the heart of the Republican Party. Trump isn’t the original “birther,” but he made questions about Barack Obama’s birth certificate as much a part of his brand as the Trump-labeled suits that are made in Mexico. For months and months he was regularly featured on cable television, demanding that the president of the United States produce the proof that he wasn’t born in Kenya. Trump demanded it often enough that the idea became imbedded in the temporal lobe of a significant number of Americans.

Some of us might have concluded the whole thing was odd, or silly, or just Trump trolling for attention. What Trump was doing, however, is building the foundation for what his campaign has become – a race-based authoritarian hate parade that will likely take him to the nomination of a once great party.

The Founding Document

The Founding Document

Not all Republicans, and apparently not even a majority, buy the Trump-peddled nonsense about Barack Obama’s birth, or that the only Mexican interested in the United States is a rapist, or that the country ought to blacklist a billion or so of the world’s Muslims, but many of the Republican primary voters who are voting for the blowhard branding machine certainly do.

Not since the 1960’s, when Democrats largely repudiated their racist past and embraced civil rights, and the national Republican Party began to make calculated appeals to the sons and daughters of a segregated south, has there been a greater effort to divide the country by race than Trump’s campaign. Racial politics are as American as apple pie and as old as the Constitution and, while the guy who hesitated to disavow the Ku Klux Klan may be clueless about many things, he wields the racial wedge issue as skillfully as he handles his blow dryer. The evidence is both obvious and completely distressing.

The Southern Poverty Law Center (SPLC), the respected group that tracks the movement of the motley (and growing) collection of white supremacy hate groups, reports that those groups increased their activities dramatically in 2015. SPLC has a stunning graphic on its website detailing the prevalence of hate groups around the country. There is likely one near you.

KKK leader David Duke, the only man in the country Trump doesn't have an opinion about

KKK leader David Duke, the only man in the country Trump doesn’t have an opinion about

“After seeing the bloodshed that defined 2015, our politicians should have worked to defuse this anger and bring us together as a nation,” wrote Mark Potok, senior fellow at the SPLC and editor of the organization’s Intelligence Report. “Unfortunately, the carnage did little to dissuade some political figures from spouting incendiary rhetoric about minorities. In fact, they frequently exploited the anger and polarization across the country for political gain.” Let’s be clear; Mr. Potek wasn’t talking about Bernie Sanders or John Kasich.

It is also no accident that Trump’s biggest crowds are in the states of the Old Confederacy or that the first United States senator to endorse him represents Alabama. That senator, Jefferson Beauregard Sessions III, was once denied confirmation as a federal judge, at least in part, because former Justice Department colleagues testified that he frequently made racist comments and generally thought the Klan just wasn’t all that bad.

Failing to immediately disavow the support of David Duke, the white supremacy guru from Louisiana, should have been just another reason for a Trump disqualification, but, of course, it wasn’t. Beneath all the analysis that Trump’s appeal is really about rejecting political correctness or embracing an outsider is a cold and bitter reality. Trump could make his outsider case without resorting to demonizing by race, but that would not make his case complete. Make no mistake, stoking hatred based on race and fear is the heart and soul of Trump’s appeal and it’s working.

White supremacist groups made robocalls for Trump in Iowa and another group has a daily podcast devoted to Trump, while an admiring writer calls the candidate “our glorious leader.” Trump’s namesake, Donald Junior, is in the news today for granting an interview to a white supremacist radio show host in Memphis. When that decision was questioned, Trumpworld, of course, brushes off any suggestion of impropriety.

Channeling his inner Benito

Channeling his inner Benito

Trump, the first real Twitter candidate, uses social media to identify with a quote by Mussolini and disseminate bogus data about African-American murder rates. None of this can be an accident for a man obsessed with building his brand.

The Trump Republican Party is not just enamored by a gold-plated con man from Queens, but is committed to his politics of intolerance. Recent polling finds that significant numbers of Trump voters want to not just ban Muslims, but also gay and lesbians citizens. They believe white Americans are superior to everyone else and want to keep the Confederate flag flying. They aren’t sure – really this is true – that Lincoln was right in freeing slaves. The Trump Republican Party is truly the dark underside of America that has existed, unfortunately, since our Founders – the guys the late Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia celebrated as the font of all wisdom – decreed that black Americans were really just 3/5 of a person. (Look it up – it is in the “original” text of the Constitution.)

Some Republicans, perhaps for understandable reasons of self-preservation, want to stop this crazy SOB before he completely destroys their party, but others are willing to embrace the devil because, well, that’s what party loyalists do. But, actually, it’s not was loyal Americans do. Give a hat tip to Nebraska Republican Senator Ben Sasse, a very conservative Republican and a very new senator, who says to Trump – no thanks. Trump assaulted the very conservative Republican governor of South Carolina, Nikki Haley, who has had the gall to point out his obvious shortcomings. Haley also happens to be of Indian-American ancestry, so one wonders why Trump has dissed her?

Donald Trump is a habitual liar and a delusional self-promoter who has seized a fragile moment in the American experiment and tried to make it his own. He’s a nut job about most everything that matters, but he’s brilliant at exploiting fear and hate. He’s appealed to the sizable minority of Americans who have never accepted the 13th Amendment to the Constitution and salted in a few more fellow citizens who might never admit it in polite company, but happily rant anti-immigrant, anti-minority and fundamentally authoritarian sentiments (with Fox News playing in the background, of course) while taking out the trash.

William Jennings Bryan

William Jennings Bryan

It has become a parlor game in the political media to try and identify the historical figure from the past that most closely parallels Trump’s rise. The Harvard historian Niall Ferguson strangely suggests William Jennings Bryan, the prairie populist from the early 20th Century. But Bryan had a serious policy portfolio, was a serious fundamentalist Christian and actually got elected to Congress. Nor is Trump a new George Wallace, a southern white supremacist who never came close to winning nomination by a national political party. And Trump is no Barry Goldwater, a small government conservative who was wrong about civil rights in the 1960’s, but also no hater.

No, Trump is in a class all to himself. Never before in American history has a man so devoid of real experience, so lacking in temperament and policy, been so close to leveraging his own intolerance into a presidential nomination. Never before has a candidate gotten so far riding a platform purposely designed to divide the country.

It’s time – past time – to repudiate the fear and hate and racism, and most of all past time for more Republicans to do so. To paraphrase Madeleine Albright there is a special place in hell for the Chris Christies and the Jeff Sessions.

It’s one thing to lose an election. It’s quite another to lose the country.

 

The Day the Party Died

      “To the best of my knowledge, not too many Evangelicals come out of Cuba, okay? Just remember that.”

– Donald Trump questioning Ted Cruz’s Christian beliefs.

——-

If you are one who remembers important dates in history you might etch February 18, 2016 into your memory – as good a day as any to mourn the demise of the party of Lincoln and Teddy Roosevelt and Reagan.

On February 18 two things happened – seemingly unrelated, but really not – that could well define an otherwise indefinable political season: Donald Trump got into it with the Pope and was shown (again) to be lying. Each event should have been enough to halt the arc of the demagogue, but it didn’t happen and it won’t unless serious Republicans start taking this guy seriously.

The Nope and the Pope

The Nope and the Pope

Did any of us ever in our wildest, craziest political dreams expect the leading Republican candidate for president of the United States to shout down the Pope? Or put another way could we have imagined a political candidate behaving so outrageously that the Pope, who presumably has better things to do, felt compelled to condemn them?

Never. Not going to happen. But it did on February 18.

Pope Francis made a demonstratively accurate observation when asked about Trump. People who only advocate building walls and demonizing immigrants (or refugees) are not behaving in a Christian manner. Trump, a man utterly devoid of Christian principles and even more lacking in self-reflection or awareness, made the Pope’s critique not about the substance of what constitutes appropriate behavior, but about Trump being disrespected by the leader of the world’s Catholics. Amazing. Utterly amazing.

Trump, of course, then proceeded to win the evangelically dominated South Carolina Republican primary last Saturday, at least in part I suspect, because he got into a fight with the decent, inclusive, compassionate, highly educated Jesuit who just happens to be the Bishop of Rome. You can almost hear Trump channeling another famous authoritarian with an ego problem and asking, “How many divisions does the Pope have?” The Pope is a low energy loser, as we all know, compared to a guy who arrived at his own announcement riding an escalator.

Hours later during a made-for-cable TV event – I forget whether it was a town hall or a merely an excuse to sell commercials – Trump was confronted with incontrovertible evidence that he has been lying about having opposed the U.S. invasion of Iraq in 2002. The real estate developer cum reality television star has been saying for months that his brilliance about all things allowed him to see clearly and oppose the U.S. invasion. Trump doubled down on his Iraq critique in a recent debate – or was it an excuse to sell commercials – suggesting that George W. Bush “lied” about the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq in the interest of launching an invasion. The debate audience booed. His poll numbers solidified.

Turns out that Trump gave a radio interview in 2002 where he said, contrary to all the bluster about his prescience, that the war wasn’t really such a bad idea. In fact, he said he wished the United States had done things right and overthrown Saddam Hussein during the first Iraq war. Asked to explain the lie, Trump didn’t. “I really don’t even know what I mean, because that was a long time ago, and who knows what was in my head,” Trump told NBC.

Indeed, what is in that head now or a long time ago?

February 18, the day the grand old party died…

Trump owns the only part of the Republican Party that anyone (other than John Kasich) is appealing to – the angry, grievance wing. The real estate developer has used the political equivalent of eminent domain to appropriate the older, whiter, less educated, “working-class” voters who, near as I can tell, hate everything except the billionaire who stars in their own reality show. And, of course, Trump is a master at stoking and exploiting this group’s fears and hatred. In the 19th Century these voters were called the “no nothings” – anti-immigrant, anti-establishment and anti-Catholic, which may help explain Trump and Pope Francis come to think of it. But, above all they were angry. Their great, great grandchildren still are.

There are two broad approaches to politics: hope and fear. Trump has nailed down the fear factor.

The Atlantic’s Ron Brownstein described Trump’s approach leading up to last week’s primary: “All week in South Carolina, Trump courted those working-class white voters by sharply raising the volume on his criticism of free trade and his warnings about the threat from Islamic terrorism. Both of those issues somewhat overshadowed his usual promises to both build a massive wall at the Mexican border and to deport the estimated 11 million undocumented immigrants.”

There is so much to loath about the current state of American political discourse and the process seems increasingly absurd: Trump, Ted Cruz’s sleazy campaign tactics, Marco Rubio’s robotic performance, Hillary’s entitlement and problems with the truth. Even the most authentic guy in the race, Bernie Sanders, has so far displayed little ability to grow as a candidate. Sanders is good at repeating the same economic talking points, but hardly makes a pass at explaining how he might actually accomplish his vision, let alone pay for it. Neither party can find the will to really undertake the kind of serious, rational campaign America needs and most Americans want.

But set aside loathsome and deal with something more fundamental – basic common sense and honesty. Trump has no idea about how to govern and really makes no effort to display that he does. His appeal is entirely emotional. His policy is all bans, bluster and bravado. He would violate decades of international law by embracing torture – waterboarding and “much worse.” Even Dick Cheney was nuanced enough to claim what he sanctioned was “enhanced interrogation,” not torture. No nuance with Trump. The waterboarding riff is now the biggest applause line at his rallies.

Yet, remarkably, the most dangerous man to run for president in the modern era stands poised to skate to the nomination with the support of essentially the 35 percent of the Republican electorate who find his outsized ego and complete disregard for seriousness a tonic for their anger and their aversion to “political correctness.”

Jeb pulls the plug

Jeb pulls the plug

The three-way race is now Trump’s to blow and who will stop him? One absolutely bizarre feature of this absolutely bizarre campaign has been the unwillingness of virtually anyone, well save for the hapless Jeb Bush, to take on the bloviating billionaire.

As GOP strategist Stuart Stevens said recently, “It’s crazy that’s nobody else is trying to win except Trump. Rubio is not going after the person who is winning. I’ve never seen a campaign that seems as satisfied to not go after the leader.”

And there is this: a new analysis of campaign spending by super PAC’s shows only a tiny amount has been spent attacking Trump. As the New York Times reports, “In a presidential campaign during which ‘super PACs’ spent $215 million, just $9.2 million, or around 4 percent, was dedicated to attacking Mr. Trump, even as he dominated the polls for months.”

If Jeb’s candidacy illustrates nothing more, and his candidacy was extraordinarily vacuous, it shows that letting a bully push you around without responding doesn’t work any better on the playground than on the Republican debate stage. Only after Trump had, in the words of GOP wise man Steve Schmidt, “emasculated” Bush did the former Florida governor begin, sort of, to hit back. But there has been none of the frankly legitimate and necessary attack on Trump that goes after his often disgraceful business practices, his sexual boasts, his four bankruptcies, or a hundred other excesses. Everyone knows a bully is basically insecure, scared. Who has guts enough to scare our national bully?

Were is the call from any responsible Republican that Trump show us where the money went from his alleged fundraiser for veterans prior to the Iowa caucus? Remember he skipped a debate, said he raised millions and poof – nothing. And what about his tax returns? Mitt Romney was savaged for not releasing his four years ago, yet Trump’s vaunted success as a businessman, the details of which might be illuminated by a look at how he arranges his financial affairs, has received virtually no scrutiny.

The failure to truly confront this dangerous man is nothing short of political malpractice.

Rubio and Cruz, the last men standing able to confront the great dissembler, are deeply flawed candidates who have reduced their campaigns to a hard right-wing spat over who has been the purest in refusing to deal with the obvious need to reform immigration policy. Meanwhile, untroubled by cable television interviewers or even the more serious Sunday shows who routinely let him “phone in” his clap trap, Trump insults, lies and Tweets his way to the Republican nomination.

Mitch McConnell: No to any Court nominee, but not a word on Trump

Mitch McConnell: No to any Court nominee, but not a word on Trump

Mitch McConnell vows to stop any nominee Barack Obama appoints to the Supreme Court, not knowing who the president might appoint, but does he say anything about Trump not being a suitable nominee for his party? Of course not.

“Establishment” Republicans whistle by the graveyard of good taste and common sense when it comes to Trump. Stopping him has quietly morphed into quiet acknowledgment that Trump may just be the guy and, if so, why tick off “the base.”

The country has real problems – wage stagnation, vast income inequality, our incredible lingering legacy of racism, high costs of higher education, a disjointed foreign policy that promises more continuing war – but we’re obsessed with a guy who can’t remember what he said about the Iraq war and wants to punch a protester “in the face.

If I weren’t so depressed, I’d be distressed, or something. Like Trump, I guess I don’t really know what I mean. Maybe I just really worry for the country.

But, remember February 18, 2016. The day the party died.

 

Don’t Tread On Me, New Hampshire

     “What would it take to break this cheap little spell and make us wake up and inquire what on earth we are doing when we make the Clinton family drama—yet again—a central part of our own politics?” 

― the late Christopher Hitchens in 2008

——–

Both Republican and Democratic “elites” woke today with a headache. Perhaps they imbibed a bit too much last night, or perhaps they feel woozy because they sat on their duffs, passively watching during the last eight months as their parties were hijacked by “outsiders.”

Peas in a pod.

Peas in a pod.

Despite the big names in the Republican presidential field – governors, senators, a brain surgeon, another Bush – the GOP now confronts the political reality of the grand old party nominating a candidate, Donald Trump, who more closely resembles former Italian prime minister (and convicted procurer of sex with under age prostitutes) Silvio Berlusconi  than any Republican candidate since the party nominated John C. Fremont in 1856.

At least both “successful businessmen” – the Italian stallion and the King of Queens –  have very interesting hair and lots of former girlfriends.

Trump, a misogynist, a sociopath, a certifiable sufferer of narcissistic personality disorder – look it up – is the guy that the Parliament of our historically closest ally, Great Britain, recently considered banning from that sensible country. The venerable House of Commons really didn’t have the power to “ban Trump,” as nice as the ring of that sounds, but not a single member defended the necktie hocking, Muslim bashing, completely policy devoid real estate speculator.

I can almost hear the ghost of Churchill, the father of the “special relationship” talking to the ghost of FDR on that secret wartime telephone link from London to D.C. “Mr. President,” Winston asks, “what has happened to American politics?” The line goes dead.

Waiting for the revolution

Waiting for the revolution

The Republican frontrunner is a salesman who gives used car salesmen a bad name. Trump doesn’t really believe the garbage he spews (or maybe he is really an idiot and does), but he is really the guy who pulls up his sleeve, exposing the fake Rolodex watches, and sells what sells, at least to 30 percent of the Republican electorate.

The $64,000 question out of New Hampshire for Republicans is simply this: why did none of these smart guys, OK and Carly Fiorina, not go after the real estate developer when they might have stopped him? Hardly anyone took him seriously in July, me included, but that was not the case last October. All the signs were there – months ago – that Trump was hijacking a grand old party and no one, not Jeb, who he “emasculated,” or Cruz or Rubio or Christie who he insulted and dismissed called him out. No one, no one, has really taken on his checkered business record, his bankruptcies, his flip-flops, or his obvious mental and policy deficiencies.

I’m an aging political hack, but I think I could write the TV spot – something about four bankruptcies, three wives and two positions on every issue.

As Jennifer Rubin wrote of Trump in today’s Washington Post: “While his ceiling may be about 30 percent, the more traditional candidates will need to fight Trump not with conservative bromides but with bare-knuckle fighting and empathy for the working-class voters Trump attracts.”

But, enough of that. Let’s talk about Hillary. The Clinton Corps has been spinning a 20-point loss in New Hampshire, which Hillary won in 2008, as just an example of home field advantage by Vermont’s Bernie Sanders. It’s not.

Hill and Bill retool. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

Hill and Bill retool. (Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images)

The reports this week that Bill and Hillary Clinton were contemplating a shake up in her campaign in the wake of what really amounts to two straight losses – Hillary won Iowa, but not really – is all the proof needed that the Clinton machine hasn’t received any meaningful re-tooling in eight years. When you’ve been involved in two presidential campaigns, well four counting Bill’s, and you think the campaign’s problems are just a staff issue, then Houston – or Brooklyn – you have a problem.

The problem is an awkward, uneasy candidate with no compelling message.

Clinton may still hang on and win the nomination in ugly fashion, but she will forever be dogged by her inability to answer a really simple question in the recent Democratic debate. Why did Goldman Sachs, the poster child of Wall Street excess, pay her, after her tenure as Secretary of State, more than $600,000 for three speeches? Her answer for the ages was: “It’s what they offered.”

I suspect, as some in her Goldman Sachs audiences have said, that she gave those investment bankers just what they wanted to hear, but the real question is why? Why take the risk, why make the calculation that the money is more important than the message, particularly if you want to run for the highest office in the land? To paraphrase James Carville, “it’s the judgment, stupid.”

Bill and Hillary raked in more than $150 million in speaking fees over the last several years, so what’s a measly $600,000?

Clinton comes out of New Hampshire a limping candidate, her inevitability – haven’t we heard this before – not looking quite so inevitable. Deconstruct the New Hampshire vote and you’ll find Clinton lost in places where she cleaned Barack Obama’s clock in 2008. Bernie Sanders beat the inevitable by double digits in a state she won eight years ago. Could it be the magic is gone? Maybe she is, as Obama famously, said just likable enough.

This crazy season of American politics has produced as frontrunners a dangerous nationalistic buffoon and a 74-year old democratic socialist. This looks more like France than New Hampshire. The outsiders are now inside because the Republican “establishment” has produced a robotic Marco Rubio and a collection of current and former governors who act like they couldn’t win a county coroner’s race, while Democrats have recycled a deeply flawed, ethically challenged, self-entitled frontrunner who has no message beyond “I’m ready to be president.” Is Joe Biden doing deep knee bends, getting ready?

The ultimate irony of the presidential race, so far at least, is that the buffoon and the socialist have run the best campaigns. The so called political “experts” in the race can’t explain their speaking fees, their memorized speeches or their Super PAC’s. And the outsiders have a reality that a scripted Hillary or a calculating Ted Cruz will never match.

Trump isn’t really authentic, of course, but he fakes it better than any other Republican, while Sanders really is authentic and his only opponent isn’t.

Whether we like it or not, Trump and Sanders have articulated ideas about the America they see in the future. We may not like their aspirations, but they have them. The rest of the field is playing a tactical game that is all about winning a news cycle rather than winning the White House. Clinton will now look increasingly desperate as she goes after Bernie and someone in the Republican field will have to find the gumption to confront Trump on his own artificial turf. More than ever in this crazy race anything is possible.

The always sane, sensible, sober South Carolina primary beckons. Hang on.

Politics in Five Observations

 

“How stupid are the people of Iowa?”

Donald J. Trump

——-

So, it turns out the old, tired rules of politics aren’t so old and tired after all.

Some Iowa caucus takeaways:

Second by a hair...

Second by a hair…

A message is better than a muddle: Bernie Sanders has one, a message, and Hillary Clinton doesn’t. The old rule for candidates is that when you begin to hate the very thought of giving your stump speech one more time you are at the point when the message is finally being heard. Whether one likes it or not, Sanders’ message about income inequality, economic unfairness and a rigged economy has been consistent for, well, thirty years. I follow this stuff pretty closely and I still can’t define why Clinton wants to be president and what she might do with the job if she gets there. Electability and experience isn’t a message.

An organization is better than a rally: Ted Cruz had the old-style ground game to identify voters and get them out to caucus on a cold February night and Donald Trump didn’t. The key metric here is that the allegedly brilliant real estate developer spent more money over the last few months on baseball caps than he did on data collection and analysis of the Republican caucus goer. Sounds like a loser to me.

Iowa-caucusesIdeas are better than ideology: The Republican field comes out of Iowa more muddled and soon to be more vicious than ever and just as devoid of real political ideas as the party has been for the last eight years. The last two GOP candidates for president have made the mistake of thinking they could win an election by not being Barack Obama, now the Republican field seems to think it can win by not having an agenda. Ask yourself a simple question: what do the Republicans want to do? They seem only to want to be against things – immigrants, Obamacare, trade deals, climate change, same sex marriage, you complete the list. Where is the agenda – a conservative agenda – that talks of moving the country forward? Obama ran on hope and change and not being George W. Bush, but he was also about ending wars and doing something to address the uninsured. Republicans seem to want to run on gloom and doom and repealing Obamacare without offering a replacement. Still aren’t convinced? Consider this: a democratic socialist is giving Hillary Clinton a contest, not because of the label, but (so far at least) because of his agenda.

On to New Hampshire

On to New Hampshire

Substance trumps showbiz: This is, admittedly, a variation on the previous point, but (fearless prediction) even reality television shows grow old when they get into re-runs. Over the course of the next few weeks (months) the vetting of the next Commander-in-Chief will get ever more serious. Events in the world or the economy will give us all a taste for the future again and we’ll look to substance and seriousness, at least I hope we will. It’s easy now to see that the turning point in the last real presidential election we had, 2008 – Obama versus McCain, came with McCain’s theatrical suspension of his campaign during the near economic meltdown in the fall of the election year. McCain, with little to say about the economy, opted for the showbiz of suspending his candidacy and threatening to miss a scheduled debate. Obama, cool and collected, looked by contrast “presidential.” Game over.

Iowa is ridiculous: Not the state, but the caucus process. Both parties would be well served to put a stake in the charade that a couple of hundred thousand non-representative voters should have a critical role in beginning the presidential selection process. There has got to be a better way. There is: shorten the campaign (it can be done), rotate the opening primaries to involve a variety of states and regions and begin to act like a modern democracy rather than a what we have now – an almost completely non-representative process that produces endless debates and craziness.

On to New Hampshire. Save us from ourselves.

Oh, I almost forgot, how stupid are the people of Iowa? Not very.

 

 

Blame Rosalynn Carter

 

“I have never understood the Iowa caucus…”

Larry King, famous political analyst

——-

I blame Jimmy Carter, well, actually Rosalynn Carter. For Iowa, I mean.

Fresh out of college in 1975, I landed my first radio reporting job at a 10,000 watt giant of an AM radio station in Oelwein, Iowa – The Hub of Northeastern Iowa. Oelwein, population today about 6,500, is named after a local farm family and was carved out of Iowa corn country right after the Civil War. It was, and is, an exciting place, as Iowa farm communities go.oelwein_ia

Radio station KOEL – 950 on the dial – played country western music and I was the third man on a three man news staff. It is now completely amazing to me that a small market radio station in the middle of Iowa farm country had a three person news department, but in 1975 KOEL did. I had a job, an apartment above the TruValue hardware store and a shift from 10 am until 6 pm – no breaks, just radio.

My job had two major components, one that occupied virtually all my time and one that made me a star, well not really a star, but at least got me a listening audience.

Job One was to sit at a triangle shaped desk in the newsroom – the news director on one side of the triangle, me on another, the third side for the morning news guy – and work the phone. I dialed literally hundreds of calls every day drawn from phone numbers on cards in the largest Rolodex I have ever seen. Numbers for every county clerk in northeastern Iowa, every city hall, the fire and police departments, the schools, the VFW halls, every place that people gathered and news might be committed. I’d dial the numbers and ask the poor schmuck on the other end something clever, like “anything happening with the Decorah city council?” An overwhelming percentage of the time the answer was, “pretty quiet.” But, once in a while some city clerk or secretary to the county commission would say, “Well, last night we voted to upgrade the sewer treatment plant – is that news?” Yes, thank you; that is news.

I’d type up the details and KOEL would tell the world about the sewer upgrade. It wasn’t exactly Pulitzer Prize stuff, but it was news in northeastern Iowa, along with the pickup-tractor collisions, the deaths of prominent farmers, the broken water mains and the occasional armed robbery of a gas station or marijuana bust.

This is northeastern Iowa

This is northeastern Iowa

My fifteen minutes of fame came at 12:15 pm every week day when I settled into the news booth to deliver The Midday Market Report! For fifteen long, long, long minutes, I read the market reports from South Sioux City, Sioux Falls, Omaha, South St. Paul, etc. etc. I still envision those bib overall wearing Iowa farmers sitting at the kitchen table eating lunch and hanging on my every word. I didn’t – and still don’t – know a barrow from a gilt, but those farmers, I knew, were counting on my reporting.

Occasionally, just for color, I’d throw in an item from the Chicago Mercantile Exchange, or casually mention that Cargill had made news, but mostly it was numbers and vaguely familiar terms: bushels and futures, corn and soybeans, barrows and gilts. It wasn’t Ed Murrow reporting the London Blitz, but I had a microphone and an audience and my soybean futures.

Then, as if by salvation, I was delivered from yet another call to another city hall in another little Iowa town.  Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein.

I had the bright idea to actually grab a tape recorder and go out of the station, leave my phone of all things, and interview her. Her mostly unknown husband, the former governor of Georgia, was spending a lot of time in Iowa in 1975 acting out a crazy strategy aimed at winning something called the Iowa Presidential Caucus.

Rosalynn Carter

Rosalynn Carter

The news director was dubious. It would mean time away from my calls and taped interviews were rare on KOEL, which placed a premium on important stuff like a two car collision, in which no one was injured, just outside of Strawberry Point. It must have been a slow news day because he finally said – OK, go do it.

I went to a senior citizens center or an Elks Club or some such place and asked clever questions of Rosalynn – “So, what brings you to Oelwein, Mrs. Carter?”

What brought her, of course, was Jimmy Carter’s strategy to go from unknown former governor – Jimmy Who? – to presidential contender by focusing, laser-like, on the first contest of the 1976 campaign, while pretty much every other candidate, better known figures like Senator Henry Jackson and Congressman Morris Udall, weren’t paying attention, at least to Iowa.

The Iowa caucus had been around since, like, 1840 but until Carter – George McGovern gets a little credit in 1972 – no one paid much attention. Jimmy Carter changed all that.

Jimmy Carter campaigns in Iowa in 1975

Jimmy Carter campaigns in Iowa in 1975

As Julian Zelizer writes in The Atlantic, “From the start, the key to [Carter’s] strategy revolved around Iowa. Carter believed that if he could influence media coverage of his candidacy through a victory in Iowa, he would be treated as a serious candidate, making it easier for voters in subsequent contests, like New Hampshire, to vote for him. The actual delegate count from Iowa was less important than the kind of media coverage his victory would produce.”

Media coverage is exactly what I provided, well, provided to the candidate’s wife, but this was Oelwein, not Waterloo or Cedar Rapids or Des Moines. I still think it was neat that Rosalynn Carter came to Oelwein, a town you need to want to visit. I remember she was very polite, reserved and generous with her time. A very rookie reporter remembers such things. I imagine another candidate in a different time – you know who I mean – would have thought the young guy with the Sony recorder was a sorry “loser,” but Mrs. Carter patiently answered my not-so-probing questions.

The rest is history. Carter launched his road to the White House in Iowa in 1975. I was in on the ground floor (well sort of).

If you are already tired of hearing about the next presidential election, just blame my first news director. He gave me a few minutes away from the phone to interview the next First Lady of the United States of America. Iowa has never been the same.

 

Fear and Loathing on the Trail

 

“The fault, dear Brutus, is not in our stars / But in ourselves, that we are underlings.”

          William Shakespeare, Julius Caesar

——-

Unlike a sizeable number of Americans, I am not all that angry about the direction of the county. But I’m clearly an outlier.

In the America of 2016 it turns out that Franklin Roosevelt was wrong. The only thing we have to fear is everything. Esquire and NBC report that, “half of all Americans are angrier today than they were a year ago. White Americans are the angriest of all.”

The only thing we have to fear is...everything

The only thing we have to fear is…everything

The polls says we aren’t having our expectations met, we think things are unfair – mostly to us, not to them – and we don’t think we’re being treated well enough. We are angry. Really angry. But I still find myself standing with FDR. “The only thing we have to fear is fear itself – nameless, unreasoning, unjustified terror which paralyzes needed efforts to convert retreat into advance.”

Our politics is what fails to deliver on my expectations, my sense of fairness and the idea that we don’t treat each other as we should. The politics and the people running – now there is a problem. And maybe, just maybe, the fault is not all in our stars, but in ourselves.

Our president hasn’t lived up to all my expectations, but I doubt he could have even had his legion of opponents met him even a tenth of the way toward the middle. I don’t think he’s been a disaster. Or that he’s made the country unsafe or that he is somehow un-American. I shake my head when some no-name congressman says Barack Obama been the most racially polarizing president since the Civil War. Really? I don’t personally remember him, but I think Andrew Johnson might get some consideration for that title.

Andrew Johnson, a genuinely racially divisive president.

Andrew Johnson, a genuinely racially divisive president.

I don’t think the country, as one leading candidate says, is in horrible shape. Oh, we have some real problems, but horrible shape? No.

I’m not ready to make America great again, because I’m not sure what that means. Are we longing to go back to the 1950’s, the Cold War, the Vietnam Era, or the country before Martin Luther King, Jr. and Lyndon Johnson brought us into a more enlightened, if far from perfect, realization about our legacy of slavery?

Are we pining away for Richard Nixon or maybe Herbert Hoover? Does the Arab oil embargo of the 1970’s make us all warm and nostalgic? I confess that I do not miss Gerald Ford’s campaign to “Whip Inflation Now.” Reagan’s “morning in America” had a nice ring, but I still can’t square the gauzy images of The Gipper’s last campaign in 1984 with his selling arms to Iran or making nice with Saddam Hussein. We were actually buying down the national debt when Bill Clinton was pre-occupied with a blue dress, but I’m not all that keen to go back to Bubba’s presidency.

George W. Bush will live in history for making the greatest foreign policy blunder since Neville Chamberlain flew to Munich, so I’m not eager to revisit that period. W’s father’s presidency looks better and better, but there was that Willie Horton ad.

I’m not carrying a pitchfork in the back seat of the SUV and I’m not angry. What I am is disappointed, deflated and distressed. I want an America again that I, at least kind of, recognize. I’m yearning for an America where contenders for the most exulted position in our politics actually try to lift us up, talk about our aspirations, our shared ambitions and that deal in facts and real proposals. But, I’m afraid I’m whistling past the political graveyard. I want to go back to that kind of great America, but I’m fated to live in 2016.

We endured another political debate this week among the Republican contenders for the White House, each of whom now talks like the people who write anonymous, snarky, nasty comments at the bottom of newspaper websites. They are competing to see who can paint the darkest image of an America in decline, threatened by killer Muslims, Mexican rapists and politically correct lefties. Listening to these guys – and Carly Fiorina – you’d think it was 1933, with 25 percent unemployment and Hitler as chancellor of Germany. They seem to believe the U.S. military is now weaker than the army of Luxembourg. The economy is awful, which you can conveniently say if you don’t look back to the Great Recession of 2008.

Chelsea...really? (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Chelsea…really? (AP Photo/John Minchillo)

Across the aisle, the leading Democrat, an epically inept and ethically challenged candidate, actually dispatched her daughter to New Hampshire to launch the harshest attack so far in the Democratic campaign. “Senator Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare,” the once and maybe future first daughter said, “dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance.” Oh, come on.

Frankly, Chelsea Clinton attacking Bernie Sanders on health care is just embarrassing, not to mention bizarre, but also not all that surprising considering her mother’s stunning inability to grow as a candidate and tap any political vein other than “it’s my turn.”

No, I’m not angry. I’m just disappointed. I’ve been in and around politics for more than 40 years and I don’t remember a time when I’ve felt more disappointed in our politics. Disappointed and embarrassed. The thought of a contest for leader of the free world between the current front runners leaves me embarrassed for my country. The rest of the world is looking at us, much as we should be looking at ourselves, and asking is this really the best we can do?

A campaign that is Felliniesque

A campaign that is Felliniesque

I’m not agitating to making the country great again. I’m longing to make America sane again.

I’m not angry, but I do feel like I’m watching a continual loop of a Fellini film – fantasy dressed up in neorealism. The top stars have orange hair, constantly feature sneering expressions, say and do crazy things. You would never bring one of them home for dinner. Mom would have a fit. Like Fellini at his best this campaign, at its worst, is surreal, indeed Felliniesque.

Fear, loathing and unlikeable characters shouting nonsense, that’s what passes for an audition for the job that Washington, Lincoln, Roosevelt and Eisenhower once held. The campaign is all emotion, no logic, all venom, no vision. Surreal.

Maybe this is America in 2016. And if it is our America then that is something to be angry about.