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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.

 

What I Got Wrong in 2015…

 

“Get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first.”

One of my less-than-perfect predictions from 2015

———

In the spirit of the late, great Washington Post political reporter and columnist David Broder, who annually devoted a year-end column to the mistakes, blunders and wrong-headed notions he consigned to print during the previous twelve months, I offer atonement. Or, as the old year passes, here is my “I really got that wrong” list.

Who wasn't wrong about Trump? Certainly not me.

Who wasn’t wrong about Trump? Certainly not me.

Trump – There is little year-end consolation in the fact that I was not alone in misreading, not understanding and failing to take seriously the Trump…whatever it is. Thousands of self-styled pundits missed the political rise of the orange haired billionaire. Lots of smart people made the same mistakes I made, the political equivalent of the generals fighting the last war and assuming that the rules of political warfare never change.

So, while I’m in good company, fairness demands that I acknowledge that back in the early summer I went so far as to opine of Trump that, “I still think he drops out before he really has to reveal more details about the web of financial deals and debt that undoubtedly define his business empire…” Boy, was that off the mark. Not only did he not drop out, he’s been leading the polls for months.

I redeemed myself (slightly) in the next part of that sentence by observing “but in the meantime Trump stirs things up and not in a helpful way for the more sane and sober Republican candidates.”

In July I was thinking that Trump would be a short-lived distraction, not unlike a really bad reality television show, and that soon enough the rules of politics would again take over. Now – I can’t believe I’m writing this – I’ve come to believe Trump has a reasonable chance of becoming the Republican candidate for president of the United States of America. Now, that is one prediction that I dearly hope will be WRONG.

Jeb! – I plead guilty to embracing the conventional wisdom that the former Florida governor would finally find his political sea legs and make a strong run for the GOP nomination. Never say never in this crazy political year, but that prediction is looking about as worn as last week’s tattered and torn Christmas wrapping paper.

Paul Ryan's beard surprised me, too

Paul Ryan’s beard surprised me, too.

Congress – I’m second to no one in my willingness to always expect the worst from our hyper-partisan, mostly do nothing Congress and those 535 helpless souls rarely disappoint. But…I didn’t see new House Speaker Paul Ryan stepping in an engineering a year-end budget deal that forecloses government shutdowns, etc. for an entire year. Congress, or at least Ryan, surprised me. Anyone remember John Boehner?

Hollywood – I have often allowed my cynicism about the movie glitz and gore factory get the better of me, but late this year I must admit I’ve been wrong. A slew of amazing and important motion pictures have reached the big screen in the last few weeks that (temporarily) renew my hope that Hollywood can produce real entertainment that is relevant, even profound. Films like Spotlight, The Big Short, Carol, Brooklyn, Bridge of Spies and Trumbo make this Hollywood cynic want to head for the ticket line. Tinsel town ended the year with a flourish.

What else? I didn’t see the Kansas City Royals winning the World Series. I thought the Washington Nationals might win. And I never see the Chicago Cubs winning the World Series – period. I hope I’m wrong on that one.

I didn’t think the Washington Redskins would still sport that controversial name at the end of 2015. I wonder if that team name can really last?

I thought Chicago Mayor Rahm Emanuel was a better politician than he is turning out to be. Rahmbo’s tough guy bluster goes only so far when you have to actually try to govern and lead a city torn between the grievances of its minority community and deep-seated problems with its police culture. And what politician takes a holiday trip to Cuba while his town is in turmoil? I’m tempted to predict that Emanuel can’t last, but that may just be wishful thinking.

I didn’t see oil prices going this low. I guess it must be Obama’s fault.

I have long been dubious, cynical and concerned about the state of American journalism, particularly the continuing demise of newspapers, but I did not foresee the wonderful, even spectacular rise of high quality “long form” journalism and non-fiction writing. Some of the material being produced is phenomenal. If one only had all the time in the world to read it all.

And, finally I did not foresee the shocking level of xenophobia (thanks Trump) that seems to have overwhelmed a good segment of the population in 2015.

In a fine piece in The Atlantic Richard Yeleson reminds all of us that change in our system comes slowly – very slowly. Yeleson makes a compelling case that America in 2015, with the widespread disdain for those who seem to be “un-American,” is in many ways not unlike America in the 1920s when anti-immigrant furor spawned violations of civil liberties and hatred for the unwelcome of that era.

“Americans are still accusing each other of not being American,” Yeleson writes, “and are even debating who should have the right to call themselves Americans at all. Both the pluralist left and ethno-nationalist right have urged their adherents to ‘take back our country.’ The left wants to ‘return’ to a country that doesn’t yet exist except in the minds of its artists and activists, and in the rhetoric, but not the actions, of its venerated Founders. The right wants to ‘return’ to a country which is ever receding from its view, and will never quite again exist in the way it wishes that it might. Between that ‘doesn’t yet’ and ‘never quite again’ lies a struggle over which side will get to impose its understanding of what ‘America’ should mean upon America.”

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.

So, while I can believe that the xenophobia is distressing and ultimately works against the nation’s true best interests, I can be surprised – and even wrong – not to see a recent action like that of Arizona Republican Senator Jeff Flake, a genuine conservative of the Mormon faith, as hopeful, compassionate, courageous and very American.

While the blowhard leading his party’s race for the White House was calling for a complete ban on Muslims entering the country and threatening to “shut down mosques,” earlier this month Senator Flake took his wife and sons to a prayer service at a mosque in the Phoenix area.

“It’s just the antithesis of all we stand for here in America, and the freedom of religion that we all embrace so much,” Flake said of Trump’s anti-Muslim proposal. “I don’t think that it reflects well on, certainly not on the Republican Party, it doesn’t reflect well on us as a country if this were to go.”

The senator talked softly and humbly about the religious persecution his faith has suffered and, at least for a moment, he renewed one cynic’s faith in the good that exists within all of us. One Muslim participant in the service said,”To have him here today was really just powerful, very powerful, especially someone from the Republican Party joining our congregation was just a phenomenal moment for us.”

I was wrong to not to look for and find the bright candle of hope and tolerance amid all the dark, harsh rhetoric. I am delighted to atone.

Happy New Year.

Trolling the Polls

     “Trump has received about the most disproportionate media coverage ever for a primary candidate. The risk to Trump and candidates like him is that polling built on a foundation of media coverage can be subject to a correction when the news environment changes.” – Data gura Nate Silver on the polls and Trump

——

Never in the course of American politics have so many paid so much attention to so many polls with so little relevance to what is really going on. Polls drive media coverage. Polls determine who gets to debate in prime time. Polls have become the oxygen of American politics. If you are up in the polls you are “surging.” Drop a few points – calling Ben Carson!  – and you are “slumping.”

cartoonEvery day of the week brings a new poll. Left Overshoe Junior College has released a new poll! Trump leads among six white guys who responded online! Post the story!

We are obsessed with polls, or at least political editors, reporters, campaign operatives and politicians are obsessed with polls. OK, let’s admit it, we are all obsessed with polls. I have been drafting survey questions and trying to analyze results for most of my adult life. I love the “cross tabs” and the idea of insight into the population, but we need to admit the business of polling is an art and not a science. Surveying a nation as big and diverse as ours often means channeling Monet and creating an impression rather than proclaiming a survey as scientific fact. Additionally, the rapid attention to all of the polling holds the real potential to skew the democratic process itself.

Time for a Deep Breath…

It’s human nature to want to know, as Donald J. Trump might say, “just what the hell is going on.” But political polls have become a little like really good Belgian chocolate. A little taste of really quality chocolate is satisfying and may even be good for you, but indiscriminately gobble too much and you’ll get a sugar high and put on a few pounds.

As The New Yorker’s Jill Lepore noted in a widely discussed piece last month: “From the late nineteen-nineties to 2012, twelve hundred polling organizations conducted nearly thirty-seven thousand polls by making more than three billion phone calls. Most Americans refused to speak to them. This skewed results. Mitt Romney’s pollsters believed, even on the morning of the election, that Romney would win. A 2013 study—a poll—found that three out of four Americans suspect polls of bias. Presumably, there was far greater distrust among the people who refused to take the survey.”

The Pew Center, which conducts widely respected surveys, estimates that the participation rate for its surveys is now just eight percent. Twenty years ago pollsters considered an 80 percent participation rate acceptable. With lower and lower participation rates, not to mention the challenge of reaching potential voters on a cell phone, some polling outfits have turned to “online” surveys, but the online methodology and sample quality have not kept pace with the frantic nature of polling.

Rutgers University professor Cliff Zukin, a past president of the American Association of Public Opinion Research, wrote a while back in the New York Times that “Internet use correlates inversely with age and voting habits, making this a more severe problem in predicting elections. While all but 3 percent of those ages 18 to 29 use the Internet, they made up just 13 percent of the 2014 electorate, according to the exit poll conducted by Edison Research. Some 40 percent of those 65 and older do not use the Internet, but they made up 22 percent of voters.”

With polls and chocolate it is a case of all things in moderation. So, while you nibble on a little pre-Christmas chocolate consider at least two principal things that are wrong with the overriding obsession with polling in our political process.

Two Big Problems with Too Many Polls…

First, too many polls these days are the political equivalent of a sleazy used car salesman who washes and polishes the old clunker in order to peddle it to some unsuspecting rube who doesn’t take time to look under the hood. Methodology matters, as does the professionalism and integrity of the polling organization. When assessing the latest polls its essential to “look under the hood” and understand how the survey was conducted and for whom it was conducted.

The data-crunching guru Nate Silver, he’s the guy who has nailed the prediction in the last two presidential elections, has a nifty analysis of the vast assortment of polls that make their way into the national news machine. Silver has ranked the polls according to their accuracy and methodology over time. It’s become standard practice for me – a certifiable “news junkie” – to check Silver’s ranking against the latest poll that assumes to convey heaven sent wisdom.

Second, it’s an old cliché in the polling business, but its still true: a political survey is a snap shot of a moment in time, specifically the time when the survey was conducted, as well as the slice of the electorate surveyed. At a given moment in time a well-constructed, well-researched survey utilizing a well-conceived sample can provide real insight into broad themes and valuable information about how voters might make specific choices among well-articulated alternatives. What polls are not particularly good at doing, at least at the current stage of the presidential campaign – remember not a single vote has been cast yet – is to serve as a predictor.

A skilled Republican pollster told me recently that one of the hardest things to master in the survey business is the “quality of the sample” – what portion of the electorate is actually going to make the effort to get to the polls and vote. “You need to be very careful,” this pollster said, “to pull a sample that accurately reflects age, party, geography, race and gender. That takes time and again costs more money.”

For example, when many Republicans, including his own campaign strategists, thought Mitt Romney would pull out a win over President Obama in 2012, they had misread the electorate that actually bothered to vote. A good deal of the polling miscalculated, for instance, the level of voting by Hispanic Americans. In his last election George W. Bush captured 40+ percent of the Hispanic vote. In 2012 Romney got only 25 percent. That difference in the makeup of the electorate helps explain Obama’s second term. At the same time, it would be a mistake to automatically assume that any Democrat in the future will always gain that level of the vote by a specific demographic group. Every election is different. Understanding the shape of the electorate is critical to good survey work.

The data-crunching site FiveThirtyEight has teamed with the NPR program On the Media to create a new consumer’s handbook for deconstructing the polls. You might want to copy the dozen points and tape it to your television.Polling Handbook

But What of Trump…

I’ve become convinced that the Donald J. Trump phenomenon is, at least in some significant measure, a function of Trump’s own narcissistic pre-occupation with his standing in the polls. Trump regularly touts his “YUGE!” lead in the latest poll. He Tweets his standing from early in the morning until late at night. In the circular logic that drives news coverage of political campaigns Trump is, in many ways, a creation of the polls he loves to cite.

It is probably not a surprise then that Trump comments almost exclusively on polls that show him doing well. As the website FiveThirtyEightPolitics noted recently: “Trump also likes to tweet or retweet about the same poll a lot. He tweeted 29 poll results that he approved of more than once. He also tweeted one poll (a September CNN national survey) favorably, before turning on it more than once to highlight a better poll result for him from NBC and SurveyMonkey.”

A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll

A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll

As Trump tweets to his 5.3 million Twitter followers a poll that he likes, perhaps more than once, he is simply building the buzz about how successful his candidacy seems to be. It’s little different, from a marketing standpoint, than what Disney is doing by branding everything it can touch with a Star Wars logo. Marketing works to create impressions, drive coverage and, temporarily at least, move polls. It also help encourage people to buy Star Wars themed merchandize.

Trump may be an idiot about policy, but he understands the psychology of perception and he is constantly using polling data, some of it decidedly specious, to continually reinforce his leadership of the Republican field.

It is also no surprise that Trump dismisses as fatally flawed any poll that shows him slipping. When the very well regarded Des Moines Register poll recently showed Trump trailing Texas Senator Ted Cruz in Iowa, the place where the first voting takes place right after the first of the year, Trump dismissed the poll as the biased work of a newspaper that has been critical of his candidacy. Should I remind him that he touted his lead in the same poll earlier in the year?

The other factor that has driven Trump’s poll numbers (in addition to him constantly talking about his poll numbers) is the unprecedented media coverage his campaign has generated. He has been making wild claims about Syrian refugees, Mexican immigrants, banning Muslims, even his “bromance” with Vladimir Putin, but it has served to give him a hugely disproportionate share of media coverage.

All Trump all the time. Trump being "interviewed" by Jimmy Fallon playing Trump.

All Trump all the time. Trump being “interviewed” by Jimmy Fallon playing Trump.

Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders, based only on his two million individual campaign contributors (not to mention the polls), arguably has a larger following than The Bloviator-in-Chief, but by one measure Trump has received 23 precent more coverage than Sanders.

As Nate Silver says: “Trump probably realizes, the media’s obsession with polls can become a self-perpetuating cycle: Trump’s being in the media spotlight tends to help him in the polls, which in turn keeps him in the spotlight, which in turn helps in the polls, and so forth.”

It’s worth pointing out once again that no one has voted yet and there is considerable historical evidence that voters in early state contests like Iowa and New Hampshire decide very late in the process as to who they will support. Trump’s national polling lead may yet translate into real votes in the Iowa caucus – remember that in the best poll conducted at the state level talking to people who have actually participated in previous caucus voting he is behind – but there is also an argument to be made that his lead is to a large degree a function of prospective (or possible) voters seeing and hearing him constantly. Name ID matters, particularly when voters are still weighing choices.

As Jill Lepore noted in her New Yorker piece: “Donald Trump is a creature of the polls. He is his numbers.” But there could well be a bigger and longer-term problem for our democracy than one self-obsessed, poll-centric billionaire.

Reporting incessantly on polls and allowing this week’s polling results to determine the shape of political coverage, Lepore and others argue, is more than just a sign of the times, it is a signal of the increasing disintegration of American political culture.

“Turning the press into pollsters has made American political culture Trumpian,” Lepore writes, “frantic, volatile, shortsighted, sales-driven, and anti-democratic.”

No political junkie – I’m certainly guilty – would encourage a complete disregard for political polling, but there is a very strong case to be made for backing it off a full turn. Let’s have a little real voting and then we can see who is really winning.

Anatomy of a Demagogue

In his masterful study of the populist demagogues that plagued Franklin Roosevelt near the end of his first term in the 1930’s, Columbia University historian Alan Brinkley made an observation that seems eerily appropriate to the crazy politics of the United States in the early 21st Century.

Governor and Senator Huey P. Long

Governor and Senator Huey P. Long

Brinkley argued that political characters like Louisiana Senator Huey Long and the Roman Catholic hate preacher Father Charles Coughlin, both of whom developed mass followings during the economic and social upheaval of the Great Depression, were part of a long American tradition of populist figures not wholly of the political left or right. Long and Coughlin and others of their ilk were motivated by a few deeply felt beliefs, including fear of concentrated power and resistance to being dominated by either private interests or public institutions.

Leading to the Left…and Right…

“It is an impulse that can, under different circumstances lead either to the left or the right,” Brinkley wrote in his seminal work Voices of Protest. “Or it can – as it did in the case of Huey Long and Father Coughlin – lead to both simultaneously.”

As Roosevelt contemplated a second term in the election of 1936 he also had to confront the enormously popular ideas of an elderly California physician by the name of Francis Townsend. Townsend was advocating an old age pension scheme – The Townsend Plan – that sounded to millions of elderly and often destitute Americans as simply too good to be true. It was and FDR responded by creating Social Security.

Long, a skillful political communicator with a flair for the outrageous, was described by the great reporter A.J. Liebling 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 authored a book that he modestly entitled My First Days in the White House. Sound like anyone you know?

Huey Long was both a serious political threat to Roosevelt and a populist demagogue. FDR’s advisors believed that Long might either split the Democratic Party in 1936 or run an independent presidential campaign that might deny Roosevelt a second term. History changed in ways we will never know when Long died in a hail of bullets in a hallway of the Louisiana State Capitol in September 1935.

Father Charles Coughlin

Father Charles Coughlin

A Coughlin supporter years later said that “when he spoke it was a thrill like Hitler. And the magnetism was uncanny. It was so intoxicating, there’s no use saying what he talked about…”

Roosevelt complained shortly before Long’s death that that he was “fighting Communism, Huey Longism, Coughlinism, Townsendism…to save the capitalist system” from “crackpot ideas.”

Like the poor, our demagogues have always been with us. And now comes The Age of Trump.

But…Trump Now Dominates One Major Party…

The big difference between the 1930’s and today is that one dangerous and divisive man, a demagogue in the American tradition, has largely taken over one major political party, something that a Long or a Coughlin never accomplished. Ironically, the man Donald J. Trump may have to crush to win the GOP nomination, Texas Senator Ted Cruz, has approached his campaign as a Trump-lite in cowboy boots. Cruz has an uncanny resemblance to a one-time Republican demagogue from Wisconsin and his sweeping assertions and scathing attacks channel another of the last century’s great manipulators, Joe McCarthy.

However it is Donald J. Trump, the stout billionaire with the ginger hair and skin the color of a sunburn coming on, who is the manifestation of the fact-free, racially divisive, often cynical and opportunistic party he now dominates. The 21st Century Republican Party created the environment that allowed the Age of Trump. They own him now and increasingly Trump owns the Republican Party.

The Modern American Demagogue

The Modern American Demagogue

Trump has the GOP over the barrel of his own design. His appeal is to the core Republican voter – overwhelmingly white, middle aged, less educated and angry – angry at Obama, angry about the nation’s changing demographics and increasingly angry at those who once might have channeled their frustrations in a more constructive direction. If Trump does not win the party’s nomination he almost certainly will mount a third-party effort, which could doom GOP chances for not only winning the White House, but controlling Congress.

Opportunity and Circumstance…

A demagogue – some have moved on, not improperly, to label Trump a fascist – is a product of both opportunity and circumstance. You cannot separate the Age of Trump from the circumstances that have been in the political foreground now for nearly a decade: the ultra conservative disdain for a government that actually governs, the complete abandonment of bipartisanship, the abject failure to address immigration from Mexico and Central America, the visceral hatred for the nation’s first black president, the completely partisan response to a health care crisis that condemned millions of Americans to a life without the security that they can see a doctor (and pay for it), lock step opposition to addressing growing income inequality and the new Gilded Age excesses of the nation’s economic elite.

Add on a Supreme Court that by the narrowest of margins wiped out any limits on money in politics creating a system where economic oligarchs secretly lavish outrageous sums of money on favored candidates and causes, and you truly have the toxic opportunity that Trump has so successfully exploited.

Of course, every demagogue needs an unpopular enemy. Huey Long had his villains – “the Rockefellers, the Mellons, the Barachs” – while Coughlin’s target were “the Jews.” Trump began his romp toward the Iowa caucus by demonizing Mexicans as “rapists and murderers,” but like all skillful demagogues he was able to switch his target in the space of a Twitter message when the circumstances presented. Radicalized Islam provided what Trump really needed to exploit the fears of Americans in the wake of Paris and San Bernardino. Trump is far from the brilliant businessman he claims to be, but as a classic narcissist he is a master manipulator. Hot buttons are all that he pushes.

The signature Trump event - the rally

The signature Trump event – the rally

Trump’s approach is not unprecedented in our history, but he has clearly demolished all the old boundaries. Historian David Kennedy of Stanford University told the Washington Post recently that branding an entire religious class of people puts Trump “further out there than almost anyone in the annals of [U.S.] history.”

Once upon a time a candidate for President of the United States had to at least pretend to offer a coherent policy agenda, but a demagogue labors under no such uncomfortable constraints. Trump, with all his bravura on display in carefully choreographed mass rallies with security offered by his own private forces, and yes the comparison to those grainy black and white photos of fascist rallies of the 1930’s is intentional, never offers a specific and credible policy proposal.

Making America Great Again…

Trump will build “a beautiful wall” along the Mexican border and “make Mexico pay for it” without ever grappling with the details or impossibility of such a silly proposal. Trump would bar all Muslims from entering the country, even American citizens, create a register of Muslims and “look closely at the Mosques”, without even a passing nod to the U.S. Constitution. His answer to Islamic State terrorism is to “bomb the hell out of them.”

Predictably Trump has prompted a noticeable increase in white supremacist activity, while Muslim’s face threats and religious facilities are vandalized. Trump has no advisors and relies on no one but his friend in the mirror. His policy positions are as thin as his political and foreign policy experience. Any inconvenient question is an attack. His opponents are losers, unworthy of the moment Trump commands.

At the same time, Trump is both more politically attuned and more manipulative than the rest of the Republican presidential gang who cannot figure out how to deal with him. He avoids the third rail of American politics and unlike most Republicans defends Social Security and Medicare, while promising to tax the most wealthy. His “base,” of course, hates government, but loves those entitlements and hates those elites.

Trump will make “America Great Again” without ever saying what “again” means. When was American great in a way that Trump might endorse? I hesitate to play the Nazi card, but Trump begs the reference. The demagogic Austrian made the same claim and addressed the same perceived grievances in Germany in the 1920’s and 1930’s.

In 1990, Trump’s lawyer told Vanity Fair magazine that, “Donald is a believer in the big-lie theory. If you say something again and again, people will believe you.” Trump’s lie that “thousands” of Muslim’s celebrated the attacks on the World Trade Center, was completely debunked by fact checkers and those who were there, has now been repeated so often it has become accepted wisdom among his followers.

Trump, make no mistake, is both a profoundly dangerous and astoundingly devious man; the social media empowered demagogue of our time. He has recognized both the opportunity and the circumstance of America in 2015 and he rides the wave, while the nation reaps his whirlwind.

The Burden of Citizenship is Responsibility…

“There is a burden of responsibility that comes with being a citizen of a constitutional democracy,” University of Virginia historian Michael Signer told NPR in a recent interview where he was asked to analyze the new and uniquely American demagogue – Donald J. Trump. “And if you decide to go with your gut as opposed to caring about those values, then you are hurting this country.”

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Senator Joseph McCarthy

Demagogues, Signer says, have “been talked about for millennia as flatterers, so they flatter the people. They play to our need for gratitude. And we’re supposed to better than that. So one of the reasons that demagogues are hemmed in is because people say, I hear you, that feels good, but I’m not going to fall in love with you. This is too indulgent. And politicians, usually, are too ashamed to do what demagogues do. And then, Trump, who’s a creature, comes from the entertainment world, comes from a culture of narcissism, he doesn’t care about any of those rules. So I don’t think it’s OK to say, well, you know, I know about the principle of separation of church and state, and I know about not having violence in our politics, but I’m going to go with Trump anyway because I’m so angry at the system. That’s not OK. It’s definitively not OK in the United States of America, and it needs to be condemned.”

Put me down as condemning. What we have seen in the fact-free, demagogic, big lie tirades of a dangerous man is not the country a Lincoln or an Eisenhower, a Reagan or a Kennedy or a Carter would recognize. We all have a burden of responsibility to say enough. You do not speak for us. This is the United States and we are better than you think we are.

The proper, indeed American response to fear and paranoia is to deal in facts and reason, elements unfortunately as missing from the national dialogue and from Trump’s language as any shared sense of responsibility among citizens in a constitutional democracy.

As we swing wildly at the “un-Americans” of the moment and cheeringly embrace complete nonsense we risk doing real harm to our always fragile democracy and we risk squandering the one sure and most powerful weapon we hold over our real enemies – an open, decent, inclusive albeit often messy political system that rejects demagogues, deals with reality and embraces values that should set us apart.

The modern Republican Party created the environment that has permitted the Age of Trump. Republicans own their demagogue. Now, can they stop him?

 

Fear Itself…

     Obama’s response to the attacks also raises a more political question: Why hasn’t a man known for his rhetorical gifts done more to address the fear the attacks instill in ordinary Americans? – Greg Jaffe, The Washington Post

——

It is difficult, perhaps even impossible, in a harsh world of partisanship and amidst the instant Twitter feed, to answer emotion and fear with facts. Barack Obama, never particularly good at the soft arts of politics, including the basic political skill of clearly and patiently explaining his policies, learned that lesson anew this week.

Senator Cliche

Senator Ted Cruz, (R) Cliche

It must gall Obama, a smart and careful man, even if his legion of opponents and distractors never admit it, to have to confront a smart, calculating and cynical man like Senator Ted Cruz. Cruz taunted Obama in the wake of the Paris terror attacks and the mad rush to denounce Syrian refuges to debate him on the issues and “insult me to my face.”

One almost wishes Obama would simply say: “Ted, you’re just not that important. We are talking about bigger things than your ego or campaign.” But that type of putdown is just not the Obama way and you cannot belittle unless you first explain. Obama’s presidency-long inability – or unwillingness – to effectively and consistently confront his critics and explain himself is among his major shortcomings as a leader.

Obama has an off putting tendency when challenged to either adopt the persona of a law school lecturer and make a legal case, or simply embrace, as he did this week, a dismissive tone with his critics. Perhaps an effective strategy when the issues are trivial, but not when the stakes are as high as they are in our post-Paris moment. Obama often seems to float above the circus, aloof and detached and when he does engage, as he did recently on the refugee issue, his dismissive, lecturing tone is counterproductive.

Even with Republicans offering little but recycled talking points – the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank correctly says Republican plans to deal with the so called Islamic State involves “killing them with clichés.” – the Paris attack and the resulting climate of fear call for more from a president who can, if he puts his mind to it, be a supremely effective communicator.

The World Needs…

“The world needs American leadership,” said Paul Ryan of Wisconsin, the new House Speaker. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California opined that “we want our homeland to be secure,” while Majority Whip Steve Scalise of Louisiana spoke of the need to “go and root out and take on ISIS.” Clichés for sure, but language that speaks to the need to offer leadership, reassurance and perspective.

The latest outrage from the continuing frontrunner Donald Trump, a call for closing mosques and creating a national database of Muslims, once would have been a disqualifying comment in national politics, but Trump will probably ride it higher in the polls. Such are the days of our lives and such is the ability of a demagogue to stir up fear and hatred.

For his part Cruz says “we are at war with ISIS,” but short of calling for greater use of American air power he offers precious little beyond what the Obama Administration is currently doing. Cruz and the others hoping to draft in the wake of Trump’s openly racist appeal to Americans who disdain immigrants (and now refugees) have succeeded, at least temporarily, in shifting the national debate from defeating a radical ideology to closing the borders to the victims of that ideology.

It is craven, cynical and fundamentally un-American, but in the hands of a modern day Joseph McCarthy like Cruz or a political P.T. Barnum like Trump it sells with the voters both need to crawl to the top of the GOP heap. It also resonates with many Americans who are just frightened and confused and seek candid reassurance and common sense. Lindsay Graham, the one true hawk in the Republican field, is so far behind he can speak the truth about the pandering of those higher in the polls.

Senator Lindsey Graham

Senator Lindsey Graham

“Are you willing to do what it takes to destroy ISIL?” Graham said recently referring to Cruz and others who are long on cliché, but short on ideas. “Are you willing to commit American ground forces in support of a regional army to destroy the caliphate? If you’re not, then you’re not ready to be the Commander-in-Chief, in my view, and you’re really no different than Obama.”

This is the crux of the real debate the Congress and the nation needs. What do we do to destroy these violent remnants from the 13th Century? I’m waiting for a Congressional committee to actually have a hearing and call some real experts to testify about real options. That’s old fashioned, I know, but used to be what the Senate Foreign Relations Committee did.

Ground troops? Will the American public accept that? What will greater air strikes accomplish? If Syria’s Assad is deposed, which is American policy, who and what replaces him? We thought Iraq was tidied up when Saddam toppled and that didn’t work out so well. Would Syria be different and why? Do we risk a joint effort with Putin to fight ISIS and to what end? If we arm some additional group or groups in Syria are we just doubling down on the less-than-successful Iraq policy that saw us leave millions of dollars worth of military hardware behind in the desert, hardware that in some cases the radicals now use? Are there other options? Let’s hear them.

Explain the Policy….Please 

Obama’s Syrian policy and approach to ISIS have been called “feckless” and his recent comment that the movement was “contained” may well rank with George W. Bush’s “Mission Accomplished” as the silliest thing either man said during his tenure. It is also true that the President fumbled for too long while Syria burned and the refugee crisis has occurred during his watch and will be part of his legacy. Still, unlike his fire-breathing detractors on the right, I am willing to concede that Obama has a real policy for the region, a policy largely informed by what has not worked in the recent past. What has been missing is his patient, repeated articulation of that policy.

By failing to fully take the American people into his confidence and carefully explain the stakes and the real options, Obama contributes to what is truly feckless – the domestic debate about ISIS and Syrian refugees, how to ensure U.S. and European security, and the proper and effective U.S. military and diplomatic response to the mess in the Middle East.

It is a moment that demands calm, reasoned, candid national leadership that only a president can provide. We are waiting.

A Lesson From History…

Churchill: "If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

Churchill: “If we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

I am reminded of what leadership in a moment of crisis sounds like re-reading Winston Churchill’s remarkable speech in the wake of the abject British defeat at Dunkirk in the summer of 1940. It was one of the worst moments of World War II and had events or political rhetoric turned even a bit differently we might be living in a very different world.

Thousands upon thousands of British troops had remarkably been evacuated from the French port of Dunkirk following the collapse of the French Army west of Paris. The British troops hauled back across the English Channel escaped with their lives, but not much else. A vast amount of precious material and equipment was left behind in the interest of saving the British Army so that it might fight again. Everyone knew at the time, especially Churchill, that Dunkirk was a military disaster that ironically is now often remembered as a spectacular success.

Churchill, newly the prime minister, had to explain the disaster to the House of Commons where criticism of the government was building amid calls for an investigation of the debacle in France. The moment demanded explanation, painful candor and hope. He confronted the situation directly and brilliantly:

“We have to think of the future and not of the past,” Churchill said. “This also applies in a small way to our own affairs at home. There are many who would hold an inquest in the House of Commons on the conduct of the Governments – and of Parliaments, for they are in it, too – during the years which led up to this catastrophe. They seek to indict those who were responsible for the guidance of our affairs. This also would be a foolish and pernicious process. There are too many in it. Let each man search his conscience and search his speeches. I frequently search mine.

“Of this I am quite sure, that if we open a quarrel between the past and the present, we shall find that we have lost the future.”

There are too many in it…let each man search his speeches…we shall find we have lost the future. One yearns for such talk at moments of national confusion, trial and fear.

…None Whatever for Panic and Despair…

At the end of his Dunkirk speech, Churchill uttered his famous “finest hour” phrase that is the most remembered part of the speech, but a line he spoke earlier seems particularly appropriate for the current moment.

“Therefore, in casting up this dread balance sheet and contemplating our dangers with a disillusioned eye, I see great reason for intense vigilance and exertion, but none whatever for panic or despair.”

Cheers broke out in the House of Commons.

The rhetoric from the current campaign trail regarding the Middle East is nothing if not panic and despair. It is not a time for a lecture on the law or peevish scolding, but it is time for something more from Barack Obama. He might start by repackaging Franklin Roosevelt because the only thing we have to fear is fear itself. A weary and wary nation longing for strength and hope needs to hear that from the top.

Give Me Your Tired, Your Poor…

– – – – –

It says something about the state of American politics that the quarterback for the Green Bay Packers makes more sense on the issue of moment than most of the people seeking to become president of the United States.

Packer statesman Aaron Rodgers

Statesman Aaron Rodgers

When players for the Packers and the Detroit Lions lined up last Sunday to observe a moment of silence in recognition of the horrible events in Paris some nitwit in the crowd yelled out a slur against Muslims. Rodgers heard it, as did most everyone else.

The Packers proceeded to lose a close game to the Lions, but when Rodgers met reporters after the game the derogatory comment was clearly still bothering him.

“I must admit I was very disappointed with whoever the fan was that made a comment that was very inappropriate during the moment of silence,” Rodgers said.

“It’s that kind of prejudicial ideology that puts us in the position we are today as a world.”

The quarterback as statesman.

Trojan Horse or Horse’s Something…

Meanwhile, that old charmer who continues to lead the Republican field in all the polls suggested we might need to shut down the nation’s mosques, while we round up every Syrian in the country and deport them. No kidding. You can look it up. Donald Trump also compared Syrian refuges to the Trojan Horse, which may just be about a perfect analogy for what his candidacy means to the modern Republican Party.

Christie: Not even a five year old orphan. (AP Photo/Mel Evans)

Christie: Not even a five year old orphan.

Chris Christie, who I would really like to think knows better, vowed to let no Syrian refugee in the country – even orphans under the age of five. “I don’t think orphans under five are being, you know, should be admitted into the United States at this point,” the big-hearted big man said. “But you know, they have no family here. How are we going to care for these folks?”

Most of the nation’s Republican governors spent Monday tripping over themselves to be first in line – on dubious and likely illegal grounds – to say “no” to any Syrian refugees. Even Bobby Jindal, the Louisiana governor whose parents immigrated to the United States from the Punjab region of northern India, rushed out an executive order outlawing any Syrian from crossing the pristine borders of his state. Jindal cited the terror attacks in Paris as having triggered his need to “protect the citizens and property of Louisiana.”

I’m guessing Jindal in his zeal to protect his people missed recent stories about extremist protests in, well, the Punjab region of northern India. One governor’s violent extremist is another’s dangerous Syrian, I suppose.

Ted Cruz, born in Canada of Cuban parents, wants to allow only Christians in the country. Ben Carson says we should do everything possible to help out the huddled masses yearning to be free; everything but let any of them into the United States. Marco Rubio agrees because the government is so incompetent it cannot do an adequate background check.

Texas…ah, Texas…

And then there is Texas, never a state to take a backseat on the crazy bus. A Lone Star state legislator, Republican Tony Dale of Cedar Park, wrote to his state’s U.S. Senators: “While the Paris attackers used suicide vests and grenades it is clear that firearms also killed a large number of innocent victims. Can you imagine a scenario were [sic] a refugees [sic] is admitted to the United States, is provided with federal cash payments and other assistance, obtains a drivers license and purchases a weapon and executes an attack?”

Yes, you read it correctly – don’t let those refugees in the good old U.S.A. because it’s just too darn easy for them to get a gun. Dale, of course, is one of the biggest champions of gun rights in the Texas Legislature. Would it be unkind to mention that his biography lists Representative Dale as a member of the Roman Catholic Church, whose leader has repeatedly reminded the world, and did again Sunday, that refugees are all God’s children whose need comfort and “their human dignity respected.”

Syrian refugee children near the Turkish border

Syrian refugee children near the Turkish border

I could go on, but Aaron Rodgers has already said much of what needs to be said. Shame he is just trying to get to the playoffs and not to the White House.

One of the most difficult things to do in politics is to keep your head when everyone around you is losing theirs. Or as Rick Klein of ABC News puts it, “The speed with which the Paris attacks went from a national-security debate to an immigration one says more about the perceived state of today’s Republican Party than it does about today’s perceived security threats. The Republican contenders have sought to one-up themselves with letters, bills, demands, and sound bites.”

A Simple – and Wrong – Answer to a Complex Question… 

Another difficult thing for politicians is nuance, subtlety and complexity. The Paris attacks, the downing of the Russian airliner and all the rest provide enormous cause for concern and caution. The modern world may well be continuing down a long, dark corridor of uncertainty as the twilight struggle against fundamental evil goes forward. But this nuanced, subtle and complex struggle will not be won on the basis of who gins up the most outrageous sound bite or issues the most bombastic executive order.

In fact, the vapid and short sighted response from Americans who should know better may actually play directly into the hands of those who would do us harm.

As Scott Atran, a researcher who has spent time interviewing Islamic State recruits in several countries in an effort to understand their motivations, wrote in a thoughtful piece in the New York Review of Books, “the greater the hostility toward Muslims in Europe and the deeper the West becomes involved in military action in the Middle East, the closer ISIS comes to its goal of creating and managing chaos.”

This is precisely what Syrian and other refugees are fleeing.

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me: I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

Send these, the homeless, tempest-tossed, to me:
I lift my lamp beside the golden door.”

World Vision, the widely respected NGO that advocates worldwide for children, estimates that 12 million Syrians have fled their homes in the midst of the continuing civil war. Half of these refugees are children; children who have, at a minimum, lost opportunities for education and anything approaching a normal life and, at worst, face malnutrition and abuse.

The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, who must have one of the world’s most difficult jobs, said recently “It was not the refugee movement that created terrorism; it is terrorism together with tyranny, together with war, that created refugee movements.”

My people came to the United States from Wales and Germany, others in my family trace roots to Poland and Luxembourg. Maybe your family came from Norway or Italy, Mexico or Sudan, Russia or Rwanda. Perhaps you know someone who started life in India or Japan or Vietnam or a hundred other places.  A big, good hearted nation, even one that finds itself in the middle of a confusing, dangerous, even deadly world, does not lead from fear and it does not insist on simple, tidy answers to complex realities in a part of the world that often remains foreign and unknowable to westerners.

Owning What We Helped Make…

One of the best things I have read on the mess that is Syria and Iraq was written by the Washington Post’s David Ignatius and published recently in The Atlantic.

“America has not changed Iraq or Syria, but the wars there have indeed changed America,” Ignatius wrote. “Americans have learned the limits of military power and covert action; the U.S. has helped create enemies that did not exist before George W. Bush’s mistaken invasion of Iraq in 2003 (I described my own mistakes in supporting the Iraq War, and explained the lessons I drew from this horrible experience, in a 2013 column); it has fostered a degree of mistrust so acute that many in the region now welcome the vain autocrat Vladimir Putin as a deliverer. Obama’s policies may have been weak and feckless, but they have reflected a widespread desire among Americans to extricate the country from the Middle East’s long wars.”

We did our part to create this mess and that includes helping create a few million refugees and now it’s time to show that we are better than the jingoistic rhetoric and fear mongering for votes from governors and presidential candidates and those who couldn’t find Aleppo on a map.

We are better than that. At least I think we are.

– – – – –

[Note: Thanks to those readers who noticed this site was down for a few days for a little maintenance. We’re back and thanks for reading!]

Jeb!

         “I realize I need to get better.” 

— Jeb Bush commenting on the state of his candidacy.

– – – – –

In a year when a majority of the Republican electorate – xenophobic and angry – fixates on the fanciful notion that political inexperience presents the only sure path back to the White House, it should have been obvious that the immigration reform embracing, “low energy” former governor of Florida, the consummate insider in an outsiders race, would be doomed.

Jeb needs to become the 'comeback kid' of 2016

Jeb needs to become the ‘comeback kid’ of 2016

New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd calls it “the fall of the House of Bush,” the ultimate meltdown of the ultimate “establishment” Republican family. Jeb is toast, says Frank Rich, “History will look back at him, if it looks at all, as a world-class fool and the last exhausted gasp of a GOP that no longer exists.”

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Brother…

Even popular culture seems to be conspiring against Bush. Truth, a glossy big screen “serious movie” starring Robert Redford as Dan Rather and Cate Blanchett as his CBS ’60 Minutes” producer, revisits the controversial story of brother W’s National Guard service in the Vietnam era. Reviews of Truth have been all over the map with many negative, but the film will still remind voters in both parties, not to mention the scribbling class, of Bush 43’s checkered presidency, as well as that whole entitlement thing at the moment brother Jeb would rather talk about, well, anything else.

George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, 1968 - 1973. Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library

George W. Bush in the Texas Air National Guard, 1968 – 1973.
Photo Credit: George Bush Presidential Library

Donald Trump “emasculates” Jeb for his lack of passion and mocks him as the candidate of “mommy and daddy,” while delightedly reminding everyone that the last Bush was a YUGE disaster.

The New Yorker’s very funny satirist Andy Borowitz quips that Bush pulled the plug on his dismal campaign while standing under a banner reading “Mission Accomplished.”

The hard right in the GOP dislikes Bush more than any Democrat. The Red State website is on deathwatch for the crown prince of Kennebunkport, unable to contain its disdain for a guy who was a very conservative big state governor, but now is a “entitled” pariah: “The first step in fixing a problem is acknowledging you have a problem. The problem here [for Bush] is not that the electorate and party have changed but rather we are, for the first time, seeing the Emperor’s new clothes. We are seeing the people who believe they are entitled to lead — ‘rule’ is actually the word they would like to use — do nothing but propose the same tired old solutions because that is the way that it has always been done. Quite honestly, if you aren’t angry you either haven’t been paying attention or you are part of the problem.”

The Challenge of Getting Better…

Perhaps Jeb is destined to be his generation’s Robert Taft, the conservative scion of that famous American political family who was forever the bride’s maid, never the bride, always the pretender who never completely excited fellow Republicans.

Every campaign manager’s not-so-secret wish is that their candidate gets better over the course of a race. A slow start can often be overcome in a long race if the candidate gets steadily better. Bush started his campaign slowly and seems to have gotten more inept as the Iowa caucus approaches. His smack down by Marco Rubio in the most recent Republican debate has been widely seen as Jeb’s Waterloo.

“You could blame political malpractice — bad aides, bad advice, bad strategy. A hundred million dollars doesn’t buy what it used to,” writes Tim Egan of Bush’s debate debacle. “But the fish stinks from the head down, as any Sicilian grandmother will tell you. Bush owns this debacle, the third in a row. The debate broke him.”

Bush and Rubio in CNBC debate where Rubio was widely consider to have trounced his one-time mentor

Bush and Rubio in CNBC debate where Rubio was widely considered to have trounced his one-time mentor

Amid the Bush death notices since CNBC set a new standard for political debate incoherence, few beyond the Beltway took much notice of the curious story of “the leak” of the details of Bush’s entire campaign strategy.

Somehow a 112-page PowerPoint document detailing the Bush campaign’s line of attack on fellow Floridian Rubio, as well as internal polling information and plans for advertising ended up in the “in box” of David Catanese, the senior politics writer for U.S. News & World Report.

There are only two realistic explanations for the “leak.” It was either an enormous mistake on the part of a crashing campaign that hit the “send” key without thinking, or more likely it was a well-timed effort to inform the Super PAC supporting Bush (under our crazy system the PAC and the campaign can’t legally communicate or coordinate efforts) of Bush’s strategy over the next couple of months. By the way, that Bush Super PAC is still sitting on $100 million that it can use to jumpstart the “Bush comeback” storyline.

Maybe in this deranged campaign season that has seen the old, tried and true political playbook shredded, a cool $100 million doesn’t buy you love in Iowa or New Hampshire, but it can buy a lot of television time and that is going to be better than fighting over debate moderators.

Bush, on life support or already dead, has performed one statesmanlike service to the party that for the most part seems hardly able to tolerate his existence. Reading that dense PowerPoint details the Bush fixation on Rubio, the young protégé who now threatens to eclipse the one-time mentor. It’s a story line out of Shakespeare and, while Bush waits like the New York Mets for the “break” that may never come, Rubio’s moment may have now arrived and for the young senator that may mean peaking too soon.

“Rubio and President Obama have strikingly similar profiles,” the leaked Jeb strategy document says,” first-term senators, lawyers and university lecturers, served in part-time state legislatures for eight years, have few legislative accomplishments, and haven’t shown much interest in the process of advancing legislation and getting results.”

There is hardly a more poisonous charge than comparing a fellow Republican to the hated Obama and that line of attack, had it been employed by a more skillful candidate in the recent debate, might have had impact among GOP primary voters. At the least, Bush’s Super PAC now knows the talking points for Iowa as Rubio, who has flown below the radar for much of the pre-primary season, finally gets vetted in earnest. If Bush can’t have the nomination he seems hell bent on making sure that Rubio won’t either.

By Definition a Dynasty Has Staying Power…

Still, I’m in a small universe of observers who says of Jeb – not to fast. Say what you will about the white shoe, old-line establishment Bush Dynasty, like the lowbrow Duck Dynasty, it has staying power, even in re-runs.

The Dynasty

The Dynasty

Patrician “Poppy” Bush somehow navigated his way through the Watergate implosion – he was party chairman during Nixon’s final fall – then sought the presidency, lost and settled for the second spot, which positioned him to serve Ronald Reagan’s third term.

The elder Bush was never a great campaigner – remember Big Mo – but he made up for it with dogged determination and an ability, well hidden behind the nice guy demeanor, to go for the political throat. George H.W. finally met his match when tangling with the founder of the Clinton Dynasty.

Son George W was more disciplined and determined than he’s given credit for and somehow won two national elections (or stole them) that a lesser candidate might have blown. W had his old man’s facility for destroying an opponent, including the sleazy takedown of John McCain in the South Carolina primary in 2000, still one of the most vicious political hits in modern times, or the Swift Boating of legit war hero John Kerry in 2004.

All of which is another way of saying: get ready for the “Bush Rebounds” stories. You heard it hear first. In the enormously fractured modern Republican Party anything is now possible. The favored son of the dynasty may not have what father and brother possessed, including the instinct to Swift Boat opponents, but a guy with a $100 million Super PAC and 100 percent name ID may yet have the staying power to outlast this completely crazy cast of contenders.

Jeb Bush has been a perfectly awful candidate so far, but even the Mets, dead at mid-season, made it to the World Series. When everything is crazy anything is possible.

 

The Rules Matter…

Director Steven Spielberg’s latest offering – Bridge of Spies – works on several levels as his best films tend to. In fact, it may be one of his very best films.

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan

Mark Rylance as Soviet spy Rudolf Abel and Tom Hanks as his attorney James B. Donovan

The movie is a classic big screen thriller with adequate action and suspense. It’s a finely tuned period piece (mid-century modern) complete with old cars, vintage billboards, and “duck and cover” filmstrips.

Bridge of Spies is also an actor’s movie with superb performances by Tom Hanks and Mark Rylance, perhaps the world’s most acclaimed stage actor, and a talent that will be new to many movie goers.

And since this is Spielberg, the film is also an American history lesson.

When the Cold War Was Really Cold…

Hanks, who seems to hit his stride when working with Spielberg, plays New York attorney, James B. Donovan, who improbably becomes the key player in arranging a celebrated Cold War prisoner swap between the United States and the Soviet Union. The action is set at the end of the Eisenhower Administration and continues on into the Kennedy years – days of the Berlin Wall, the Bay of Pigs, the Cuban Missile Crisis, and spy versus spy.

The key figures in the prisoner swap – again all true – were the young American Air Force lieutenant Francis Gary Powers, who is appropriated to fly spy planes for the CIA, and the notorious Soviet spy, Colonel Rudolf Abel.

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962

Francis Gary Powers with a model U-2 spy plane after his release from a Soviet jail in 1962

Powers became a Soviet prisoner in May 1960 when his U-2 spy plane was shot down in the Ural Mountain region of the Soviet Union during a photography run. Powers survived the crash – great scene in the movie – and was captured by the KGB.

The Eisenhower Administration originally tried to pass off the incident as a wayward weather aircraft, but the Soviets produced wreckage of the super-secret U-2 and Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev reaped an international propaganda windfall. A summit meeting in Berlin was cancelled and efforts to improve U.S.-Soviet relations were temporarily derailed. It was a major international incident that also had the human dimension of a young American with a head full of secrets about U.S. spy activities sitting in a Russian jail.

Earlier, in 1957, after a long string of events that read, appropriately enough, like something out of John Le Carre, the FBI and Immigration and Naturalization Service identified Colonel Abel as a Soviet spy who had been operating in the United States for some time. Abel was arrested in Brooklyn, tried, and convicted of espionage. The New York lawyer, Donovan, was appointed by the federal court in New York to defend him.

The film mangles some of the timeline and a few things are invented out of whole cloth – this is Hollywood after all – but the real power of the story and its great relevance today is in the courtroom scenes where Abel is first convicted and then loses an appeal before the U.S. Supreme Court.

After seeing and completely enjoying the film, I got to wondering what really happened in the U.S. justice system during the height of the Cold War when the government tried a man thought to be a Soviet spy.

Does a Soviet Spy Deserve Due Process…

The film understandably compresses a good deal of the story, which played out over several years, but makes some powerful and important points in the telling.

A basic question is raised early on when attorney Donovan (played by Hanks) has to confront the dilemma of an upstanding attorney, a pillar of the New York Bar, signing on to do his best to defend a Russian spy. What are the implications for his career, his law firm, his family? I immediately thought about the private attorneys who continue to represent Guantanamo detained terror suspects.

The real Rudolf Abel

The real Rudolf Abel

The film makes us confront whether it is merely enough to give Abel a defense that goes through the motions of due process or whether he deserves a no-holds-barred defense, including appeals on grounds that his hotel room and apartment were improperly searched.

At one point a CIA operative shadows Donovan in order to question him about what his client has been saying. Donovan, in one of the film’s best moments, tells the CIA fellow that he won’t – indeed can’t – talk about what his client is telling him since it is protected by attorney-client privilege. There are rules, Donovan says, most importantly the Constitution that make our system different than the system that is detaining Gary Powers.

Abel’s case, both in the film and real life, eventually reaches the Supreme Court over the question of the lack of a proper warrant that specifically authorizes a search the defendant’s rooms. Give Spielberg credit, he even gets the Supreme Court courtroom correct. Abel’s case was argued, actually twice, in 1959 and the courtroom has since been remodeled.

The case turned on a complex question about whether a warrant for an “administrative arrest” – Abel was actually arrested by the immigration service after being detained and questioned by the FBI – allowed the subsequent FBI search of his rooms. The celebrated Justice Felix Frankfurter wrote the rather technical 5-4-majority opinion upholding the legality of the search and Abel’s conviction stood.

This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant…

As is often the case, the dissents in such cases make for better reading and offer more insight into the workings of our justice system. Justice William O. Douglas wrote one of the dissents in the Abel case and Justice William J. Brennan another.

Mr.  Justice Douglas

Mr. Justice Douglas

“Cases of notorious criminals—like cases of small, miserable ones—are apt to make bad law,” Douglas wrote in his dissent, which was joined by Justice Hugo Black.

“When guilt permeates a record, even judges sometimes relax and let the police take shortcuts not sanctioned by constitutional procedures. That practice, in certain periods of our history and in certain courts, has lowered our standards of law administration. The harm in the given case may seem excusable. But the practices generated by the precedent have far-reaching consequences that are harmful and injurious beyond measurement. The present decision is an excellent example.”

Douglas was saying sure this Abel is a Soviet spy – a notorious criminal – but the rules apply to him just as they apply to “small, miserable” law breakers.

“If the F.B.I. agents had gone to a magistrate, any search warrant issued would by terms of the Fourth Amendment have to ‘particularly’ describe ‘the place to be searched’ and the ‘things to be seized,’” Douglas wrote. “How much more convenient it is for the police to find a way around those specific requirements of the Fourth Amendment! What a hindrance it is to work laboriously through constitutional procedures! How much easier to go to another official in the same department! The administrative officer can give a warrant good for unlimited search. No more showing of probable cause to a magistrate! No more limitations on what may be searched and when!”

Brennan was just as pointed: “This is a notorious case, with a notorious defendant. Yet we must take care to enforce the Constitution without regard to the nature of the crime or the nature of the criminal. The Fourth Amendment protects ‘The right of the people to be secure in their persons, houses, papers, and effects, against unreasonable searches and seizures.’ This right is a basic one of all the people, without exception…”

Real American Exceptionalism…

The court case and the film also make the fundamental point that Abel, not a U.S. citizen, still enjoyed the full protections of the country’s justice system, a point worth pondering as the terror suspects sit year after year in Cuba.

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated return of Bay of Pigs captives

President Kennedy with James B. Donovan who also negotiated the return of Bay of Pigs captives

Rudolf Abel languished in U.S. prisons until early 1962 when the Donovan-brokered exchange took place on a bridge dividing East and West Berlin. That bridge gives the film its title. The New York attorney was publicly acknowledge by the Kennedy Administration as having helped make the arrangements.

The negotiations over the swap are some of the best moments of the film and, intentionally or not, Spielberg shows that the New York insurance lawyer who became an Cold War negotiator turned out to be a lot better high stakes deal maker than his CIA minders.

The film is already getting some Oscar buzz – it is certainly worthy – if only for its deft storytelling and the great performances. Mark Rylance’s portrayal of Rudolf Abel is nothing short of brilliant. And the script by the Cohen Brothers is first rate. A typical Cohen touch is the reoccurrence of Abel’s response when his lawyer asks him if he’s worried or afraid: “Would it help?” That has become my new mantra.

As good as the movie is as entertainment here’s hoping a few enterprising high school (or college) teachers use the film in class to make the more important points about our justice system and our history.

The hero in the film is, of course, attorney Donovan, a man mostly lost to history whose role in Abel’s trial and in the spy swap may now finally enjoy some long overdue recognition. Donovan, who died in 1970, spent years working on the Russian spy’s defense and appeals and donated half his $10,000 fee to Fordham University and split the rest between Harvard and Columbia. Setting aside the Abel case and the spy swap, the rest of Donovan’s career – naval officer, Nuremberg prosecutor, New York board of education member, U.S. Senate candidate – was truly incredible. A great American story.

Even though he lost at every level Donovan said after the Supreme Court ruling, “The very fact that Abel has been receiving due process of law in the United States is far more significant, both here and behind the Iron Curtain, than the particular outcome of the case.”

That one sentence says a lot about why we won the Cold War.