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So We Beat On…


      “They were careless people, Tom and Daisy – they smashed up things and creatures and then retreated back into their money or their vast carelessness or whatever it was that kept them together, and let other people clean up the mess they had made.”

F. Scott Fitzgerald, The Great Gatsby


Good Lord it is tough work explaining let alone supporting Hillary Clinton.

She may be the living proof of the old political axiom that the worst wounds are self-inflicted. She is the poster child – at least the Democratic poster child – for secretive, damaging dissembling. A very sophisticated political friend suggests an apt analogy: Clinton is the American version of Dodgy Dave Cameron, the newly deposed British prime minister. Both crave power for power’s sake with few core convictions and even less shame.

Careless, not criminal

Careless, not criminal

Clinton’s email debacle will be recorded as among the worst handled “political scandals” in modern times. An original stupid decision to use a private email set-up rather than a government run system – why she did it can only be explained by the secretive side of Hillary, the side hoping to never have to explain anything during her State Department tenure – was compounded by the cover up. For weeks – months – she ham-handedly strung out the story, never admitting until really forced to do so that the whole thing was a stupid mistake. Now the director of the FBI has pointed out for the world and for Donald Trump all the inconsistencies and incompetence. Clinton was not criminal, just “extremely careless,” said James Comey. Now that is a great campaign slogan: “She may be careless, but at least she is not criminal.”

One holds out the hope that Clinton will be a better president than she has been a would be president. She has a tin political ear, a well-developed capacity to foster mistrust and, considering she will be the first woman nominated as a major party presidential candidate, a remarkable inability to stir enthusiasm. Among the best things you can say about Hillary Clinton is that she is not Donald Trump. Another good bumper sticker.

Clinton is in for a rough few days, but her good news is that the country is just days away from watching what will surely be a bat s@#t crazy spectacle of a Republican convention where the GOP will turn over the party to a pathological liar whose latest contributions to American politics has been to energize white supremacists and Neo-Nazis, while praising Saddam Hussein.

"He was a bad guy — really bad guy," the presumptive Republican nominee told supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina. "But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn't read them the rights. They didn't talk. They were terrorists. Over."

“He was a bad guy — really bad guy,” the presumptive Republican nominee told supporters in Raleigh, North Carolina. “But you know what? He did well? He killed terrorists. He did that so good. They didn’t read them the rights. They didn’t talk. They were terrorists. Over.”

Ask yourself what is worse: an ethically challenged careerist with a lust for power who believes, along with her husband, that the rules don’t apply to them…or Donald Trump?

Clinton’s handling of her email scandal combined with the stunning takedown of her “carelessness” by the FBI director would be disqualifying for any other candidate any of us can think of, but this is a two person race and the other person is a racist bully whose impossible boasts and claims and nonsense should be cause for a mental health intervention.

Campaigns come down to a choice between two people, most often two flawed people. This is our choice in 2016 and it is ugly and dispiriting and disappointing. Clinton will be a better president, I hope and suspect, than she has been a candidate. With Trump what you see is what you get. One person will muddle through, while the other may well destroy the country.

There is a danger here – we are already seeing it in press coverage of the two candidates – of false equivalence. Clinton with all her faults is not Trump. The email scandal is serious stuff. Trump’s demeanor, his temperament, his incoherence and ignorance are disqualifying. There is no equivalence between the careless and the utterly dangerous.

Like Scott Fitzgerald’s Tom and Daisy Buchanan, Bill and Hillary Clinton are reckless people with a remarkable sense of entitlement. Not much to admire here. The messes they have made are legion. But the other guy represents a level of evil, intolerance, racism and hate not seen at least since George Wallace in 1968.

So we beat on, boats against the current…and I’m with the careless one.


How to Beat Donald Trump…


      “The poll suggests that Trump has more vulnerabilities than Clinton, but that opposition to the former secretary of state can lead some voters with a mixed to unfavorable view of Trump to support him nonetheless.”

Detail from the latest Washington Post-ABC News poll


One key lesson from two of the most recent presidential campaigns holds the key to how a very weak general election candidate, Hillary Clinton, can defeat an unscrupulous, position shifting showman like Donald Trump. Clinton, as is frequently pointed out, has no compelling message, is running a 1990’s campaign based only on a resume. Additionally, she is packing around a heavy load of old, old political baggage.

Hillary Clinton

Hillary Clinton

If Clinton is to win in November she will need, in the language of scorched earth politics, to “disqualify” Trump. With Trump’s negative poll ratings starting to improve as he consolidates the Republican vote, time is a wasting for Clinton.

As Clinton’s strategists consider their totally unorthodox opponent, the raft of potentially disqualifying material Trump has placed on the public record surely must appear to be an embarrassment of riches. But there is folly in attempting to throw all that Trump garbage back at the voters. It’s just too much.

Clinton Needs a Strategy…

Clinton will make a strategic error – potentially fatal – if she over plays the fact that should she win she will become the first woman elected president of the United States. It’s a natural for her and her supporters to suggest this as a compelling message, but even Trump’s toxic standing with many women doesn’t necessarily mean the so called “women’s card” will be a winner. Clinton’s own negatives may well trump – pardon the pun – any advantage that goes with the potential of being first.

Clinton's challenge: Destroy the myth

Clinton’s challenge: Destroy the myth

So far the Clinton campaign’s line of attack against the insults, lies and wholesale flips of Trump has been to label the faux billionaire “dangerous” or “unfit to be president.” He is demonstrably both, but given Clinton’s dismal approval ratings and her own struggles with the question of whether she is fit for high office make her attacks limp and largely ineffective.

Clinton must focus her Trump message and simplify for voters as to precisely why the bragging, blustering con man is unfit. She must also carry the fight to Trump. She needs to land blows because Trump has already proven he’s a much better counterpuncher that Clinton will ever be.

Let’s just admit the obvious: this is going to be a disgustingly nasty contest. Both candidates are widely disliked. This will be an election about tearing down, not building up. Who does the best job of defining the other person will win.

Trump has already accused Bill Clinton of rape and repeatedly labeled the former secretary of state “crooked.” Coming from a guy who accused the father of his chief Republican rival of being involved in John Kennedy’s assassination, rape and crookedness represent merely the mere tip of Trump’s sleazy general election iceberg of political slime. Brace yourselves.

Attacking a Con Man Where He’s Most Vulnerable…

Clinton needs to move quickly – certainly no later than the Republican convention and perhaps much earlier – to systematically define Trump around what appears to be his strongest advantage: his business success, his money, the very notion that his high rolling ways somehow qualify him to move into the White House. By focusing on Trump’s “character” as a real estate developer and an allegedly successful businessman, Clinton truly has a target rich environment that voters can grasp.

One of many, many failures

One of many, many failures

Trump’s business failures – a smelly pile of “Trump steaks” and “Trump Vodka” and “Trump Airlines” – his several bankruptcies, the failure of “Trump University,” the recent claim that his tax returns “are none of your business,” his multitude of shady deals with questionable characters and his extraordinary litigiousness add up to a credibility bomb waiting to go off. The most devoted Trump followers will shrug off this cavalcade of business sleaze, but many voters, particularly independent leaning voters, will discover that at the soul of this con man is a con job.

In the recent Washington Post-ABC News poll that shows the two candidates virtually tied is this nugget: “Six in 10 independents believe Trump should release his taxes, and almost all of them say they feel strongly about it. Even 44 percent of Republicans want the billionaire businessman to release his returns before the November election, though they are less passionate.”

Trump signing the tax return he refuses to release

Trump signing the tax return he refuses to release

Trump, of course, probably cannot release his tax returns because it’s almost certain he rarely, if ever, pays any tax. The one year his returns were a matter of public record, thanks to a requirement of the New Jersey gaming commission, Trump paid zero tax. Offshore accounts? He must have some. In what state does he claim residence? New York or Florida? If he’s been audited as often as he says, what did those audits show? Has he paid penalties?

Raise the questions. Taunt the tax dodger. As Lyndon Johnson might have said, make the SOB deny that he doesn’t play by the same rules the rest of us follow.

Trump’s recent release of a personal financial disclosure (PFD) statement, a statement as bogus as his claim that he will build a “beautiful wall” along the Mexican border, is ripe for the pulling apart. Trump brags of “great cash flow” and huge “revenue increases” at his properties, but that is, at best, misleading since we know nothing about his expenses and he offers (as usual) no proof for his claims. As Forbes magazine noted in an article on Trump’s PFD the statement raises more questions that it answers, “Since Trump freely interchanges the terms revenue and income as if they mean the same thing.” This guy may have graduated from the Wharton School, but he can’t read his own balance sheet.

And, as Forbes also noted, “the Office of Government Ethics reviews the disclosures for technical compliance (for example, assets have to be properly categorized), but does not audit for accuracy, nor are candidates required to provide supporting documents to prove their numbers.” In short, the Trump statement of his net worth is as confused and phony as his hairdo.

Trump University: Subject of an ongoing lawsuit

Trump University: Subject of an ongoing lawsuit

Bloomberg had a great piece recently headlined “How Trump’s Self Worth Became His Net Worth,” focusing on the fact that most of Trump’s much hyped wealth is based upon his own perceived value of his name.

Bloomberg’s Steven Mihm observed, “In Trump’s case, the value of his name is a complicated notion, resting on both the “right to publicity” as well as the more conventional foundations of trademark law (Trump has filed more 200 trademark applications, including Donald J. Trump, The Fragrance).” That fragrance smells to high heaven.

Timothy L. O’Brien has been following Trump’s business boasts for years and he writes, also in Bloomberg: “Trump, who flirted with personal bankruptcy in the early ’90s, has never publicly offered an independently vetted assessment of all his debts. Indeed, much of the financial information he discloses is self-reported. Until that changes, there’s a good chance that a strong dose of grade inflation runs through all of the net worth figures.”

Let’s put a finer point on it: Donald Trump is a fraud, which sounds like a good tagline for a television ad campaign.

The Model Already Exists…

Screen shot of 2004 "Swift Boat Veterans" ad against John Kerry

Screen shot of 2004 “Swift Boat Veterans” ad against John Kerry

The models for a Clinton strategy of taking apart The Donald are – I hesitate to say – the shameful “Swift Boating” of then-Senator John Kerry in 2004 and the often unfair characterizations in 2012 of Mitt Romney’s private equity career at Bain Capital. In both those cases, the opponents of Kerry and Romney – George W. Bush and Barack Obama – made strategic decisions to attack at a point of the opponent’s apparent greatest strength.

Kerry was a legitimate and highly decorated Vietnam War veteran and Romney was a demonstrably successful businessman. But the relentless attacks shredded the fundamental strengths of Kerry and Romney to the very great benefit of the ultimately winning candidates.

In fairness, many of the most effective attacks against Kerry and Romney were carried out by so called “independent” campaigns legally separate from the presidential candidates. But, unless you were born last night it’s impossible to believe that the 2004 and 2012 attacks were not conceived as part of the overall strategy of the Bush and Obama campaigns.

Kerry didn’t deserve the “swift boating” and much of the story line about Romney was based on inherent skepticism about his success in an industry that often cut jobs as a business strategy. Trump, on the other hand, is in an entirely different world. He deserves all the scrutiny he should be getting.

The Wizard Unmasked

The Wizard Unmasked

Political generals, like military generals, often mistakenly fight the last war, but in 2016 the lessons from presidential campaigns in 2004 and 2012 hold the most valuable lessons for the Democratic campaign.

Attacking the phony billionaire where he is perceived to be the strongest is a winning approach. Millions of Americans are upset with their presidential choices and many are fed up with a political system that has come perilously close to imploding, but they will understand a self-proclaimed billionaire that doesn’t pay taxes and they will be able to analyze the evidence about a guy whose entire rationale for his candidacy is built around a level of business success that simply doesn’t exist.

Donald Trump’s business acumen is a little like the “all powerful” Wizard of Oz in the famous movie. Once you pull back the curtain you’ll find a little, insecure man who has spent a lifetime bragging about his accomplishments, a man living an illusion, a man who has gotten away with a con job it for a very long time.

Exposing Trump’s business record will also have the added benefit for Clinton of diverting the egomaniac from his own attacks on her. Can you imagine Trump’s response to a sustained assault on his most valuable asset – his self-image as a successful tycoon? It would be a fine thing to watch.

It’s time to get on with pulling back the curtain.


The GOP’s Joe McCarthy Moment


     “Donald Trump delivered a very good foreign policy speech in which he laid out his vision for American engagement in the world.”

Statement by Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker.


The nation’s Republican “elites” have entered the final stage of grief – acceptance.

After wringing their hands for months over the prospect that the most demonstrably unprepared person to every get near a presidential nomination would hijack their party and drive it over a cliff, the GOP “elites” now face the almost certain reality that a race-baiting, woman-hating, foreign policy clueless narcissist will be their presidential candidate.

The denial, distress, disbelief and all the “stop Trump” efforts have now arrived at what conservative columnist David Brooks calls “a Joe McCarthy moment.” Every Republican officeholder, every consultant and lobbyist, every American conservative who wakes up, looks in the mirror and sees an engaged, thoughtful citizen will forever be measured by where they stood on the defining political issue of our time: Do you support Trump?

Republicans once had the guts to say “No” to a man bent on destroying their party and the country. Will enough of them do it again?

The GOP’s McCarthy Moment…

Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders

Vermont Senator Ralph Flanders

In the 1950’s, Republican members of the United States Senate, not Joe McCarthy’s Democratic opponents, finally brought the red-baiting, fear-promoting GOP demagogue of that generation to heel. Vermont Republican Ralph Flanders stood on the Senate floor on March 9, 1954 and spoke directly to McCarthy. It was the beginning of the end of the McCarthy Era. Read the speech today in the Era of Trump, 62 years after Flanders spoke, and its insights ring true, eerily so.

“Mr. President,” Flanders said, “the junior senator from Wisconsin interests us all – there can be no doubt about that – but also he puzzles some of us. To which party does he belong? Is he a hidden satellite of the Democratic Party, to which he is furnishing so much material for quiet mirth? It does not seem that his Republican label can be stuck on very tightly, when, by intention or through ignorance, he is doing his best to shatter the party whose label he wears. He no longer claims or wants any support from the Communist fringe. What is his party affiliation?”

Flanders conclusion about Joe McCarthy then could well be applied to Donald Trump today. “One must conclude that his is a one-man party, and that its name is ‘McCarthyism,” a title which he has proudly accepted.”

McCarthy, driven by ego and political opportunism, was missing the point, Flanders argued. America had enemies to confront and issues to address, just not the ones McCarthy pursued blindly and ruthlessly. Trump is the second coming of the authentic Republican demagogue.

Not all of Flanders’ constituents approved of his speech, but many did and  the bookish Vermonter – he authored or co-authored eight books – had his McCarthy moment, which still stands as an enduring example of great political courage and genuine intellectual honesty. Flanders later introduced the resolution that ultimately led to McCarthy’s censure by the Senate.

Even then Senate Republicans split evenly over condemning an odious and dangerous man. Twenty-one Republicans joined Ralph Flanders in rejecting McCarthy and his tactics. Twenty-two others have had to answer to history for failing to condemn a fomenter of discord and discontent.

Trump and Christie. Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Trump and Christie. Photo by Luke Sharrett/Bloomberg via Getty Images

The shameless and self-promotional among the GOP have, of course, already made their decision about Trump. Chris Christie, once a semi-serious political figure who might have re-defined his own diminished brand by shunning Donald J. Trump, did just the opposite. Christie blew past his McCarthy moment and voted demagogue.

Newt Gingrich, the disgraced former House Speaker who is just as desperate to remain “relevant” as Christie, allows as how he would be available to serve as Trump’s running mate should the great man pick up a gold plated cellphone and bring Gingrich back to political life.

The Shameless and Self-Promotional…

Alabama Senator Jeff Sessions endorsed Trump early, as did Trump’s female political doppelgänger Sarah Palin. And Utah Senator Orrin Hatch, who has already endorsed two other Republican candidates, now says, “It looks to me like he’s going to win, and if he does, I’m going to do everything in my power to help him.” Even the formerly sane Jon Huntsman says Trump’s his guy.

Tennessee Republican Senator Bob Corker, often an example of the levelheaded conservative, sent shivers down the spine recently when he actually praised Trump’s completely incoherent “major foreign policy speech.” It was the precise moment, with all Trump’s ignorance and bluster on display, for the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee to declare the blowhard-in-chief unfit for the awesome responsibilities he seeks. Corker punted. Count on more doing the same. Count on them living to regret it.

In addition to their McCarthy moment, the Republican Party, at least the “elites,” face an existential question: Do they embrace this awful man, the very essence of division and lack of seriousness? Or do they broadly reject the modern equivalent of Joe McCarthy and risk, as a Ralph Flanders did in the 1950’s, the wrath of those drawn to his message of division and hatred? Either way they risk blowing up their party for an election cycle or maybe a generation or maybe forever.

Trump’s new political wise guy, Paul Manafort, a fellow who made his political fortune representing repressive thugs from places like Ukraine and Angola, is confident the “elites” will come around to his new boss. “As he becomes the Republican nominee, there will be a consolidation behind him,” Manafort told the Washington Post’s Dan Balz. “Once he is the nominee, some of that is going to come down naturally. . . . It’s a big deal when you’re the presumptive nominee as opposed to being the nominee.”

Joe McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who tutored Donald Trump in the arts of politics

Joe McCarthy and his counsel, Roy Cohn, who late in his life tutored Donald Trump in the art of nasty politics

The media will also get even more on board as the general election nears. The political press, particularly television, which loves the thought of the looming contest between Trump and Democrat Hillary Clinton and has done so much to enable Trump’s rise, will soon began to offer up more of what we might call the “coverage of false equivalency.”

Trump’s utter lack of political experience will continue to be portrayed as an advantage as opposed to the grievous risk it represents. His shady business dealings and stunning lack of historical perspective on foreign policy will receive short shrift when he turns full-time to trashing “Crooked Hillary.” And trivialities like Trump’s endorsement by the reprehensible character that once coached the Indiana University basketball team is treated as if it mattered to the future of the republic. It doesn’t, by the way.

Do They Really Hate Hillary So Much…

The company Trump’s keeps, from Bobby Knight – Trump misspelled the name of his “dear friend” – who was given to throwing chairs and assaulting his players, to convicted sex offender Mike Tyson, is treated as though it is all just part of a rollicking reality television show passing as a presidential campaign. It should be reported for what it is, a window into what passes for the man’s soul. Get over waiting for the media, especially television, to bring down Trump. That’s like waiting for Godot. Not going to happen.

Clinton’s flat-footed, unimaginative, uninspiring candidacy is apparently all that now stands in Trump’s way and (I can’t believe I’m writing this) it may not be enough. Trump has controlled the political narrative every single day since he slid down his own escalator and into position as Republican frontrunner. There is no reason to believe he won’t continue to dominate, unless that is those with standing in the party he plans to takeover decide to really push back.

This is their Joe McCarthy moment. Do they really hate Hillary so much they would risk turning the country, not to mention their party, over to this dangerous buffoon?

Senate GOP Leadership: Waiting for Trump

Senate GOP Leadership: Waiting for Trump

In a remarkable and utterly sobering article in the most recent New York Magazine, Andrew Sullivan summed up our national dilemma: “An American elite that has presided over massive and increasing public debt, that failed to prevent 9/11, that chose a disastrous war in the Middle East, that allowed financial markets to nearly destroy the global economy, and that is now so bitterly divided the Congress is effectively moot in a constitutional democracy: ‘We Respectables’ deserve a comeuppance. The vital and valid lesson of the Trump phenomenon is that if the elites cannot govern by compromise, someone outside will eventually try to govern by popular passion and brute force.”

Enter Trumpism.

Republicans, of course, brought much of this on themselves, but pointing that out now is about as useful as engaging in the false equivalency that says the candidacy of a hateful, arrogant, uninformed demagogue is really just the same as that of an experienced candidate. Even with her all too obvious “trust” issues, Clinton has served as first lady, a U.S. senator and secretary of state. She is competent and informed. The almost certain Democratic nominee isn’t my first or even eighth choice for president of the United States, but good lord she is no Donald Trump.

Andrew Sullivan puts it directly to those Republicans who waffle and waver about whether to push in their chips with Trump, as well as those who will just pretend to ignore him. “They should resist any temptation to loyally back the nominee or to sit this election out,” he writes. “They must take the fight to Trump at every opportunity, unite with Democrats and Independents against him, and be prepared to sacrifice one election in order to save their party and their country.

“For Trump is not just a wacky politician of the far right, or a riveting television spectacle, or a Twitter phenom and bizarre working-class hero. He is not just another candidate to be parsed and analyzed by TV pundits in the same breath as all the others. In terms of our liberal democracy and constitutional order, Trump is an extinction-level event. It’s long past time we started treating him as such.”

A handful of Republican consultants, a few conservative journalists and columnists and one GOP senator, Nebraska’s Ben Sasse, have drawn a line they will not cross to support a political pretender. It’s not enough.

This really is a Joe McCarthy moment for the Republican Party and the nation. Republicans should be asking where are the Ralph Flanders?


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


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.


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.

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.


Worthy of Winning…

“Sincerity – if you can fake that, you’ve got it made.”

                                                    – Comedian George Burns

– – – – –

We’ve just experienced a week in politics that was in turn sincere and something a good deal less. For once during this pre-primary season the guy with the squirrel on his head didn’t completely dominate the news. Rather two guys who will never be president and one who might, but hasn’t – and maybe won’t – announce showed us what the “real” campaign has been missing.

Let’s call it sincerity or, if you prefer, authenticity.

Joe Biden with Stephen Colbert

Joe Biden with Stephen Colbert

Vice President Joe Biden’s wrenchingly candid visit last week with Stephen Colbert on late night television was the “authentic” political moment of the week – maybe the decade. Biden, still coming to grips with the too-early death of his son, Beau, talked from the heart (not from the talking points) about loss, love, politics and what’s really important. Only a complete cynic could have watched the conversation and not felt that the oft maligned, gaffe prone vice president wasn’t a real guy dealing with the kind of real loss only a father (or mother) can know.

The pundits are all over the map about whether Biden will make a “late” entry into the Democratic primary contest and I won’t hazard a guess, but regardless of what Biden ultimately decides to do he has shown the tired and hungry voters what a politician who is also human looks like.

Two Guys Who Will Never be President…

Rick Perry, the oft-maligned former governor of Texas, in a way did something similar. Facing reality, as in no money and no support, Perry became the first of many to exit the Republican race. He might have held on a while longer, gone through the motions of another debate, but it seems as though Perry knew he was toast and pulled the plug on his toaster, er, campaign. For a guy who stumbled and bumbled through the 2012 campaign and spent the last three years attempting to re-invent himself with new glasses and serious policy pronouncements, Perry’s announcement seemed like a statement of authenticity from a guy who always looked like a deer caught in the political headlights once he got north of Austin.

The Never Will and the Never Should Be...

The Never Will and the Never Should Be…

The other unusually authentic moment in recent days was, from of all people, the stumbling, bumbling governor of Louisiana Bobby Jindal. Jindal did what every other Republican presidential candidate and most every responsible person in the party wants to do – he went all Trump on The Donald.

During a speech in Washington, Jindal called Trump “unstable,” “a narcissist,” “unserious,” and “a carnival act.”

“I want to say what everyone is thinking about Donald Trump but is afraid to say,” Jindal said as he ripped Trump the same way Trump rips everyone.

“He is shallow, there is no substance. He doesn’t know anything about policy, he has no idea what he is talking about. He makes it up on the fly,” Jindal said.

Conservative columnist Kathleen Parker correctly said Jindal was a “1 percenter [in the polls] with nothing too lose.” But give the governor credit for candor even if he was playing his Trump card in order to gin up attention for a campaign that is going no where. For good measure Jindal condemned Trump’s latest broadside disparaging Carly Fiorina’s looks, a comment Trump, of course, denied, but also clearly said.

“I think it’s pretty outrageous for him to be attacking anybody’s appearance when he looks like he’s got a squirrel sitting on his head,” Jindal told CBS News. Thanks to Jindal we have a new metric for the campaign: Trump leading in Iowa and in also in squirrels siting on his head. At long last the GOP campaign is getting down to substance.

The chattering classes – yours truly included – have spent the summer trying to fathom the rise of the Bloviator from 5th Avenue and, I think, the answers are many, complex and disturbing. But nothing explains Trump and the current political season more than the American longing for something real, even if in Trump’s case “real” means beneath contempt.

Say what you will about Trump, and I’ll say more soon about where he may be taking the Grand Old Party, but what you see is what you get. A letter to the editor writer in a paper I regularly read said it pretty succulently.

“I like what Donald Trump is doing even though I could never vote for him,” she wrote. “He is busy bulldozing the barricades of political correctness. Donald “Trumps” them all with his bravado. His campaign is a momentary breath of fresh air — freedom to speak our minds; thus the high rating in the polls. He has cleared the way for men like Ted Cruz and Rand Paul to be even bolder without the media spinning their thoughts into unrecognizable smudge. Perception is everything. The number of people viewing the debates has doubled, and those voters are hearing the candidates for themselves. Yes.”

Yes, indeed. Trump may be a bully, a bore and buffoon, but he is a real bully, bore and buffoon. You can’t fake Trump’s kind of sincerity.

The Appalling Success of Trump…

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan

Canadian historian Margaret MacMillan

The gifted historian Margaret MacMillan, a Canadian who understands leadership and American politics, correctly describes a significant part of Trump’s appeal.

MacMillan told the Globe and Mail newspaper: “I think there’s a real longing among the public for leaders who say, ‘Look, this is where I stand and this is what I think and, if you don’t like it, let me explain what I want to do and why.’ This dynamic is part of the appalling success of Donald Trump. He’s not afraid to say what he thinks, and people – in my view completely mistakenly – find this authentic and refreshing in a politician.”

Trump’s appeal is more complex and more troubling than his “truth telling” in the cause of destroying political correctness, but his say-what’s-on-his-mind approach to politics is so completely at odds with the poll tested sound bites of John Boehner and Hillary Clinton as to truly make him appear to be something special to a sizable group of Republican voters.

Clinton’s handlers meanwhile are so desperate to set free their inauthentic candidate from her stilted self that they have hit the re-set button for about the twelfth time in the effort to try and make Hillary human.

“They want to show her humor,” one Clinton adviser said recently. “They want to show her heart.” The coming months for the still front-running Democrat will “be a period of trying to shed her scriptedness.”

The latest Clinton makeover prompted the Washington Post’s Dana Milbank to quip, “Planned spontaneity? A scripted attempt to go off script? This puts the ‘moron’ into oxymoron.”

Ironically, perhaps the one thing each party’s polling leader shares is a need to behave like an authentic real person. Trump needs to begin to act and talk like a mature adult and not a completely self absorbed teenager who meets every challenge with a put down, while Clinton needs to act and talk like she’s not the political equivalent of the voice of GPS system in your car – all business and no humanity.

Joe Biden’s favor to the country last week was to show us how much we dislike phonies and appreciate authenticity. Being human after all shouldn’t require practice or makeovers.

The famous photo of Stevenson with a hole in his shoe...

The famous photo of Stevenson with a hole in his shoe…

“I’m not an old, experienced hand at politics,” Democrat Adali Stevenson said as he was about to lose the presidency for the second time in 1956. “But I am now seasoned enough to have learned that the hardest thing about any political campaign is how to win without proving that you are unworthy of winning.”

Most of us intuitively know that Trump’s deliberate bluster and Clinton’s scripted calculation are manufactured characteristics that have more to do with their own deep seated insecurities than with the qualities we actually admire and seek in a leader. Real leadership is about being secure enough to listen, not just talk. It’s also about sincerity, humility, self-awareness, humor, empathy and decency. Gosh, those sounds like human characteristics.

Neither candidate currently leading the polls is likely during the interminable campaign to convince a majority of voters that they are real people with real human characteristics and are deserving of leading the country. Neither seems likely to win, as Adali Stevenson said, without proving they are unworthy of winning.

While fearing that we’ll be forced to settle for something less we keep looking for someone who doesn’t need to re-invent themselves in order to be “authentic,” we keep looking for a winner worthy of winning.


It’s the Judgment…

“Would you say that – Hillary Clinton is honest and trustworthy or not?” 

Question in August 20 Quinnipiac Poll of voters in Ohio, Florida and Pennsylvania. Only one in three voters in these key “swing” state said “yes” that Clinton was honest and trustworthy.

– – – – –

The Summer of Trump has also been the Summer of the Server – Hillary’s server.

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

Former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton checks her PDA. REUTERS/Kevin Lamarque

The Democratic frontrunner and heir apparent has essentially squandered a long summer than might have been spent creating feel good moments of connection with voters from Portsmouth to Portland. Instead she – and we – have endured the steady drip, drip, drip of detail about her still unfathomable and still unexplained decision to use a private, non-governmental email server while she served as secretary of state.

“Whether out of pride, stubbornness or something else, Clinton has misread legitimate concerns about her private e-mail server and what they say about her,” Dan Balz writes in the Washington Post. “As a result, she has badly mishandled the issue. She has treated it almost solely as a legal problem (which it could be) rather than a political problem — just as she seemed to approach the promotion of her memoir of her tenure as secretary of state as a book tour rather than the start of her presidential campaign.”

The drip, drip, drip – it’s like a faucet that makes a noise in the night keeping you awake – is going to continue into the fall and beyond. Hillary has seen to that.

I try to spend as little of my time as possible thinking about email servers. I prefer to think about the baseball season, the next book I’m reading or red wine from Burgundy, but nonetheless I’ve been doing my share of server maintenance, thank you very much. I’ve concluded I’m less troubled by the allegations that some obscure, but classified State Department memo from our embassy in Djibouti ended up unprotected on Clinton’s server than I am about what the entire tiresome episode says about Hillary’s judgment. It speaks volumes.

Clinton  campaign logo

Clinton campaign logo

When Americans eventually get around to entering the privacy of the voting booth more than a year from now they’ll face a stark choice for president between two inevitably flawed human beings. Elections almost always come down to two less-than-perfect choices. Hillary Clinton may well be one of the choices and in the privacy of that polling place we’ll do the mental math on whether we are more comfortable with her, her history, her experience, her positions and, yes, her judgment than we are with this guy Jeb or Walker, Carson or, urgh Trump, or maybe someone else.

In the private deliberations that constitute the most personal aspects of the democratic process, we’ll decide which of the candidates we will be most comfortable with for the next four years. It’s always a bit of crapshoot. I think most of us make these decisions based on fundamental questions that we regularly apply to people we encounter in our daily lives. When we pull the lever or punch the ticket we want a sense that we can trust the president of the United States not to be stupid, or rash, or so removed from us and our lives that the most powerful person in the world simply can’t relate. In other words, we really want a president we can trust.

Which brings me back to that private email server. The fundamental questions about the Summer of the Server still hang in the air, including most importantly why? Why did she do it? Why go to all the trouble to circumvent the State Department’s own email system? Why hire your own people to manage that decision and then purge the emails not deemed “official.” Why? Why? Why?

And why, when it all began blowing up, why not deal with it forthrightly and candidly? Clinton’s belated explanation – really more a discussion than an explanation – of the computer decision was that she wished she would have done it differently. Really? Why differently? Because the entire episode has become a hassle that threatens to mess with your presidential campaign? Or was the decision just faulty judgment? Was the decision to go outside the regular email system just another decision like what to wear to the office or what to have for lunch? Clinton seems to suggest the decision received about that much consideration. But her explanation – or her expression of regret in doing it the way she did – doesn’t wash.

“At the end of the day, I am sorry that this has been confusing to people and has raised a lot of questions, but there are answers to all these questions,” Clinton told NBC’s Andrea Mitchell in one of her very rare sit down interviews. “And I take responsibility and it wasn’t the best choice.” Clinton added that she used a private email set up when serving as a United States senator and just didn’t give the matter much thought. She should have and on that point judgment turns.

The only really plausible explanation for the private email is that Clinton did not want prying eyes to see her electronic communication. She can’t – or won’t say it – but that is the only reason for doing what she did and for creating one of the greatest self-inflicted political wounds in modern presidential history.

In the whole wide scheme of things, Clinton’s email issue may turn out to be a tempest in a crock pot – we still haven’t seen all the emails and probably never will – but as a glimpse into how a possible president of the United States makes decisions and evaluates issues it’s a picture window. Secrecy, legal arguments attempting to cover political problems and a raging sense of entitlement explain much of Clinton’s 40-plus years in public life. The email server is just the latest Exhibit A.

Consider what Clinton might have done and chose not to do when she left the State Department. She might have joined a prestigious university and lectured on international relations. She might have landed at a think tank where she could have penned her memoir and readied for another campaign for the White House. She might have emulated Jimmy Carter and humbly undertaken something like his global work for democracy and human health. The Clinton family foundation is certainly doing some impressive work, but Hillary is most directly connected to the foundation’s frequently questionable fundraising. Not three people in a hundred could tell you what the Clinton Foundation has actually done other than raise money enrich the principals.

The Hamptons vacation rental

The Hamptons vacation rental

The questions that surround the foundation’s money raising, particularly when that fundraising involved a once and future presidential candidate, were as predictable as the continuing questions about her emails ands servers. Clinton either missed the likelihood of scrutiny and scandal surrounding the Clinton Foundation or she simply decided the millions she collected in speaking fees and foundation contributions were a price to be paid to enjoy a personal income that permitted her and the former president to recently plunk down $100,000 for a two week vacation rental in the Hamptons.

Whatever you make of the high dollar talks and foreign contributions to the Clinton Foundation, it’s clear the candidate chose the one path in her post-State Department career that was absolutely certain to bring her grief and scrutiny as she pursued the White House. Clinton chose to parlay her celebrity and contacts in order to cash in, when good taste, ethics and better political judgment might have counseled a much different approach.

It’s the Judgment Stupid…

 Arguably the biggest, most consequential vote Clinton cast in her single term as a senator from New York was to authorize George W. Bush to take military action against Iraq in 2002. That vote went a long way to costing her the Democratic presidential nomination in 2008 when candidate Barack Obama brought up the subject time and again. It was then and remains today a judgment call that Clinton got wrong.

“I made it very clear that I made a mistake, plain and simple. And I have written about it in my book, I have talked about it in the past,” Clinton said in May while campaigning Iowa. But in fact she persistently avoiding calling her vote a mistake until after she had lost to Obama and only admitted the error in judgment when, one suspects, she was again thinking about another bid for the White House.

Judgment is a funny thing. You know it when you see it. Lyndon Johnson pushing for voting rights legislation in the face of bitter opposition from southerners in his own party was not just a display of political courage, but an example of practiced political judgment. Escalating the Vietnam War was just the opposite. Ronald Reagan confounding conservatives in his own party on arms control, Harry Truman recognizing the State of Israel at the first possible moment and John Kennedy overruling his generals during the Cuban missile crisis are examples of judgment exercised in critical and enduring ways. It is what president’s do and what we hire them to do.

Hillary Clinton has a resume and history going for her. Her recent and enhanced appeal to woman voters still constitutes the real rationale for her candidacy. She may make it all the way, particularly given the opposition. Questions about her judgment may give way to loftier things, like whether the nation, at long last, is ready to embrace first woman in the Oval Office. But as summer turns to fall and the interminable campaign stumbles forward, Clinton stumbles right along limited in her ability to talk about real issues, while she deals with he judgment calls from the past.

The 3:00 am commercial from 2008

The 3:00 am commercial from 2008

Clinton’s most talked about television commercial from her 2008 campaign now strikes a sharp note with those of us who think she has a judgment problem. You may recall that commercial – a ringing telephone at 3:00 am with a voice over ominously suggesting that the person who answers a middle of the night call in the White House must be sober and experienced. The message, of course, was the Clinton was and Obama wasn’t.

Obama’s campaign manager David Plouffe deftly responded a little over seven years ago to that commercial: “Senator Clinton had her red phone moment. She had it in 2002,” Mr. Plouffe said. “It was on the Iraq war – she and John McCain and George Bush all gave the wrong answer.”

Plouffe added, “This is about what you say when you answer the phone, what kind of judgment you demonstrate.”

That really is the point and also why Clinton will continue to struggle to convince voters that her judgment is up to the job she seeks. Ironically, all of Clinton’s big problems – the email mess, her post-State Department speaking career and her vote on war with Iraq – are not issues manufactured by her legion of opponents. These are unforced errors, the worst kind in politics and almost always the product of a lack of judgment.

Playing Not to Lose…

Hillary Clinton is campaigning as if she were running out the clock, trying not to lose rather than playing to win.

North Carolina's Dean Smith

North Carolina’s Dean Smith

The late, great North Carolina basketball coach Dean Smith was one of the great innovators in basketball. Smith, who died earlier this year and will long be remembered – especially by Duke fans – as a nice guy who rarely finished anywhere other than in first place.

Smith pioneered the use of analytics to assess the performance of his teams. He once said he would have been happy being a high school math teacher. His players adored him, even when he pushed them mercilessly during practices because he also praised and encouraged them lavishly during a game when everyone was watching.

Fellow coaches revered him and adopted his lessons. Every player on the bench got to his feet, for example, when a teammate left the game and Smith’s players knew they were expected to help a teammate to his feet after that teammate took a charge.

The Coach – or Candidate – as Innovator…

Coach Smith was also a very political man in a low-key, but effective way. He said late in his life that North Carolina would never have accepted him had they known how liberal he was. I doubt Hillary Clinton is much of a basketball fan, but the great Coach Smith could probably tell her a thing or two about the danger of going too soon into the political equivalent of the four-corner offense that Smith pioneered.

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute during a game last season

Carolina ran the Smith 4-corner as a tribute to the great coach during a game last season

The four corner offense was Dean Smith’s brilliant strategy to hold on to a lead by killing the clock – holding the ball, passing, cutting, passing, cutting, passing and never looking to score. It was offense by playing it safe and often it worked just as planned. In the Atlantic Coast Conference championship game in 1982, Smith’s team held the ball and a one point lead for the last eight minutes of the game before defeating Virginia. The final score was 47-45 and that game helped usher in the college basketball shot clock that essentially made Smith’s hold-the-ball offense obsolete.

Clinton’s flat, joyless, dull campaign, insulated from any meaningful contact with the press and featuring only tightly controlled interaction with voters is a strategy to run down the clock. Designed to be risk free, it is really the type of political effort that induces unforced errors.

Hillary: The Inevitable…Again

Clinton is presumed, apparently by her handlers and by herself, to be so far ahead of her Democratic challengers that she can coast to victory and then glide into the general election. To mix the sports metaphors, she could be using the primary as a political spring training to get in shape for the long regular season, but rather than taking extra batting practice she’s jogging out on the warning track. Clinton partisans proclaim how different things are this time than when she employed essentially the same approach and lost in 2008. But there is little evidence that Clinton’s “new” political approach is anything new, at all.

Hillary Clintonmwalks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Hillary Clinton walks through the Iowa State Fair in Des Moines on Saturday, Aug. 15, 2015. Photographer: Andrew Harrer/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Clinton has lightened up a bit lately on the vice-like control that has been a hallmark of her approach to politics, but she still gives the impression she is trying to prevent a mistake rather than win an election.

Politico’s Rachael Bade reported recently that Clinton went through all the motions at a cattle call Democratic event in northeastern Iowa, but rather than work the crowd and shake every hand in sight she briefly mingled and “then she disappeared behind a makeshift black curtain walling off a corner of the ballroom. Fans pushed up against the veil, trying to get a peak of the 2016 Democratic front-runner. But her security detail held them back, allowing only a handful to enter and see the hidden candidate before she left, leaving a swarm of disappointed voters who didn’t get a handshake.”

Her husband would still be in the room, waving off aides trying to get him moving, while he schmoozed and charmed voters. Not Hillary’s style.

The Clinton campaign launched a $2 million television ad buy recently in Iowa and New Hampshire that featured two well-produced, but strangely cold-blooded ads that were all about how Hillary’s mother had been such an influence in her life. I don’t doubt the genuine feeling, even passion, behind the message, but couldn’t help thinking as I watched the spots that Clinton can’t even talk about her mother without a tightly scripted pitch.

Still from Clinton TV spot

Still from Clinton TV spot

The commercials were designed to illustrate the human side of the candidate, to “re-introduce” the one person in the race – maybe Trump excepted – who we already know really, really well.

The latest commercials focus on the perseverance and courage of Dorothy Rodham and feature Clinton saying, “this is why I do this…” You can almost see the candidate and the ad maker huddling over a script parsing every word trying to gin up maximum emotion. A less controlling campaign and a more natural politician might have just let the camera roll, while the candidate talked from the heart about her mom, but that is clearly not Hillary’s style. She is so controlled she has become what Trump never will be – bland.

When Clinton enjoyed a big lead over Barack Obama back in 2007 she was content, way beyond the point she should have been, to play it safe and sit on that lead. She went into the four corners and lost any political momentum and then the Democratic nomination. She seems to have learned little from what must have been an extremely painful experience and failing to learn lessons in politics is often deadly.

Hitting the Delete Button…

The Clinton email saga has been the one consistent message swirling around her candidacy for months now and we may just be seeing the beginning. Clinton’s approach to campaigning – slow, measured, risk averse and secretive – is mirrored in her mostly ineffective response to the news that she used only a personal email set-up during her years as secretary of state.

So far she has offered no believable explanation as to why she went to all the trouble to work around the government’s own email system other than to say it’s no big deal and amounts to a would be scandal dreamed up by nasty partisans determined to attack her. That has essentially been Clinton’s response to every criticism dating back to the Rose Law firm and Whitewater.

One suspects she hasn’t offered a believable rationale for the email situation because there is no believable rationale. She went off the government system, installed her own private server managed by her own private contractor because she didn’t want to leave an electronic record of her correspondence that might one day be fodder for attack. It has now become clear that several key Clinton staff members used the same approach and now with the FBI involved there will be certainly more questions about whether information of a sensitive national security nature was compromised.

It all begs the question – why? And that question demands a follow-up: why stall and dither and hedge on dealing with the controversy? If there is nothing to hide, why hide?

The conventional political wisdom remains, even as poll numbers tighten and her favorable numbers tank – voters increasingly think she is about as trustworthy as Trump – that Clinton can’t possible lose the Democratic nomination. Under this theory her fundraising, her potentially historic status as the first woman president and her last name will ultimately carry the day.

The New York Time’s in-house conservative columnist Ross Douthat made his own fearless prediction this way: “Many things are possible. But to this soothsayer, it feels like a good time to double down on that thesis instead, and make my prediction as firm and wiggle-free as possible: Hillary’s going to win the nomination, and it isn’t going to be particularly close.”

Maybe. But it has also become clear that Clinton is no where near the natural political animal her husband remains and, in fact, she may be one of the worst candidates in terms of basic political skills of any “sure” winner in recent American political history.

Some other observers contend it is already just too late to depose Clinton as the Democratic nominee, but just see what happens if the email issue, or some yet unnamed scandal, reveals more and more vulnerabilities. And what happens if Clinton stumbles badly in a face-to-face encounter with Bernie Sanders or, heaven forbid, during an interview with a tough reporter.

Playing to Win…

When Dean Smith finally brought his four corner offense to near perfection, the NCAA changed the rules in a way that destroyed his strategy. Holding the ball would no longer work, so the great coach did the only sensible thing – he adapted. The great coach designed new strategies based on a new and different game and Smith’s Tarheels kept right on winning.

Politics isn’t basketball, of course, but politics, like the hoops game, is always about adapting, moving and being willing to call an unusual play that catches an opponent flat-footed. Dean Smith mastered the four corner offense and then when he needed to do something different he did. As one of his players said when reflecting on his methods, “He never coached not to lose. He coached to win.”

The Democratic frontrunner is playing not to lose and she may find that is a sure fire way not to win.


The Case for Jeannette

Poor old Alexander Hamilton. He’s about to lose his coveted spot on the $10 bill and be displaced by a woman. It’s way past time for that but still, he was Alexander Hamilton.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

A Founding Father about to be displaced.

The first Secretary of the Treasury, inventor of American governmental finance and a top aide to General Washington, Hamilton probably should have been president. But was also born out of wedlock, got mixed up in a very messy love affair during the height of his political career and then got killed by Aaron Burr in a duel. He could have been a great president, but like Daniel Webster, Henry Clay, William Jennings Bryan, Adali Stevenson – all remarkable men who might have been great presidents – Hamilton sadly never got there. Now apparently he’s toast on the ten spot.

I come not to bury old Hamilton, but rather to praise him, but also to make the case for the woman who should grace the nation’s currency as Hamilton rides off into assured oblivion as the Founding Father most likely to be forgotten. There are a number of woman worthy of gracing the folding green – Eleanor Roosevelt for sure and Harriet Tubman, Frances Perkins and Rosa Parks, just to name a few – and I would gladly slip a few $10 bills carrying the image of any number of remarkable American women into my money clip.

Rankin shortly after his first election to Congress in 1916.

Rankin shortly after her first election to Congress in 1916.

But my choice is a bit different, a woman from the West, a champion of hard working miners and loggers, a supporter of organized labor, a liberal Republican (when there were such things), an advocate of women and children, a politician without guile or spite, but full of passion and principle, the first woman elected to Congress – even before woman could vote in many places – and, perhaps above all, an unabashed and stunningly courageous advocate for peace. An elegant fashion plate, too, who was surely a commanding figure on the stump. Her broad-brimmed hats and carefully tailored clothing created a political fashion craze decades before Hillary’s pant suits.

I say let’s put the incredible Jeannette Rankin from Missoula, Montana on the currency.

Rankin was pacesetter, role model, remarkably accomplished woman and elected official and she would be a powerful reminder that peace, humility, decency and equality are American values that must not be quietly tucked away in history books, but held forth as what we – what Americans – really should be all about.

Elected to Congress the first time in 1916, Rankin is best remembered for her vote against U.S. participation in the First World War. Her vote was a courageous and controversial move, but one completely in keeping with her values and beliefs. Nearly a hundred years later that vote doesn’t look too bad. Rankin ran for the U.S. Senate in 1918, lost the Republican primary in Montana, and ran in the general election as a third-party candidate. After losing that election Rankin re-grouped and re-dedicated herself to the cause of peace. She worked tirelessly for that cause between the world wars, while continuing her advocacy for women and children.

Rankin campaign button.

Rankin campaign button.

In one of the great ironies of American political history, Rankin ran for Congress a second time in 1940 just as the United States started in earnest down the path to involvement in the Second World War. When Japanese forces attacked Pearl Harbor in December 1941, Rankin was back in Congress and facing her own moral and political crisis – whether to vote for a declaration of war. Agonizing over the decision – her brother and political confidante told her a “no” vote would amount to political suicide – Rankin nonetheless refused to vote for war. She stunned the House of Representatives and many of her constituents when, her voice filled with emotion, she said “I cannot vote for war.”

15 Jan 1968, Washington, DC, USA --- A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). --- Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

January 1968, Washington, DC — A group of women belonging to the Jeanette Rankin Brigade march in protest of the Vietnam War. Jeanette Rankin, the first female congress member, stands holding the banner at center (wearing eyeglasses). — Image by © Bettmann/CORBIS

Rankin’s lone vote against war in 1941 effectively ended her political career if not her anti-war activism. Rankin retired from elective politics, but was still leading marches against war – this time in Southeast Asia – as a spry 90 year-old in the early 1970’s. She died in 1973.

I’ve read all the Rankin biographies (and the one on her very political and very wealthy brother, Wellington), tried to understand her place in Montana and American history, even looked through some of her correspondence carefully preserved at the wonderful Montana Historical Society in Helena, but strangely still don’t feel I know everything I want to know about this remarkable, passionate and principled woman. By most accounts she had that effect on most everyone she encountered.

Mike Mansfield, for example, who replaced Rankin in the House of Representatives in 1942 and went on to his own distinguished career in the Senate, profoundly admired the elegant, outspoken woman from Missoula. I talked with Mansfield about Montana politics shortly before his death and when the conversation turned to Jeannette, Mansfield in his candid and clipped way said simply, “She was remarkable.”

Jeannette Rankin

Jeannette Rankin

My favorite comment about Rankin comes from an unlikely source. After her vote against war in 1941, the famous Kansas editor William Allen White, a strong advocate of American aid to the allies before Pearl Harbor and therefore on the other side of the great foreign policy debate at the time, wrote in his Emporia Gazette newspaper:

“Well – look at Jeannette Rankin. Probably a hundred men in Congress would like to do what she did. Not one of them had the courage to do it.”

“The Gazette,” White continued, “disagrees with the wisdom on her position. But, Lord, it was a brave thing: and its bravery somehow discounts its folly. When in a hundred years from now, courage, sheer courage based on moral inclination is celebrated in this country, the name of Jeannette Rankin, who stood firm in folly for her faith, will be written in monumental bronze, not for what she did but for the way she did it.”

I say put Jeannette Rankin on the $10 bill. She would be a fantastic reminder that personal and political courage make American heroes.