“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 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.
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.
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?
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.
“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.”
Every 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.
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.”
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?
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.
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.
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.
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?”
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.
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.”
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.
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.
“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.
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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.
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.
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 hard right in the GOP dislikes Bush more than any Democrat. The Red Statewebsite 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.”
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.
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.
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.
Conventional political wisdom holds – we all know how “conventional” the current campaign has become – that Bernie Sanders has no (nadda, zip, zero) chance of becoming the Democratic nominee for president, let alone reaching the Oval Office.
Unthinkable, the Beltway Gasbags say, that the former mayor of the People’s Republic of Burlington wins, even though Vermonters have been sending him to Washington since 1991.
Sanders must then be doomed by his age? He is 74-years old.
Or maybe it’s his unruly shock of white hair that looks like it was styled in a wind tunnel. Maybe he’s too Jewish. Maybe its because he comes from Vermont, a small, weirdly shaped state that unless you are from New Hampshire (or Canada), most Americans couldn’t find on a map.
Or perhaps it’s the native New Yawker in Sanders, who sounds like a Big Apple cab driver, well at least he sounds like the kind of cab driver New York had before all New York cab drivers started sounding like they grew up in Somalia or Pakistan.
None of his apparent political shortcomings – age, hair style, positions – fully explains why Sanders has a “he can’t be elected” problem. His real problem is the “S” word – he’s a s-o-c-i-a-l-i-s-t.
Actually, Bernie describes himself as a “democratic socialist,” which in real life – and in Europe and Canada – means he believes in the democratic political process – things like elections, representative government, trying to convince others to agree with you. But, he also believes the system is too often rigged to leave out the little guy. What a radical idea. He’s actually been very consistently saying this for, like, 40 years.
Still, in our politics describing yourself as a “democratic socialist” is a little like being convicted of child abuse while reading Chairman Mao’s Little Red Book. It is the kiss of political death this socialism.
But why? Why has only the United States among the rest of the world’s industrial and, yes democratic societies, never had a particularly serious socialist political movement? Canada, France, Great Britain, Denmark, Sweden, on and on have a 20th Century tradition of what Sanders calls democratic socialism, but not the United States.
But before we lock up the women and children and worry about nationalizing the railroads, let’s consider what Sanders (and others of similar ilk) have actually said and done over the course of American history and why the term and the idea have become such political kryptonite.
In their book It Didn’t Happen Here – Why Socialism Failed in the United States authors Seymour Martin Lipset and Gary Marks observe that an American “working class party,” with a foundation of trade union members, never caught on in the U.S. precisely because what social democrats offer is what many Americans already believe they have – “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist society.” The authors call it Americanism.
In essence, although most Americans would never say it this way, we have long embraced a political philosophy – Americanism, if you will – that is wrapped up in our aspirations, our myths, and our ideas of exceptionalism. Americanism is also deeply rooted in our notion that our political system is in no way separate from free market capitalism and that by extension, capitalism translates to “a democratic, socially classless, anti-elitist” society.
As a result, when a political candidate suggests that capitalism might not be the complete answer to American issues like wide spread poverty, racial or class inequality or, just to mention one of Sanders’ key issues, making certain every young person who wants a higher education gets one.
Capitalism = Democracy…
For most of the 20th Century the Americanism equals capitalism construct has defined American politics. To suggest that capitalism might not be the answer to every one of society’s issues has been a good way to get branded with, well, the socialist label. Suggest that the really wealthy need to pay a greater share of taxes because, well, they can afford to do so and you are guilty of “class warfare,” the ugly twin of socialism.
But it wasn’t always so. Once the Sanders’ notion of “democratic socialism” was seen as a legitimate alternative to the policy prescriptions of conservative Republicans and more left of center Democrats.
In the election of 1912, one of the most interesting, complicated, and important presidential elections in our history, four major candidates sought the White House. Two of the contenders – Theodore Roosevelt, running on the Bull Moose ticket, and the election winner, Democrat Woodrow Wilson – were certainly not socialists, but did advocate a robust form of progressive politics that included sweeping attacks on the excesses of big business, support for organized labor, and improvements in the lives and economic conditions of working Americans.
A third candidate, incumbent Republican President William Howard Taft, was a kind of “establishment Republican” of his day and ours. Taft would not be out of place or uncomfortable in the modern Republican Party of John Boehner or Jeb Bush. Taft was a candidate embraced by big business, a big man with little interest in the kind of “activist” presidency that Roosevelt or Wilson personified.
The fourth major candidate in 1912 was a socialist – Eugene Victor Debs, an Indiana-born, railroad union leader who ran for president five different times. Debs captured nearly a million of the 15 million votes cast in 1912 – his issues then were essentially Sanders’ issues now – and that election proved to be the high water mark of American socialism.
Eight years later Debs was running for president again, but this time from behind the bars of the federal penitentiary in Atlanta where he was doing time for speaking against U.S. involvement in the Great War, a victim of the era’s hysteria about “radicals” who dared to veer from conventional ideas about American patriotism.
The “Radical” Ideas of Eugene V. Debs…
At the end of Debs’ trial – he was convicted under the Sedition Law of 1917 – he spoke to the court and said, in part:
“In this country—the most favored beneath the bending skies—we have vast areas of the richest and most fertile soil, material resources in inexhaustible abundance, the most marvelous productive machinery on earth, and millions of eager workers ready to apply their labor to that machinery to produce in abundance for every man, woman, and child—and if there are still vast numbers of our people who are the victims of poverty and whose lives are an unceasing struggle all the way from youth to old age, until at last death comes to their rescue and lulls these hapless victims to dreamless sleep, it is not the fault of the Almighty: it cannot be charged to nature, but it is due entirely to the outgrown social system in which we live that ought to be abolished not only in the interest of the toiling masses but in the higher interest of all humanity…”
In his fascinating history of the Socialist Party in America, historian Jack Ross details the number of elected officials in the country who were elected on a Socialist ticket, most of them at time Eugene Debs was the American face of socialism. Ross’s list makes for interesting reading.
When Milwaukee and Many Other Cities Elected Socialists…
In the first two decades of the 20th Century, hundreds of Socialists were elected to city councils, as mayors, and state legislators in nearly every state. Wisconsin – take that Scott Walker – elected literally hundreds of Socialists and Milwaukee had a Socialist mayor nearly continuously from 1910 to 1960. One of those mayors, Daniel Hoan, served from 1916-1940 and another, Frank Zeidler, from 1948-1960.
These so called “sewer socialists” sounded a good deal like Bernie Sanders in their demands for greater focus on the needs of the working class and they governed well, providing efficient and effective city governments. They would not have been re-elected time and again had they not been good at the nuts and bolts of governing and a good place to look for evidence of Sanders’ version of democratic socialism is his time as a small town mayor.
Butte and Anaconda, Montana had Socialist mayors before the Great War. Socialists were elected as county clerk and sheriff in Minidoka County, Idaho in the same period, a place where no Democrat has been elected in decades. The city of Sisseton, South Dakota had a Socialist mayor and Nebraska elected a Socialist to the state board of regents. But no more.
With the exception of the owners of a few Che Guevara posters leftover from the 1960’s, American socialists are about as prevalent today – and relevant – as, well, Che Guevara.
“Socialism only works in two places: Heaven where they don’t need it and hell where they already have it.” – Ronald Reagan
My own theory as to why the socialist philosophy failed to gain greater political traction in the United States relates to the aggressive and very effective demonization of American socialists that began in the post-Civil War era, accelerated during the Red Scare of the 1920’s, climaxed with Joe McCarthy in the 1950’s, and has remained a key fixture of conservative political rhetoric ever since. The steady branding of “socialism” as far outside the American mainstream, combined with the conflating of “democratic socialism” with Soviet communism sealed the political fate of the heirs of Eugene V. Debs.
In post-World War I America, the Palmer Raids, initiated by the attorney general in a Democratic administration, rounded up thousands of “radicals,” many of them immigrants, and hundreds were deported because of their alleged leftist or un-American attitudes. America suffered a “red scare” that tended to feature more violations of civil liberties than any real threat to national security.
Congressional committees and J. Edgar Hoover’s FBI later lavished attention on leftists in Hollywood, the media, and in government. Increasingly little if any distinction was made between “democratic socialists” and communists, even though you can plausibly argue that anti-communism (and anti-socialism), with all its excesses, has been a far more powerful force in American politics than any theory advanced by Karl Marx.
Joe McCarthy’s “red baiting” in the early 1950’s briefly made him the most feared and loathed man in the country and his reckless methods destroyed careers and reputations. Every Democratic president since Franklin Roosevelt has been called a socialist or a communist by someone on the political right. Roosevelt, a New York multi-millionaire, was no socialist and, ironically, may have actually saved the country – and American capitalism – from moving to a radical leftist place during the Great Depression. Still the far right, even now, laments the “socialist” agenda of the New Deal.
Even FDR was a “Socialist…”
Roosevelt did accomplish some radical change – massive spending on public works, breaking up the huge and often corrupt utility holding companies, creating an old-age pension program that has proven to be kind of popular ever sense – and FDR did try to implement large scale planning of the economy with the National Industrial Recovery Act. The Supreme Court told him no.
I love the story of Roosevelt’s Labor Secretary Frances Perkins testifying before Congress on the legislation we now call Social Security. A skeptical senator, probing for the Achilles heel of the idea that the government might create actually create a program we all pay into in order to provide a degree of security for all of us in old age, pressed Ms. Perkins: “Isn’t this just a tiny bit of socialism,” the senator asked. No, she replied, it isn’t.
Loyalty Oaths, Alger Hiss, the John Birch Society…Oh, My…
After World War II and into the Cold War, Harry Truman, in so many ways an exemplary president and person, instituted “loyalty oaths” to root out communists (who now interchangeably were also called socialists), state legislatures debated the so-called “Liberty Amendment” to the Constitution in the interest of making America more American, the John Birch Society equated American political liberalism with Stalinist communism, and we fought a war in Southeast Asia designed to stop the insidious expansion of the socialist/communist ideology.
Richard Nixon owed his national profile while still a very junior member of Congress to his pursuit of Alger Hiss, one of the few people from the 1950’s who actually did have questionable allegiance to his country. Nixon, according to his most recent biographer, clung to the memory of his victory over Hiss, ironically, all the way to détente with Moscow and his historic opening to China.
You can write your own 21st Century sentence about what we used to call “Red” China, and as you do, remember that the Chinese president recently dined at the White House with the CEO’s of Microsoft, MasterCard, Netflix, Oracle, Walt Disney, and Morgan Stanley – socialists all, I’m sure.
Bernie Sanders probably won’t be president and you didn’t hear it here first, but like many democratic socialists in America’s past – from Debs to Norman Thomas, one of the most impressive Americans of the last century, to Michael Herrington to the old mayors of Milwaukee – his ideas have relevance and, if you listen closely, contain an important message about what America says it is, but has not yet fully become.
None of these socialists advocated or even privately believed, Sanders included, in violent revolution or the kind of reprehensible system Stalin built in Soviet Russia. They believed in using the tools of democracy, including persuasion and elections, to bring about societal and political change.
But, given our often-tenuous grasp of our own history, not to mention inability to consider nuance, that message gets lost, while the label – “he’s a socialist-slash-communist” – stings and sticks.
“In America today, the rich are getting richer, the poor are getting poorer and the millions of families in the middle are gradually sliding out of the middle class and into poverty,” Sanders says. ”In the final analysis, the people of America are going to have to say that the wealth, labor and natural resources must be used to benefit all the people, not just a few super-rich.”
That is not much different than what the old railroad union member Gene Debs said on the eve of going to prison in 1919 for speaking his mind: “I am opposing a social order in which it is possible for one man who does absolutely nothing that is useful to amass a fortune of hundreds of millions of dollars, while millions of men and women who work all the days of their lives secure barely enough for a wretched existence.”
The Worst Features of Petrograd and the Gilded Age…
It has long been un-American to embrace such language – the workers versus the governing class – but in an age when the super wealthy and super powerful at the very top of our social order display, as historian Jack Ross has written, the “worst features of both Petrograd and the Gilded Age,” the guy who will not win is making lots of noise and lots of people, including many younger Americans, judging by the polls, are listening.
“The concept that motivates us is a community good as opposed to the concept of an individual pursuing their own self-interest and that somehow the public good comes out of that,” Frank Zeidler, the one-time Socialist Mayor of Milwaukee once told the Nation magazine. “Our concept is that a pursuit of the good of the whole produces the best condition for the good of the individual.”
Bernie Sanders may not get to the White House, but he may convince a new generation of Americans – a generation sick and tired of too much money in politics, too much power in too few hands, and too little hope for a shrinking middle class – to think seriously about what that dreaded word – socialism – might really be all about.
One of the challenges in assessing the presidential candidacy of Donald Trump is that you run out of words that begin to describe his idiocy and cluelessness. I haven’t used despicable for a while, so let’s use that to characterize Trump’s reaction in the wake of the horrific – and most recent – mass shooting last week in Roseburg, Oregon.
And, of course, the GOP front runner had to make the unthinkable tragedy of students and their teacher murdered in a writing class all about him. “I have a license to carry in New York. Can you believe that? Somebody attacks me, they’re gonna be shocked,” Trump blustered in front of a cheering crowd at a campaign rally in Tennessee.
The Republican clown then completed the trifecta of gun mythology, which includes the old canard that even more guns are the answer to mass shootings and that we should all be armed to make the country safer, when he dismissed the epidemic of mass gun murder in the United States as (and he should know) a mental health issue.
It’s also not about the myth of mental illness, although that certainly plays a part. Dr. Paul Applebaum, a Columbia University psychiatrist who specializes in attacks like the recent one in Oregon, told New York Magazine last week that it is a fool’s errand to attempt to deal with mass murder by attempting to predict who is capable of mass murder.
“When I heard the news of the Oregon shootings, I thought, I’m done talking to reporters about the causes of violence.” Applebaum told the magazine. Rather, he said, he had developed a one-size-fits-all statement for the media that concluded, “If you tell me that there’s nothing we can do about guns, I’d say then we’re done. We’ve conceded that we are willing to tolerate periodic slaughters of the innocent. There’s nothing more to say.’”
Over the next couple of days the horror that unfolded last Thursday at Umpqua Community College will quickly fade away as it always does after the most recent gun outrage in America, while the short national attention span will move on to something else. President Obama is certainly correct when he says mass gun murder has become so routine in America that we have trouble maintaining for more than about two news cycles the outrage that might move us to action. We aren’t just lacking in urgency about gun mayhem we just don’t care.
The families in Roseburg will be left to attempt to cope with their grief and loss. But we should all grapple with the haunting words in one family’s statement that the loss of their 18-year old child has left their lives “shattered beyond repair.”
Meanwhile, the political class carries on with nary a skipped beat, repeating the old, tired and lame myths about guns. The Oregon victims deserve better – much better – than the perpetuation of myth making about guns from Trump and all the other apologists for mass murder who refuse to face facts about the society’s perverse embrace of the culture of the gun.
Debunking the self defense myth (using real facts), David Atkins wrote in the Washington Monthly that the right wing gun lobby and its slavish adherents have “gone so far off the rails that reality is no longer a relevant boundary on discussion. As with supply-side economics, the benefits of gun culture are taken not on evidence but on almost cultic faith by the right wing and its adherents.”
This mind set, apparently, prompts a state legislator in Idaho to post on his Facebook page that he is “very disappointed in President Obama. Again he is using the tragic shooting in Oregon to advance his unconstitutional gun control agenda.” What a crock, but also what a widely believed crock. When it comes to guns we know what we believe even when it’s not true. Discussions – or arguments – about guns exist like so much of the rest of American political discourse – in a fact free environment. Myths about guns morph into “facts” about guns.
A well regulated militia, being necessary to the security of a free state, the right of the people to keep and bear arms, shall not be infringed.
– Second Amendment to the U.S. Constitution
The entirety of the mythology begins, of course, with the Second Amendment and the decades that the National Rifle Association has devoted to myth making about the twenty-six words of the amendment.
“For more than 200 years following the adoption of that amendment,” Stevens has written, “federal judges uniformly understood that the right protected by that text was limited in two ways: First, it applied only to keeping and bearing arms for military purposes, and second, while it limited the power of the federal government, it did not impose any limit whatsoever on the power of states or local governments to regulate the ownership or use of firearms. Thus, in United States v. Miller, decided in 1939, the court unanimously held that Congress could prohibit the possession of a sawed-off shotgun because that sort of weapon had no reasonable relation to the preservation or efficiency of a ‘well regulated Militia.’”
…A Well Regulated Militia…
Stevens says during the tenure of the conservative Republican Chief Justice Warren Berger, from 1969 to 1986, “no judge or justice expressed any doubt about the limited coverage of the amendment, and I cannot recall any judge suggesting that the amendment might place any limit on state authority to do anything.”
In his retirement Chief Justice Burger bluntly said in an interview that the Second Amendment “has been the subject of one of the greatest pieces of fraud, I repeat the word ‘fraud,’ on the American public by special interest groups that I have ever seen in my lifetime.”
Only fairly recently, in fact in the last decade as Stevens points out, has the Second Amendment been broadly reinterpreted by the Court – the Heller decision in 2008 and the McDonald case in 2010, both decided by 5-to-4 votes – to sharply expand its meaning. Of course, powerful political forces, including most importantly conservative politicians and the NRA, helped to propel these changes made by the most conservative Court since the 1930’s. The gun myths grew in direct proportion to the political agenda of the mostly rightwing politicians who benefitted most significantly from the NRA’s pressure and cash.
Nonetheless, “It is important to note,” Stevens writes, “that nothing in either the Heller or the McDonald opinion poses any obstacle to the adoption of such preventive measures” – expanded background checks and bans on assault weapons for instance – that were widely suggested in the wake of the Newtown tragedy that claimed the lives of 20 children in 2012.
Justice Stevens would go farther, as would I, in returning the Second Amendment to its original intent by inserting just five additional words. A revised amendment would read: “A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms when serving in the Militiashall not be infringed.”
But such a change seems unthinkable when federal lawmakers won’t risk NRA ire by even discussing the kinds of change that the existing Second Amendment clearly permits.
Rather than advancing an “unconstitutional agenda” as gun mythology would have you believe, Obama has suggested – he did again last week and will no doubt do again and again – that “responsible” gun owners should finally support common sense efforts that might begin to roll back the rate of slaughter. You have to wonder if there actually are “responsible” gun owners out there who are as shocked as some of us are about mass murder at a community college, or at a church in Charleston, or at a theatre, a shopping center, at Army and Navy bases, or in a Connecticut elementary school.
Has the NRA so poisoned the political well of reality that no red state Republican can dare say “enough is enough” and something must change? Is there no group of “responsible” gun owners willing to call the bluff of the makers of the gun myths? Does every NRA member buy the group’s more guns, no regulation logic, while blithely sending off their dues to enrich a collection of political hacks in Washington, D.C. whose real agenda is to – wait for it – maintain their influence and, of course, sell more guns?
So, while Roseburg mourns, the gun world turns away and Trump and others get away again with repeating the well-worn myths about guns. What we can be sure is not a myth is that we will be here again soon enough repeating the call for prayers for the victims and the first responders and we will, for a few televised moment at least, be stunned, while we consider the ever mounting death toll.
And so it goes. The cycle repeats. Nothing changes. A society’s inability to deal with its most obvious affliction hides in plan sight. We also quietly hope that the odds are in our favor and unlike the grief torn families in Oregon we’ll not be the next ones shattered beyond repair.
In Washington, D.C., a town where status almost always counts for more than substance, having your own Towncar with a driver or commanding a motorcade that features a dozen black Suburbans is perhaps the ultimate sign that you have “made it” in the Unholy See.
Pope Francis, the best retail politician in America this week, showed up at the White House in a squat little Italian Fiat 500L, the vehicle the Eurocar rental people try to pawn off on you if you’re lucky enough to visit Florence. The car gets 35 miles to the gallon and retails for $20,000. Fancy it isn’t, practical it more surely is.
The contrast this week between the smiling, waving, warm, genuine, selfie posing, Fiat-riding Bishop of Rome and the pompous self-assurance of the American ruling class could not have been more pronounced.
Who but Pope Francis could have stood before the dysfunctional American Congress, a group of mostly hyper partisan, re-election obsessed elites who have spent the summer debating shutting down the government again, and reminded them of why they are where they are.
Gosar said he expected Francis would devote a good portion of his speech to the “questionable science” of climate change and anyway the Pope acts like “a leftist politician” and therefore deserves to be dissed in public. Francis’ speech did touch on climate change, but his real message – compassion, care for the poor, shared responsibility for one another, peace and “the pursuit of the common good” were no doubt lost on too many of our political wise men, people like Gosar, the members of the caucus of constant division.
“A political society endures when it seeks, as a vocation, to satisfy common needs by stimulating the growth of all its members,” the Pope said in the House chamber, “especially those in situations of greater vulnerability or risk. Legislative activity is always based on care for the people. To this you have been invited, called and convened by those who elected you.” It was more civics lesson than political speech, more a sermon on service from a smart Jesuit than a list of policy prescriptions from a South American leftist.
Still, since everything in America is at all times political, the voices of the entrenched right, who willfully ignore the perils of income inequality and the reality of climate science, had the long knives out for Francis even before his Fiat rolled toward the White House.
The Sermon from the Beltway…
“Pope Francis embodies sanctity but comes trailing clouds of sanctimony,” was the ironic bombast from George Will, the most sanctimonious of all the Beltway gasbags.
“With a convert’s indiscriminate zeal, [Francis] embraces ideas impeccably fashionable, demonstrably false and deeply reactionary,” Will sermonized in his syndicated column. “They would devastate the poor on whose behalf he purports to speak — if his policy prescriptions were not as implausible as his social diagnoses are shrill.”
Whew. Caring for the poor, trying to eliminate poverty, working for peace, ensuring the survival of the planet are now merely “fashionable.” George Will will now be remembered as the first conservative apologist for the status quo to label the carpenter of Nazareth’s ideas as “reactionary.”
Most of the ruling class and many on the far right, perhaps because of their own blinkered beliefs in the unadorned wonders of capitalism and their comfortable status among the well off, have missed Pope Francis’ real message, which is why they fail to understand his broad and deep appeal around the world.
The Pope isn’t really a politician in the sense that George Will sees him, but rather a philosopher, or even better a religious philosopher. His message – like Jesus or Buddha, darn I say, Mohammed, transcend politics.
“Render unto Caesar the things that are Caesar’s, and unto God the things that are God’s,” the gospels report as Jesus’ response to a question about whether Jews should pay taxes to the Roman authorities. On trial for his teaching and presenting a threat to the ruling order, Jesus reminded Pilate that his “kingdom is not of this world.”
Service of the Human Person…
Catholics and non-Catholics around the world have warmed to this Pontiff precisely because he constantly, in word and action, lives the fundamental “kingdom of God” message of inclusion, caring, dignity, hope and decency. Francis’ entire visit to the United States and all his public pronouncements re-enforce the essential message of his faith. The Pope was, as a good pastor does, merely reminding the leaders of our secular kingdom, that they can benefit – indeed all of us can benefit – from behaving less like partisan division makers and more like the Lord’s disciples.
When Francis said, “If politics must truly be the service of the human person, it follows that it cannot be a slave to the economy and finance. Politics is, instead, an expression of our compelling need to live as one, in order to build the greatest common good,” he was simply saying that we must use “politics” to address the world’s real issues. That isn’t a message from the left or right, but it is both spiritual and practical. And it is the language of a leader.
Think about this: suppose Mr. Gosar, the boycotting Arizona congressman, were as important as he obviously thinks he is and had been invited to give a major speech at St. Peter’s in Vatican City. Imagine that Pope Francis had been invited to attend that speech, taking time away from visiting a homeless shelter or cleaning up the mess that has become the Vatican bank. Can you imagine the South American leftist being so self-important and so rude as to boycott the speech of one of his right wing critics? Of course not. It wouldn’t happen and that speaks volumes about the main in the Fiat.
Francis has been administering to the sick in Washington, New York, at the United Nation and elsewhere. Let’s hope – indeed let’s pray – that after his remarkable visit that a few more of us are open to his message of healing.
The old political axiom applies and, yes I know I’ve used it before, but in this case it is so very appropriate.
You can go from hero to zero just like that…and Scott Walker, the one-time next president of the United States, just did.
Has there ever been a bigger political dive off the high board and into the shallow end of the pool than that of the seriously under prepared governor of Wisconsin? We all remember presidents like Rudy Giuliani, Rick Perry, Dick Gephardt and Joe Lieberman, but Walker seems in a different class.
Walker has re-defined political flame out. If the Packers folded like this Wisconsin would demand a review of the videotape. In Walker’s case the cheeseheads just have to have him back in Madison full-time, which seems penalty enough.
The guy is an ultra-conservative in notoriously independent Wisconsin. He survived epic statewide battles over union busting, teacher bashing and even a recall. Walker kicked at one of the great state university systems in America by diminishing the “Wisconsin Idea” that education is about more than just landing a job out of college, but also has something to do with being an engaged and informed citizen and improving lives. The not-ready-for-prime-time governor actually and secretly tried to re-write the mission statement of the university system to eliminate the lofty, aspirational language that speaks to his state’s aspirations and when called on the move tried to pass it off as “a drafting error.”
Sleazy suddenly became slimy and the errors were all his.
Still Walker confidentially rode a Harley and acted like he knew that Green Bay has a football team. He seemed to be every hard right Republican’s dream – a Midwestern swing state governor who might have appeal to Catholics, middle class white voters and the Tea Party. But a funny thing happened on the way to the White House. The lightweight drowned in a substance-free pool of his own making. The best day of his campaign was his announcement; then it was all down hill.
Walker flip-flopped on same sex marriage, the 14th Amendment and abortion. He pandered on immigration and suggested that a wall between the United States and Canada might be a fine idea. He didn’t know ISIS from Appleton. Walker kissed up to Donald Trump and when that didn’t work he left the race saying that while sitting in church he was “called to lead by helping to clear the field so that a positive conservative message can rise to the top of the field.”
Just for the record that wasn’t God calling, but a message a good deal more secular. Walker went from leading the pack to zilch in the polls. Hello…can you hear me now?
Walker was almost immediately discovered to be an empty suit, an ultra-programmed one-time Milwaukee County Executive who somehow became the chief executive of one of the nation’s great states. It was as though Walker had been miraculously cast as a Broadway leading man when he hadn’t proven that he could perform in summer stock or even community theater.
If Walker were from Texas rather than Wisconsin we’d be saying he was “all hat and no cattle.” More likely he was all curd and no cheese. His carefully scripted talking points sounded impressive on a small stage and seemed without substance when he tried to take his simplistic show national. Walker rode that Harley right onto an early exit ramp. His presidential campaign lasted two months. Not a record, but still below average.
America is a great country. Anyone can grow up to be president. Lincoln from a log cabin with a dirt floor. Wilson from a PhD and Princeton. Reagan and Nixon and Carter and Obama. Imperfect humans all, but not a lightweight among them. Walker, the labor killer of Madison, turned out to be lighter than air as a presidential hopeful, a candidate who couldn’t direct his own bloated campaign, let alone the country. In the slightly more than two months he spent padding around Iowa and New Hampshire, as the Washington Post reported, Walker’s “presidential bid had amassed a debt of roughly $700,000.” Quite the storyline for a college dropout who slashed the budget of a world-class higher education system and went after pensions in the interest of managing public spending.
Scott Walker is proof of another old adage. In politics you can fool some of the people all the time. Before it tanked Walker’s campaign raked in more than $5 million from the foolishly profligate Ricketts family, the owners of baseball’s Chicago Cubs. It was reported that Joe Ricketts, the family patriarch and TD Ameritrade founder, “settled on Walker after private meetings over the past year at his New York apartment and his ranch in Wyoming’s Jackson Hole valley. They bonded over their Midwestern backgrounds and conservative views on spending.”
The spending, it turned out, was all Walker’s. Walker was so sure of his political future, so certain of himself that he spent his donor’s money like there was no tomorrow. Turns out there was no tomorrow. Joe Ricketts might have better spent the $5 million he gave to Walker on a left handed pitcher who might have helped his historically pathetic baseball team in the post season. But then again that might be a case of good money after bad.
Walker also attracted the cash and attention of the really big money Koch brothers proving that being really rich isn’t always proof of being really smart, particularly when it comes to politics. “When the primaries are over and Scott Walker gets the nomination,” David Koch told a fat cat crowd in Manhattan last April, the billionaire brothers would really open their checkbooks. Makes you want to play cards – or Monopoly – with those guys.
Scott Walker now fades away to an asterisk in the American political story, a less than mediocre middle size state governor who parlayed a slash and burn style and the hot rhetoric of division into a belief that ideology and self-assurance can cover for a lack of real accomplishment and real substance.
We’ve all seen the type that Walker represents – the brash city councilman or too sure of himself state legislator who looks in the mirror while shaving and sees a man of destiny. The real image starring back, however, is just a reflection of old-fashioned ambition and the hubris that comes with believing your own press releases.
National pundits are suggesting that Walker’s tumble is all the work of another candidate who always oversells his accomplishments, but Walker’s crash is more about Walker than it is about Trump. Trump is a flashy neon sign, more sizzle than seriousness. Walker tried to present himself as the serious candidate of the angry right and set out to out flank The Donald, but he ultimately – and quickly – lacked the depth, validity and appeal to pull it off.
In the end many GOP voters seem to favor a flamboyant private sector non-entity rather than just merely an elected one.
“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.
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 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.
“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…
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.
“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.
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.
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 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.
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.