2016 Election, Clinton, Politics, Sanders, Trump

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.

2016 Election, Clinton, Politics, Sanders, Trump

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.

 

2016 Election, Arizona, Federal Budget, Film, Journalism, Trump

What I Got Wrong in 2015…

 

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

One of my less-than-perfect predictions from 2015

———

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Paul Ryan's beard surprised me, too
Paul Ryan’s beard surprised me, too.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.
Arizona Senator Jeff Flake lit a candle for hope.

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

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

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

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

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

Happy New Year.

2016 Election, Politics, Polling, Sanders, Trump

Trolling the Polls

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

——

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

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

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

Time for a Deep Breath…

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

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

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

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

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

Two Big Problems with Too Many Polls…

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

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

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

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

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

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

But What of Trump…

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

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

A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll
A Trump Tweet Saturday on a post-debate poll

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2016 Election, Trump

Anatomy of a Demagogue

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

Governor and Senator Huey P. Long
Governor and Senator Huey P. Long

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

Leading to the Left…and Right…

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

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

Long, a skillful political communicator with a flair for the outrageous, was described by the great reporter A.J. Liebling as “a chubby man, he had ginger hair and tight skin that was the color of a sunburn coming on. It was an uneasy combination, like an orange tie on a pink shirt.” Long authored a book that he modestly entitled My First Days in the White House. Sound like anyone you know?

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

Father Charles Coughlin
Father Charles Coughlin

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

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

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

But…Trump Now Dominates One Major Party…

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

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

The Modern American Demagogue
The Modern American Demagogue

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

Opportunity and Circumstance…

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

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

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

The signature Trump event - the rally
The signature Trump event – the rally

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

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

Making America Great Again…

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Burden of Citizenship is Responsibility…

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

Senator Joseph McCarthy
Senator Joseph McCarthy

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

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

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

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

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

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, Baseball, Guns, Nobel Prizes, Obama, Oregon, Politics, Stevens, Supreme Court, Trump, Uncategorized

Guns and Myths…

     “I can make the case that if there were guns in that room other than his, fewer people would’ve died, fewer people would’ve been so horribly injured.”

                                        Donald Trump on Meet the Press, October 4, 2015              commenting on the mass shooting in Roseburg, Oregon.

– – – – –

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.

Trump: More Myths About Guns
Trump: More Myths About Guns

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.

But it is about the guns…

“It’s not the guns,” Trump said. “It’s the people, these sick people.” But in fact, as everyone really knows but few willingly admit, it is about the guns, particularly when there are essentially as many guns in the society as there are men, women and children in the country, vastly more guns by population than any other country on the planet.

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.

Police search students at Umpqua Community College last week
Police search students at Umpqua Community College in Roseburg, Oregon last week

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.

Former Justice John Paul Stevens
Former Justice John Paul Stevens

As former Supreme Court Justice John Paul Stevens has brilliantly related in his little book – Six Amendments: How and Why We Should Change the Constitution:

“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 Militia shall 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.

 

2016 Election, American Presidents, House of Representatives, Obama, Stimpson, Trump, World Cup

Calling out the False Prophets…

    “The Bible says beware of false prophets. And there are people out there spreading noise about how much can get done…We have got groups here in town, members of the House and Senate here in town who whip people into a frenzy believing they can accomplish things that they know, they know are never going to happen.”

                                                                           John Boehner on Face the Nation.

– – – – –

It’s hard not to feel some sympathy for John Boehner who served notice last week that he’ll step down in a few weeks from what used to be the second most powerful job in Washington.

John Boeher on Face the Nation. CBS photo
John Boeher on Face the Nation. CBS photo

Boehner always seemed ill cast in the role of shrill partisan. By most accounts Boehner actually thought, unlike the 40 or 50 ultra-right wingers in his caucus that members of Congress are sent to Washington legislate.

You remember legislating? Stuff like passing an annual budget – the fundamental business of the legislative branch – to actually fund the government. Rather Boehner’s House has lurched from one “continuing resolution” to another, from one government shutdown over the latest nutty cause or the latest spiteful desire to put the president in his place.

Boehner’s House, with the largest Republican majority since Herbert Hoover was in the White House, can’t pass a budget, but did vote, unsuccessfully of course, to repeal Obamacare more than 50 times. You get the feeling that Boehner’s tenure as Speaker of the House has been akin to the frisky dog that chased the car and caught it. Once Boehner grabbed the gavel from Nancy Pelosi he was mostly focused on trying to keep it by placating the reactionaries in his own party. But placating is not leading and Boehner will ultimately be remembered, I suspect, as a political non-entity from Ohio who somehow became an ineffective, indeed disastrous non-leader.

The American Enterprise Institute’s Norm Ornstein has it right that Boehner and other Republicans who might actually like to engaging in using their majority to govern have been caught between the angry forces of the grassroots and political reality.

“It was inevitable that these two forces—radicals flexing their muscles, demanding war against Obama from their congressional foxholes, and leaders realizing that a hard line was a fool’s errand—would collide violently,” Ornstein writes in The Atlantic.

“The party outside Congress, including at the grass roots, has itself become more radical, and angrier at the party establishment for breaking promises and betraying its ideals. When polls consistently show that two-thirds of Republicans favor outsiders for their presidential nomination, it is not surprising that Ted Cruz would call his own Senate leader, Mitch McConnell, a liar on the Senate floor. Even insiders like Marco Rubio and Chris Christie have been eager to treat McConnell and Boehner like piñatas.”

Senator Ted Cruz
Senator Ted Cruz

In other words, Boehner’s demise has been building steadily since the day he first gripped the big gavel and, while a certain sympathy for the soon-to-be former Speaker is in order, it’s also worth nothing that he – and other Republicans who know better – generally went along with the increasingly strident agenda of their most angry brethren.

The silliness of Donald Trump completely nonsensical agenda – read the transcript of his recent ’60 Minutes’ interview or try to make sense of his crazy tax plan – didn’t spring, Zeus-like, from his orange head.

Like Trump, Ted Cruz, who Boehner now calls “a jackass,” is a product of the anger and irrationality that many Republican “leaders” allowed to fester among the grassroots, the modern descendants of the “Movement Conservatives,” the Goldwaterites and John Birchers who 50 years ago steered the Grand Old Party off a grand old cliff.

The process that led to John Boehner’s decision to quit was actually set in motion on the evening of January 20, 2009 – Barack Obama’s first day in office – when a core group of radical Republicans met in the back room of a D.C. steakhouse and decided that their guiding principle would be implacable opposition to everything that the new president proposed.

“The room was filled. It was a who’s who of ranking members who had at one point been committee chairmen, or in the majority, who now wondered out loud whether they were in the permanent minority,” Republican pollster Frank Luntz, who organized the event, told the PBS documentary series FRONTLINE.

Among those in attendance at this pivotal meeting: Senate power brokers and Tea Party darlings Jim DeMint, Jon Kyl and Tom Coburn, and conservative congressmen Eric Cantor, Kevin McCarthy and Paul Ryan.

Even Frank Underwood would pass on this one
Even Frank Underwood would pass on this one

McCarthy, of course, is the odds on favorite to replace Boehner as speaker and Ryan, the only other member of that group still in Congress, perhaps very wisely decided not to seek the top job in the House. The liberal writer David Corn quips that even Frank Underwood, Kevin Spacey’s fictional, nasty and scheming congressman in the series “House of Cards,” would take a pass on the job of succeeding John Boehner.

The slash and burn strategy hatched by the Republican anti-Obama caucus in January 2009 worked like a charm to create Republican majorities in both houses of Congress, but at what cost? Well, for starters it cost Boehner his job and helped fuel the anger that has given the Republican Party a clownish real estate developer as its front runner and –  I can’t believe I’m writing this – quite possibly its presidential candidate.

One wonders how the fortunes of the country and the GOP might be different had Speaker Boehner back in January 2009 asserted himself against the “no on everything all the time” caucus in his own party. What if Boehner, the golfer who likes to make a deal, had sought a politics of substance and collaboration with the new president? What might have been different if Boehner, the insider who had once worked with Ted Kennedy to pass “No Child Left Behind” had called out the “false prophets” in his own party from day one?

We’ll never know how things might have been different had Congressional Republicans decided to legislate around substance rather than agitate the grassroots through anger. What might have happened if Boehner had reached for a middle ground on health care, the stimulus and so much else rather than buying into the Tea Party mantra that the only way to deal with Obama was to consider him an unworthy pretender?

This much is certain: despite the hard right’s best efforts Obama’s agenda has mostly survived and Boehner and other “responsible” Republicans are tossing and turning at night thinking about a substance free demagogue like Trump or Cruz, both products of the GOP base that loathes Boehner and his Senate counterpart McConnell nearly as much as it hates Obama, leading their party into the next presidential election.

Leadership requires, after all, setting real expectations and occasionally calling a halt to the politics of constantly whipping up a fact free frenzy.

In the end John Boehner will take his permanent tan, his cigarettes, his Merlot and his golf clubs off to a K Street lobby shop and Kevin McCarthy or some other poor soul will be left to try and clean up the mess he has left behind. In order to get the job now, of course, McCarthy must promise to give the radicals in his caucus even more deference. Ironically, Boehner’s finest moment of leadership may have been his decision to quit and at least temporarily end the threat of yet another government shutdown.

But every sixth grader knows you can’t endlessly appease unreasonable bullies. You have to beat them. The political reality of John Boehner is that he couldn’t figure out how to win – and ultimately how to govern. His only answer, and even then short term, was to quit.

As Norm Ornstein say, “In the new tribal world of radical politics, the first constitutional office has lost its luster” and that, unfortunately, will be Speaker Boehner’s legacy.

It is said that without leadership the people perish. John Boehner has now given that old notion a new twist: Without leadership the leaders perish, too.

 

2016 Election, Hats, Immigration, Trump, World Cup

Occam’s Razor…

We could still imagine that there is a set of laws that determines events completely for some supernatural being, who could observe the present state of the universe without disturbing it.  However, such models of the universe are not of much interest to us mortals.  It seems better to employ the principle known as Occam’s razor and cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”

                                                           – Stephen Hawking, A Brief History of Time

– – – – –

Let’s apply Hawking to the phenomenon of Trump and “cut out all the features of the theory that cannot be observed.”

The heart of Trump’s appeal to the ebbing and flowing 30-some percent of Republican voters who have kept him on top of the polls is – there is no nice way to say this – racist. Trump’s campaign, not unlike the manifestos of European right-wing nationalist parties in Great Britain, France, Sweden and elsewhere, is based on controlling immigration. The European versions are frequently described as “nationalist” or even “neo-fascist,” but we’re too polite to label our home-grown political hatred with such loaded terms, even if they apply.

Trump at one of his rallies in Texas
Trump at one of his rallies in Texas

From the announcement of his candidacy to his latest rally in Texas, bashing Mexican immigrants is the raison d’etre of Trump’s campaign. In his sweeping indictment of immigration back in June, Trump said Mexico is “sending people that have lots of problems” to America including rapists, drug runners, and other criminals. He promised to build his wall to stop this, round up every illegal immigrant in the country and deport them and end the Constitutional requirement that any child born in the U.S., regardless of the status of his parents, is a citizen. So long “anchor babies.”

Not surprisingly, as the latest CNN poll suggests, “Among Trump’s backers, 87% support building a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, and 82% think children born to parents in the U.S. illegally should not be granted citizenship. Republicans who do not support Trump tend to agree with these views, but there’s greater dissent than among Trump’s backers: 65% support a fence between the U.S. and Mexico, 67% ending birthright citizenship.”

When Trump bellows that “Mexico is a threat to the United States” his supporters hear the dog whistle of race. Again the CNN poll: “Among Republicans…56% say they think Mexico is a threat, just 23% of Democrats and 37% of independents agree. Trump supporters are particularly apt to see Mexico as a threat, 64% say so compared with 48% of Republicans who do not back Trump.”

Trump, ignorant about so much of the American experience, may think he is on to something new with his anti-immigrant rants, but in fact he is a late, late comer to the cause of hate for those “different” than the rest of us.

washerHistorian Kenneth H. Davis has written that you “scratch the surface of the current immigration debate and beneath the posturing lies a dirty secret. Anti-immigrant sentiment is older than America itself. Born before the nation, this abiding fear of the ‘huddled masses’ emerged in the early republic and gathered steam into the 19th and 20th centuries, when nativist political parties, exclusionary laws and the Ku Klux Klan swept the land.”

Earlier in our history various politicians – this was before reality TV jokers ran for office – scored political points by despising Catholics and, as Davis says, “a wave of ‘wild Irish’ refugees was thought to harbor dangerous radicals. Harsh ‘anti-coolie’ laws later singled out the Chinese. And, of course, the millions of ‘involuntary’ immigrants from Africa and their offspring were regarded merely as persons ‘held to service.’”

Trump’s xenophobia is as old, in other words, as the man’s huckstering manner. His appeal to a third of the GOP electorate masquerades under the cloak of an independent outsider, a non-politician, the guy who “tells it like it is,” but Trump is really just peddling the kind of hate that sadly has always coursed through the political DNA of a certain number of American voters.

Never forget that The Donald’s rise as a political figure was originally built almost exclusively on his demands that Barack Obama produce proof that he wasn’t born a foreigner. Recent opinion polls continue to confirm that significant numbers of Republican primary voters, despite all evidence, continue to believe this nonsense. Trump’s “birther” credentials really imploded long ago, mostly thanks to Obama’s masterful put down of the clown at a famous White House Correspondents dinner in 2011, but his resentment still boils.

The New Yorker’s Adam Gopnik recently recounted Trump’s reaction – you can watch Obama peal the hide off the bloviator-in-chief here – as he observed from a few tables away at that 2011 dinner.

“Trump’s humiliation was as absolute, and as visible, as any I have ever seen,” Gopnik writes, “his head set in place, like a man in a pillory, he barely moved or altered his expression as wave after wave of laughter struck him. There was not a trace of feigning good humor about him, not an ounce of the normal politician’s, or American regular guy’s ‘Hey, good one on me!’ attitude—that thick-skinned cheerfulness that almost all American public people learn, however painfully, to cultivate. No head bobbing or hand-clapping or chin-shaking or sheepish grinning—he sat perfectly still, chin tight, in locked, unmovable rage. If he had not just embarked on so ugly an exercise in pure racism, one might almost have felt sorry for him.”

Gopnik speculates, not unreasonably, that Trump’s decision to run for president was cemented the night that the upstart “foreign” Obama made him look like the fool he has long been.

Just for the record: Barack Obama is not a Kenyan, children born in America are citizens and have been since the Fourteenth Amendment to the Constitution was adopted in 1868, Mexico is not a threat to the United States, we are not the “dumping ground for the world,” China isn’t killing us and the United States really is a nation of immigrants.

Election poster of the UK Independence Party
Election poster of the UK Independence Party

Occam’s razor advises us to adopt the simplest theory when attempting to explain a phenomenon or, as the great physicist says, cut out all the features that cannot be observed and believe what you can see and hear.

Seeing and hearing Trump leaves us with a contemporary, touched up, blow dried version of an anti-Irish, or anti-Catholic, or anti-Black, or anti-Chinese hater that has always found a place and some following in our politics.

The overwhelmingly white, older, angry Americans who find Donald Trump appealing shouldn’t be immediately cast off as misguided or hateful, but they are of a piece with their earlier American cousins. They have warmed to a man whose rise has depended on a message of hate against a certain class of people, which in turn has stoked fear among another certain class of people. It’s an old and despicable tactic updated to the age of Twitter and YouTube.

The fact that the race baiting engaged in by Trump and others on the GOP debate stage will make it next to impossible for Republicans to compete in a national election is well known to most of the party’s dwindling caucus of reasonableness, but the party remains a victim of its often xenophobia base, which has come to dislike moderate talk of immigration reform almost as much as it dislikes the Kenyan Muslim in the White House.

What Trump has done is neither new, nor even particularly inventive in a nation that is on the cusp of having a majority of residents who are people of color and fewer of those angry white folks like Trump. The one thing that is very American about Trump is that he has tapped into the racial resentment, indeed the hatred that has been part of American politics since the beginning.

 

2016 Election, Baseball, Biden, Clinton, Politics, Travel, Trump, World Cup

Worthy of Winning…

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

                                                    – Comedian George Burns

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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.

 

2016 Election, Bush, Trump, World Cup

Suppose You Were An Idiot…

“Well I think he had really no choice. He’s doing very poorly in the polls, he’s a very low-energy kind of guy and he had to do something, so they’re spending a lot of money on ads.”

— Donald Trump quoted by Politico on Jeb Bush’s latest attacks.

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Suppose you were an idiot and suppose your were running for president, but I repeat myself.

OK, I appropriated that line from Mark Twain, but it so perfectly captures the Summer of Trump and besides I couldn’t help myself.

Over our long summer of political discontent focused on “anchor babies,” insults aimed at “losers” and women who bleed, well, let’s don’t go there, the vast Republican field of presidential candidates has allowed a low-class real estate developer whose only high office has been in one of his tacky office buildings to repeal the essential rules of politics. Maybe the cooler fall temperatures have finally caused them to wake up and stop the madness.

Jeb Bush - low energy or finally fighting back?
Jeb Bush – low energy or finally fighting back?

It’s reported that the “low energy” Jeb Bush, the one-time GOP frontrunner and former governor of Florida, has finally decided to take off the kid gloves – they must wear them up at the Bush estate in Kennebunkport – and start hitting back at the man who has been “emasculating” him for weeks.

“Look, Jeb Bush was a very successful governor,” says Republican strategist Steve Schmidt, “he’s a thoughtful man, he was a good, conservative governor. But every day, Donald Trump is emasculating Jeb Bush, and Republican primary voters are not going to default to the establishment candidate who is being weakened by these attacks that go unresponded to.” Bingo.

At least since June most of the Republican field, and many observers (yours truly included) have maintained that Trump’s half-life as a contender would last about as long as his hairdo in a windstorm. But the big boor kept on boring, tapping into the deep resentment and, of course, nativism that has come to define those who populate the outer planets of the GOP solar system. In retrospect it should have been obvious that someone in the massive Republican field would vault to the front of the pack by channeling the anger that has fueled so much of the over the top opposition to Barack Obama for the last seven years. Trump, as my father use to say, may be crazy, but he isn’t stupid and he has tapped that deep vein of resentment, even hatred, directed toward Washington, immigrants, the Kenyan-Muslim president, Wall Street, organic food and, who knows, maybe even Megyn Kelly. She is a card-carrying member of the elite, after all.

Until Jeb Bush realized that “staying under the radar” was a political path back to forever being referred to as the younger brother who couldn’t cut the Republican mustard, Trump has completely dominated the political summer. He did so because he is different, which is more than just loud and offensive. He has ridden the crest of a wave of mostly white, middle class resentment about a country that is changing rapidly in a way that many Americans must find downright scary, even scarier than a bloviating real estate developer.

Mr. Charm's Twitter photo
Mr. Charm’s Twitter photo

As numerous commentators have pointed out, Trump is just the latest incarnation of the “outsider” in American political history, the out sized personality willing to rhetorically attack the status quo, while offering little more than fire, brimstone and bluster. George Wallace played the part in 1968 and later. Huey Long in the early 1930’s did the same. Long was probably never a serious national threat to Franklin Roosevelt, but for a few brief moments in 1934 and before his death in 1935 he must have seemed a real threat. Ross Perot, Henry Wallace, Jesse Ventura and a host of lesser names have regularly appeared to appeal to the thirty percent or so of Americans who are always really pissed off about something.

What has been different with Trump is his mastery of the new tools of political communication and, of course, that the American public has never been subjected to such a full-fledge narcissist for such an extended period of time. Talk about different. Trump has been able to sustain his summer run with crude but effective marketing skills, four-minute hits on cable television, late night tweets that become early morning headlines and lately Instagram mini-commercials that may have been the catalyst convincing Jeb to jab back.

Every Trump tactic is just like the man: over the top, mostly devoid of fact, nasty and guaranteed to generate lots of attention. That’s the point – attack, attack, attack. Trump’s aggressiveness on the offensive – both meanings – makes General Grant in the Wilderness Campaign look like a low energy loser.

One of the oldest rules in politics is that the attack gets the attention, while the major policy speech gets ignored. Trump understands that rule and has been on the attack constantly since he joined the Republican race. Another old rule, especially true for Jeb Bush, is the fact that any political attack gone unanswered is an attack believed. When Trump repeatedly refers to Bush as “low energy” – essentially a wimp – and a “loser” who is “weak” he is really attacking Bush’s character rather than his policy positions. It’s a brilliant strategy that Bush had better match tweet for tweet.

So put me down in the camp of those, like Steve Schmidt, who think Bush had no choice but to get down in the hog swill with Trump. His task is very complicated, however, because of the dynamics of the Republican electorate. Bush wants to pull some of those thirty percent or so of really unhappy Republican voters over to his cause, but even more realistically he needs to present himself as a tough, decisive alternative to the loudest mouth in the race. Bush’s strategy of going after Trump is right, but the quality of his message and execution of his plan will determine if he has enough of the political attack dog in him to make the strategy work. I have my doubts.

Bush’s first major push back against Trump was ripped from the oldest and moldiest Republican playbook. Bush called The Donald a “liberal” and highlighted the nice things Trump has said over time about the Clintons. If Trump were a conventional politician that line of attack might have some legs, but the issues with Trump aren’t based on policy or anything that has to do with facts and reason. The disaffected won’t quit liking Trump because he got Hillary to his latest wedding or has had more positions on abortion than he had neckties. The Republican Party might reject him, however, if he starts to be seen as lacking in the essential quality that measures the ultimate success of any American president.

It’s all about the guy’s character. Bush needed to get under than mop of orange hair and tweak – and tweet – The Donald’s outsized personality, his enormous ego and his inability to let any slight go unanswered.

Trump is the grade school bully who couldn’t be stopped by appeals to reason or by complaints that he broke the rules or by tattling to the playground teacher. You have to shame him and call him what he is – a man whose ego and self-regard are so outside the realm of normal human interaction that he is dangerous, to himself, the Republican Party, the country and more.Reagan - There you go again

Bush needs to dust off Ronald Reagan and say “there you go again…” when Trump unloads and Trump will keep unloading because he can’t help himself. Jeb might even anticipate a Trump attack on him by making the attack himself. “Donald says I’m low energy, and I admit that I like to sleep at two o’clock in the morning rather than sit up inventing nasty things to say about people.”

A more direct line would be to simply say: “Trump is erratic, undisciplined, a hothead, an egomaniac completely full of himself. He may have the right character to succeed in the unethical world of New York real estate where you buy and sell contacts with mayors and governors, where people cheat and cut corners to get ahead, but he lacks the character to represent the American people.”

I’d never refer to Trump as a “reality television star,” since that gives him too much credit. He’d always be a “frequently failed real estate developer.” I’d point out that some of the great companies in America have declined to work with Trump because he lacks honesty and character. “Trump’s made a career out of being a bully when American needs a leader.”

Belittle the man where it hurts him the most: his mattresses are uncomfortable, his ties are badly constructed (I’ve never had one, but I bet they are), the towels in his hotels are too small, he’s getting old and can’t chase younger women any longer so he’s decided to run for president.

Trump would come back, of course, from such an attack with a discourse on how successful he has been, how rich he is, etc., but Bush will need to stay focused on the great man’s character, which even those who current support him must know is hardly a match for any president since Warren Harding.

Bush is an inherently clumsy candidate who often seems unsure of what he wants to say or what he really believes, but the circumstances of the Summer of Trump and his declining poll numbers have now pushed him into a strategy he might have wisely adopted weeks ago. Trump reminds us that attacking is often succeeding in politics and he who would attack also needs to defend.

Bush had better jump in with both feet and start landing some haymakers. Such are the moments that define candidates. Can Bush be a better retail politician than he has been? Is there any fire in that gut? Is there any ‘there’ there? With regard to Trump, can he finally find a language to point out what most of the country already knows?

Sometimes you just need to call the schoolyard bully a jerk and hit him upside the head with your lunch box.