Posts Tagged ‘Hillary Clinton’

The Thinker

Reading the election tealeaves

I skipped the last Republican debate (for the reason see my last post) but I did catch Sunday’s Democratic debate and even live tweeted it. The dynamics of the coming election are starting to clear up in my mind. The 2016 election, like the 2008 election is a change election. By this I mean a major change election, not just an “oh, I’m sick of the last guy, so let’s try someone that looks good.” It is an election where voters will express their frustration that change is not happening fast enough. The big mystery is whose change version will sell.

Curiously both Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders are echoing similar themes: do something already! Trump’s approach is radical authoritarianism. He channels the frustration of those who simply put getting things done ahead of the messy business of constitutional government. He will make sure things get done and it’s pretty obvious that he will do it by fiat if Congress and the courts won’t back him. This is crazily dangerous to our constitutional government, but there are a lot of authoritarian-based Americans out there, and they simply don’t care anymore because they can’t remember the last time government worked. Authoritarians are comfortable with the ends justifying the means, providing of course that the ends are ends that they agree with.

Sanders has a similar message. He has specifically ruled out being an authoritarian president but does say that he is a democratic socialist. He appeals to many Democrats and independents because his motivation for being president is clearly not ego-based, but part of a larger agenda. Ironically, by never being a formal Democrat he carries gravitas. He has been an independent representative and senator from Vermont who caucuses with the Democrats. This gave him the freedom to vote his convictions rather than to feel he had to tow the party line to gain power. It was a politically smart thing for him to do. For example, it allowed him to vote against the 2002 resolution for the use of force against Iraq whereas others like Senator Hillary Clinton felt arm-twisted to do so to ensure their future political career. Moreover, Sanders is credible. He has been on the right side of history time and again. Even Trump can’t say that, although he has never run as a politician before. Trump’s politics though have been all over the place during his career. In some ways Sanders is conservative, as he votes his conscience and principle, whereas Trump rides the waves of perceived voter concerns.

Hillary Clinton and to some extent “moderate” Republican candidates like Jeb Bush and John Kasich represent institutionalism, i.e. the traditional party structure which is top-down and consensus-based. The others sense a grassroots uprising fed by the inability of government to act in the people’s interests. Of course each candidate has his or her own idea of what the people’s interests actually are, and they are often so bizarre as to be comical because they bear no resemblance to modern America or even to the values that pollsters report that register the most. Their values are whatever they see in the mirror and they move in circles that amplify that view. In general, Americans are impatient with political parties as they have evolved simply because they don’t represent their interests. Instead they feel pimped by them. They voted for people who say the words but don’t follow up with deeds.

What makes Sanders interesting to me is not just his politics, which I largely agree with. It’s that he is not so much interested in being president as fomenting what he calls a “political revolution”. Even his supporters don’t really understand where he is planning to go. Yes, he wants the Democratic Party’s presidential nomination, but what he really wants is Congress of and by the people again. If he wins the nomination you will see this in earnest, as he will move from venue to venue, including southern states, to build this grassroots political revolution: a “throw the bums out who haven’t acted in your interests” campaign. The odds are against him, particularly in the House, but politicians underestimate his power. Oddly, both he and Trump hold sway over some of the same voters. I expect that Sanders will be working to convince Trump’s voters that a political revolution is a better approach than Trump’s scary authoritarianism.

To some extent both Trump and Sanders supporters are masquerading their own motivations and anxieties, which they can’t seem to acknowledge. I don’t believe the authoritarians really want to recreate a fake 1950s “Leave it to Beaver” America. What they really want is a social contract again, i.e. a sense of normalcy. They are painfully aware that their carpet has been pulled up from under them. Their dads retired on pensions. They remember good public schools. They remember being proud of being American. But their cheese has been moved. Sanders response is to say, “Hey, your cheese has been moved and it’s not minorities and Mexicans. It’s big business and the very well off have bought an oligarchy”. Sanders has to convince these authoritarians that power comes from uniting on their common interests. This is why when he campaigns in the South he gets big crowds, often bigger than Trump’s. He is tapping into the same anxiety.

I have no idea how this will all fall out. No candidate is perfect and there are plenty of candidates who are reprehensible human beings and make you feel ashamed for your country. Just make no mistake: the real animus in this election is an often-inchoate feeling by many in the middle and on the sides that no one is truly on their side. Unlike Trump, Sanders has a consistent career of more than thirty years in politics that demonstrates he is on their side of these issues. You hear it in his voice and I certainly heard it during Sunday’s debate. Sanders was nearly hoarse from shouting at one point. There is conviction in is voice, in his mannerisms, in his eyes and in his demeanor that is stunningly authentic and sincere. This is certainly not true of Donald Trump, who has never held a consistent position about anything other than perhaps putting his personal profit over people’s needs. It’s not true of Hillary Clinton and it’s definitely not true with Republican weasels like Ted Cruz.

If people truly want an authentic candidate then I expect Sanders will increasingly resonate as they start to tune in, as they are doing during these debates. The question is: can it become a crescendo in time? There are many political and institutional forces that will put up obstacles to such a plain man from the heart, including Democratic Party chairman Debbie Wasserman Schultz. During the next couple of months, this will all become much clearer.

 
The Thinker

How to take down Trump

One of my nightmares is waking up the first Wednesday of November and finding out that Donald Trump is our president elect. There are lots of sane reasons to think that this simply can’t happen. The Donald’s negatives are through the roof. Last July a Washington Post/ABC News poll reported 61 percent of voters would never vote for Trump, but that was before he started running in earnest. In December, according to a Quinnipiac survey, fifty percent of registered voters last month said they would be embarrassed if he were our president. One thing that makes me leery is that people were saying the same things about Ronald Reagan but mainly by force of his personality plus that certain intangible something that people saw in his eyes he became president anyhow. We are still stuck in the Reagan wreckage, and arguably Donald Trump is the latest creature to crawl out of it.

There is no question that Trump has charisma, although lots of people see past it. So many factors affect who will be our next president. Much could hinge on the economy, but a lot of it will simply have to do with who gets nominated and how enthusiastic each party is about their candidate. Republicans probably won’t be enthusiastic if Trump is nominated, at least not establishment Republicans. But Trump though is going for a bigger audience and he is attracting principally disaffected whites, many of which haven’t voted in recent elections. They like his brash style and take charge attitude and see it as authentic, but mostly he plays on their fears, an unstated fear of losing white privilege. While Trump has high negatives, so does Hillary Clinton. Trump is a master persuader, Clinton not so much considering how President Obama managed to win the 2008 Democratic nomination. So yes, it’s possible, although I would like to take comfort in polls that suggest it just won’t happen.

Back in 2012 as that process went forward I offered my thoughts on how to deal with political bullies. Four years later the post still gets regular hits. The Republican presidential field has many bullies. Trump certainly is one but (among those still in the running) others include Ted Cruz, Chris Christie and Carly Fiorina. All are used to getting their way and will use tactics fair or foul to achieve it.

Trump though combines bullying with other non-bullying tactics including humor, demagoguery, flippant remarks and a well-practiced technique of staying in the news. Pretty much every day he will say or do something controversial specifically so he will stay at the top of the news. Most recently was a deprecating remark about Ted Cruz being born in Canada and how that could be a problem. While a lot of what he spews is crazy, it’s actually quite well thought out. Rest assured that Trump has lots of lines and tactics in reserve that he will use to cut down the competition. He has a keen sense of when to release a quip or barb so that it will be most wounding.

Trump is a different kind of bully, most of who have only a couple of tactics they repeat ad nauseam. With Trump, you never know what will come out of his mouth next, but you do know it will be something and it will be controversial and entertaining. Surprise is one of his unique weapons. Hillary Clinton, if she wins the Democratic Party nomination, is likely to be too civilized to go for the jugular like Donald. Trump excels at getting people off their gait and you know he has some waiting for her when their time is optimal. Ideally Clinton needs to get Trump off his gait, which no one seems to be able to do. She (or Bernie Sanders should he win the nomination) needs to channel their inner Molly Ivins. Also, she to plant a meme in the voters mine now that will grow and win. Identifying that meme and planting it early may be crucial to winning in November.

In 2012 the winning meme was that Mitt Romney didn’t understand ordinary working people. The surreptitious recordings that he thought 47% of us were moochers made it stick like superglue. Due to Trump’s wealth and disdain for all sorts of groups, this can potentially work again. However, it will be harder because Trump is drawing many of these people. Trump is running a Fox News election by creating a theme and hammering it in relentlessly. You must have been asleep for the last six months not to know it: Make America Great Again.

What could be Clinton’s meme? Perhaps she could borrow portions of Trump’s theme. Here is my suggestion for an election meme for the Democratic candidate: Make America Whole Again. She could appeal to the disaffected by promising to be the president not to push a liberal agenda but to bring America together again. She could say that if elected she will champion the cause of moderates. She could promise to end gerrymandering, which simply removes moderates from the political process. For example, she could promise to pass a law that requires states to draw districts that are politically neutral and are overseen by impartial federal judges. She could run a campaign for the people, not just those with wealth.

She could say that our current poisonous partisanship is a cancer on our society and our government, and that Trump is exploiting it. (In fairness, Bernie Sanders has been saying this throughout his campaign.) In fact, she could say that Trump embodies this cancer and is making it metastasize. Fortunately Trump has quite a record that would be easy to exploit, for example his statement earlier in the campaign that Americans were being paid too much and aren’t working hard enough. This is laughable to anyone actually in the workforce today.

“Make America Whole Again” is the perfect rejoinder to Trump’s slogan. It plays on his slogan but makes it positive and sounds like something your mother would say. It acknowledges that things have gotten seriously off track but that she is the right one to fix it. She could even say that as a woman and mother, she knows it is true. She can play on the lessons that she learned, from her failure by being too insular in her health care legislation that she championed as First Lady, to her work as Secretary of State to help bind the wounds of a complex world. She can recall the real America she grew up with, that was hopeful and where America’s leadership was earned and based on respect and our beneficence. Trump’s entire demeanor is disrespectful. It could be a campaign about restoring our respect by making our government representative of everyone.

A campaign message of wholeness and integrity I think would have real legs, because it is authentic, not weaselly. One thing that is totally clear about Donald Trump is he lacks integrity. If the 2016 campaign becomes an integrity meme, then I think Trump can be neutered.

 
The Thinker

The libertarianism in the Internet

It can be dangerous when politicians open their mouths. In the case of Donald Trump, it’s because he spews hatred and racism and has gathered support from a lot of dittoheads for doing so. But in one way both he and Hillary Clinton have something in common: they don’t really understand the Internet. It would have been wise to defer saying anything at all when you really don’t know what you are talking about.

Trump’s mistake was saying that he was open to closing parts of the Internet as part of the war on the Islamic State, a war that has never been officially declared. I can give Trump only half a demerit because he was prompted by CNN’s Wolf Blitzer’s question, which asked if he would do this, and it’s really a trick question. If Trump knew what he was talking about he’d have said, “Well, of course that’s not possible.” Hillary Clinton opened her mouth a bit too wide in last Saturday’s debate she said that some sort of Manhattan-like project could allow the government to decrypt messages while ensuring everyone’s privacy. But at least she said, “I don’t know enough about the technology”. So a point to her for honesty.

If you want to kill the Internet, kill all the people. Even that won’t work immediately. All those routers would still be moving data around, but no one would be around to read any of it so it would effectively be dead. Why is this? It’s because the Internet was designed to be resilient and effectively unstoppable. What secret communist organization was responsible for such a nefarious deed? Why, that would be the United States Department of Defense. More specifically, it was DARPA: the Defense Advanced Research Projects Agency, known back in the 1960s when it was creating the Internet as ARPA.

And it made sense. At that time, the Internet was not envisioned to be a global network for just anyone, but it was designed to make sure that defense establishments and universities doing defense work could chat with each other electronically and move files around this way. The architecture that was designed ensured that if one path between sender and receiver was down or slow, some other path would be chosen instead. The message had to get through. On the plus side, at least in its initial phases, the Internet was all plain text. Encryption was not a worry because it was not a classified network, but where it was a worry secure lines were leased from the telephone company.

Today’s Internet is basically the old ARPANet’s infrastructure from the 1970s open to everyone. Everyone used it because it was the only model out there but also because it was noncommercial and standards-based. Some private networks from the distant past you may remember tried to do something similar: Compuserve and AOL were two that discovered it could not compete with the awesomeness of the real Internet, once people could access it.

We can’t shut down the Internet on the Islamic State. We can certainly make it more difficult but alas, as the Internet has evolved, so too have the ways to transmit and receive signals. In the old ARPA days I’m pretty sure the only way was to lease lines from AT&T. Today the Internet goes across virtually all data networks. Shut down the Islamic State’s landlines and they will use cell towers. Take down cell towers and maybe they will use microwave relays or satellite dishes. Take down the dishes and they can use portable satellite phones. In any event there are plenty of IS-related terrorists not actually in the Islamic state and they can chat between themselves, it’s just that they will have an easier time of it than those in the Islamic State.

Those of you out there wondering what a libertarian world might look like can see it in the Internet. The Internet excels at fast and disparate information sharing. It also excels in being able to get its messages through come hell, high water or terrorists. No one back in the 1960s could project what the Internet would morph into, but it was all based on protocols that from day one were open and designed to move data quickly. These protocols can be changed, but only in an evolutionary manner if they become a consensus adaptation. Even so, the old protocols will continue to traverse the Internet and all that is needed is the software to send or receive Internet Protocol (for packets) and Transmission Control Protocol (for a message made up of packets). And TCP/IP protocol is built into virtually every computer that communicates with another computer, not to mention all the switches and routers between sender and receiver.

Obviously this architecture has some problems, which are not problems if you are a libertarian. You want the free flow of information and you don’t want government controlling or monitoring it. The good part is the enormous amount of information sharing that occurs that makes our lives such much more interesting and rewarding. The bad side is it empowers terrorists, child pornographers and general criminals to do the same thing.

As for encryption, this is not something where you can have your cake and eat it too. The NSA cleverly put in encryption backdoors into products sold by most of these encryption devices. The encryption industry is now onto this. Tech savvy criminals have already found solutions like OpenPGP, which can likely keep the NSA from eavesdropping, at least in real-time. The government is getting better and faster at decrypting messages by throwing massive parallel computers to decrypt them. Moore’s Law is making it possible to decrypt almost any message without waiting for days, months or years for an answer. Obviously the NSA needs to be pretty selective when they throw these sorts of resources onto decrypting a message.

There is no “let’s have our cake and eat it too” solution to decrypting intercepted messages in real-time. The NSA with its private-key backdoors already tried it, but that’s not an issue if you use devices that don’t have these backdoors. Like it or not, the Internet is must-have technology and it will be used for purposes both good and bad. There is no tech fix to these problems.

However, a social strategy will help somewhat. Encouraging good citizens to rat on their fellow citizens they suspect of illegal use of the Internet is probably the only pragmatic way to address this issue. In that sense, the libertarians, courtesy of the U.S. Department of Defense, have already won.

 
The Thinker

Following the leader

Oh good, I’m not the only one horribly alarmed by Donald Trump. Actually there are plenty of us, including the editorial staffs of The New York Times and The Washington Post. It shouldn’t take much to feel very alarmed if you actually listen to what Trump has to say. He asserts wild claims as facts that are wholly untrue; such as thousands of Muslims in America were cheering when the Twin Towers went down on 9/11. If that weren’t enough, he is now openly racist. This should not surprise anyone who has been paying attention to him. Trump is one of the earliest to claim that Obama was not born in the United States. Now when members of his overwhelmingly white audiences beat up Black Lives Matters protestors at his rallies, he encourages their lawlessness by saying that maybe protestors had it coming. He wants more waterboarding of terrorist suspects, and wants to surveil American Muslims and mosques.

Normally competing candidates would distance themselves from such wild remarks. With one exception though the remaining Republican candidates seem to be busy following the leader, moving sharply to the right on most of these issues and at best offering nuanced differences between themselves and Trump. I had thought for a long time that the Republican Party was a racist party. Research now proves me right. Some will doubtless point out the success of some black candidates like Ben Carson as proof that the party is not racist. However, when a Carson or Herman Cain comes along they only “succeed” when they parrot principles that keep members of their own race from succeeding. In short, if a black candidate in the Republican Party is stupid enough to say stuff that amounts to “let the beatings on us continue” then the party is happy to let them in.

Still, it’s very discouraging to realize that the Republican Party is basically about maintaining white privilege at all costs. This is after all the party that succeeded in freeing the slaves. Republicans talk all about their party being for an opportunity society while giving those without opportunity fewer means to climb the ladder. In fact, they work actively to remove rungs from that ladder. They actively disenfranchise voters likely to vote for candidates they don’t like. Most red states won’t extend the Medicaid franchise to the working poor (which includes lots of whites). With Medicaid there is some semblance of a floor under their feet that might allow them to get to the next rung. They actively whip up the poorer white folk to work against their own interests. Kentucky governor-elect Matt Bevin won office principally from votes from poor white Kentuckians who are likely to have their new Medicaid benefits (under a KyNect program umbrella) removed. It’s so sad to see these racial levers pushed because it depends on selling poor white people on the notion that they may be poor but are “better” than their darker poor neighbors because they don’t get help from the government, help they desperately need simply to survive.

In any event Trump has moved from carnival barker to pied piper. If the Republican Party were a church, a great revival would be underway, the parishioners would be dancing in the pews and more than a few would be talking in tongues. Trump has effectively hypnotized his own party and has whipped them into a frenzy. He is counting on this of course, because enthusiastic voters vote disproportionately and he will need an overwhelming white vote and a lackluster Democratic vote to win the presidency. The nightmare for most of us is imagining how a President Trump would actually govern. One would hope he would quickly sober up, but there is little likelihood of that. This is because he shows no signs that he actually believes and respects the constitution and laws of the United States.

Trump is an egomaniac. He believes himself not only gifted but also faultless. Of course he is the only person savvy enough to navigate us through these turbulent times, in spite of his many failed marriages and four bankruptcies. He has many of us hypnotized. Since civics is rarely taught anymore he has many of us believing that he could actually do things like building a wall along the Mexican border and making Mexico pay for it. The real danger is that he will do by fiat the stuff he says he will do, which will be against the law. However, he will be counting on the American people to stand by his lawlessness. In short he is showing every sign of being a fascist: an American Mussolini. His tendency to double down suggests that he believes the end justifies the means.

Is there a sane Republican on the debate stage? The lone sane one remaining is Ohio Governor John Kasich, who recently released a damning video on Trump. Due to his poor fundraising it will largely be ignored. What should a sane Republican do? Since Republicans supposedly stand on principle, those who have any left should bail. Perhaps John Kasich and Jim Webb could form a party for sane moderates. There are Republican candidates who if they showed spine could also set an example by leaving. You know most of the candidates on stage don’t believe half the crap they are spouting, including Trump who is more about the end than the means. It’s largely Trump’s presence that has them saying such weird anti-immigrant stuff.

I study American history and frankly I can’t think of a time in our history quite as dangerous today. Our constitutional government is seriously threatened by a Trump presidency. Trump is showing that he has neither morals nor scruples and will do or say anything that will get him nominated. Polls seem to be bearing this out. Democrats will nominate someone sane, but they will need someone sane but passionate to close the enthusiasm gap. Hillary Clinton is not that candidate. However, Bernie Sanders is.

The 2016 election will be an enthusiasm election. Whichever side has more of it will win. Traditionally you could count on the American people to act rationally, but not this time. Which leaves me (an agnostic) considering prayer. Pray for our country.

 
The Thinker

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #2

Gone were the two pretend candidates. After the first debate Jim Webb figured out he was too mainstream to run as a Democrat this time around, sort of like the way John Kasich is figuring out no one wants to hear him because he talks common sense. Lincoln Chaffee, a former Republican himself like Webb, got in the first debate mainly because he could, but wisely realized he was getting zero traction and the longer he stayed in the sillier it made him look, so he also dropped out. Which left former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley as something of the odd person out in this second Democratic presidential debate from Iowa last night.

Like the first debate it was civilized and sober, a marked contrast to the freewheeling feel that often accompanies the Republican presidential debates. This debate though did get a bit heated from time to time, in part because the CBS moderators prodded the candidates. In one case Bernie Sanders did not rise to the bait when asked about a remark he made on Clinton’s emails. Clinton though felt it was okay to take a jab at Bernie on gun control, casting his votes against certain gun control votes to hers in favor. It put Sanders in something of a vise, because he voted the way his rural constituents wanted. Sanders though could land a little jab at Clinton by focusing on her catering to big banks, which she attributed to a natural reaction following September 11 when lower Manhattan had suffered such devastation. The logic was stretched, to say the least.

Sanders at least had authenticity on his side, but it didn’t seem to matter much. He pointed out that Clinton took money from PACs, while his campaign was PAC-free, and thus not tainted. The reason it didn’t help much is because Clinton is now a seasoned debater and not easily ruffled on the stage. And Democrats would be happy to have any of the three debaters as their party’s nominee. The debate was a bit sharper and at times heated, but I doubt it changed anyone’s preferences except possibly Martin O’Malley will get a modest bump with a solid and polished debate performance.

The terrorist incidents in Paris that killed 129 people on Friday of course were discussed at the start of the debate. The candidates agreed that terrorism like this was not the responsibility of America to solve alone, but generally was something on which America should lead. Sanders rightly pointed out that most of these sorts of wars come back to bite us. O’Malley got a gotcha question when asked if he could point to experience that would show he could handle complex international incidents like this. No governor of course would have this sort of experience so it was pointless to ask.

Sanders struck me as a little more grounded. In discussing terrorism, he argued that climate change was fueling terrorism. This is true in Syria, where a long-term drought is likely a result of climate change and feeding instability there. Unquestionably as the climate changes there will be more instability and mass migrations, and the latter will feed the former. Sanders was also correct in his analysis that the Defense Department’s priorities were pretty screwed up, with most of it going to maintain an inefficient infrastructure designed to address 20th century military problems, and comparatively little going to address terrorism itself. All candidates walked a fine line on immigration but unanimously agreed that Islam itself was not a problem, only those perverting it. There was none of the xenophobia against immigrants we saw in all the Republican debates so far.

All want to make college more affordable but Clinton wants to make is so students and parents are stakeholders. This effectively meant that she does not want a wholly free college education for our students. No one addressed the larger issue: with so many failing schools, fewer students are graduating with the skills to tackle college. A holistic educational solution is needed. Charter schools are probably contributing to the problem, as profit-driven schools have no incentive to keep poorer performing students.Overall O’Malley did well, but not enough to make him look unique or to offer a compelling reason to vote for him over Clinton or Sanders. Democrats are blessed with seasoned debaters as candidates, so if there are no major gaffes, the dynamics are unlikely to change. In this sense these debates aren’t particularly helpful for candidates gaining more popularity. I don’t expect much change in the polling in the weeks ahead.

Kudos to CBS News for live streaming the debate for all.

 
The Thinker

The grownup in the hearing room

Did you watch Hillary Clinton’s testimony in front of the House Select Committee on Benghazi on Thursday? Okay, most us did not, at least we did not watch all eleven hours of it. This includes yours truly. I did watch clip after clip online and the more I watched the more engrossed I got. I realized that Clinton did a Benghazi on the committee. It was a kind of charmed and karmic experience that did exactly the opposite of what the committee intended. It made Clinton look good, human and demonstrated she had both great leadership qualities and a great legal brain. It also demonstrated that she is grounded.

As for the members of the committee, at least the Republican ones, the longer it went on the more foolish they looked, as they became increasingly nitpicky. They endlessly plumbed topics that really didn’t matter, such as her relationship to their longtime political friend Sidney Blumenthal. They seemed certain that if they kept stroking those ashes there would be an ember there.

Eight hours of testimony, eleven hours of elapsed time essentially revealed nothing they hadn’t heard before. Three years earlier she had gone before the same committee and told essentially the same story. She spent a day and an evening essentially repeating herself while always responding in a civil manner to members of the committee that frequently sounded shrill and like loose cannons. At the end of it all, even the committee’s highly partisan chairman Trey Gowdy was forced to concede they learned nothing new and that the hearing was a waste of their time.

Meanwhile for those tuning in Hillary Clinton got eight hours of airtime that allowed her to demonstrate pretty convincingly that she would make an excellent president. She proved to be both measured and entirely unflappable, but also demonstrated that she was grounded and pragmatic. Many Americans saw perhaps for the first time a woman completely at odds with her stereotype. To some extent this included me, as I prefer Bernie Sanders to her for the Democratic presidential nomination. That’s still true after her testimony, but I no longer believe that she would not be a very capable president or couldn’t quite master the complexity of the issues she would be dealing with. Arguably there are few better jobs to prepare for the presidency than being Secretary of State, given that the secretary has an impossible and largely thankless job of trying to bring some sense of order to a world awash in political change. After trying to triangulate Israel and Palestine, dealing with a Republican congress must be relatively simple in comparison.

Americans watched her model a future president and watched Republicans devolve into the worst of their stereotypes, making them that much easier to loathe. She looked sensible; they looked like partisan fools. She looked mainstream; they looked extreme. She sounded pragmatic; they sounded obsessed bordering on deranged. She looked like she was tethered to Planet Earth; they looked like they were on a planet of their own.

They kept trying to frame questions so that they could not help but get the answer they wanted, going with a “When did you stop beating your wife?” meme. Reflecting their compulsive and black and white thinking, one congresswoman would allow no ambiguity in Clinton’s answer: yes or no. No yes but, no no but just an absolute answer that could be later used to prove she is a liar. And of course they asked the sorts of questions that go beyond reasonable. Can any of you remember what you had for dinner seven nights ago? Committee members expected perfect recall of events that happened years ago, as if Clinton were dictating a journal of events into a Dictaphone every fifteen minutes. As the hearings dragged on it just got more and more wacky and surreal. At some point you just had to wonder: how the hell did these people ever get into Congress in the first place? Exactly whom do they represent?

Yet Clinton remain largely unflappable and serene, driving in a contrast that got more marked over time until the committee looked more like a parody of a committee than an actual committee. For Clinton, the hearing essentially gave her eight hours of free airtime and drove in exactly the messages that she wanted to deliver as well as demonstrating beyond any reasonable doubt that she was highly qualified to be our next president.

Two days later, I get the feeling that Thursday’s hearing was something of a landmark, perhaps the most notable hearing by a congressional committee since the Watergate days, doubtless to be studied over and over again by academics and scholars as an object lesson on how not to hold hearings.

Clinton didn’t need to orate. She didn’t need to scowl or condescend. She just needed to be the grownup in the room. She was pretty much the only one.

 
The Thinker

2016 Democratic Presidential Debate #1

Am I the only one bothered because you had to subscribe to CNN to watch the first Democratic Party presidential debate live last night? As best I could tell you could not watch the debate on cnn.com, at least not beyond a short free “preview” mode. You could watch it on cnngo.com, but you had to authenticate with your provider to get the debate stream, which meant CNN had to punch your ticket. My wife occupied the TV last night so I used the DVR to record it, but watched what I could online. With 15 million viewers just on CNN and lots more watching it online, the web stream stopped on me from time to time, which was frustrating. As for those too poor to afford cable or satellite TV, they were effectively disenfranchised. Debates should be made publicly available to all when they are broadcast. They should always mirrored on a C-SPAN channel and streamed on c-span.org if nowhere else. In addition at least one broadcast channel in each market should carry it.

For those of us moneyed enough to watch the debate live, the first Democratic presidential debate was quite a contrast from the first two Republican debates. Civility ruled, and even friendliness was evident at times between candidates. Five candidates is also a much fewer than eleven or sixteen. Jim Webb had a point that he was hardly allowed to get a word in edgewise, but both Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee were also frequently marginalized too. It was mostly the Hillary Clinton vs. Bernie Sanders debate. Each got about half an hour of airtime, nothing to complain about in a two-hour debate. If there were ruffled feathers, it was mostly from candidates toward the moderators for cutting them off.

A lot of coaching and practice certainly helped. For Clinton, the practice was mostly an exercise in personality refinement. For Sanders, the “democratic socialist” senator from Vermont, it was getting up to speed on foreign policy, not one of his strong suits. For Jim Webb, Martin O’Malley and Lincoln Chafee it was mostly about introducing themselves to a national audience. Bernie Sanders was new to a lot of viewers, principally the African American audience. Clinton exceeded expectations and succeeded in looking presidential and polished. Kudos go to her makeup artist, who succeeded in subtracting about ten years from her face. At age 74, it was far too late for Sanders, but at least he did not have the expectation that he was supposed to look younger.

The most embarrassing candidate was clearly former senator and governor Lincoln Chafee, rarely known or seen outside of Rhode Island. Looks should never disqualify a candidate, but he not only sounded awkward, he looked viscerally awkward. And he was simply not prepared for tough questions. I felt sorry for him after a while because he was so outclassed by the other candidates.

Martin O’Malley modeled the happy white middle-aged Democratic candidate of forty years ago, the sort of candidate we nominated by default in the past because he looked so familiar and harmless. O’Malley is no John F. Kennedy but he at least radiated sensibility. Unfortunately, his record as Maryland governor was spotted at best, as was his tenure as Mayor of Baltimore. He was easy to smile at when speaking, but he seemed a bit milquetoast. There just wasn’t anything there that drew you to him as a compelling reason to prefer him to the others.

Jim Webb too was new to most viewers. A one-term senator from Virginia, Webb ran a surprisingly successful quixotic campaign for senate some years back. He resonates strongly with a part of the Democratic Party that has sort of slipped away: the moderate domestically but hawkish militarily type. I think Webb would probably be a pretty good general election candidate, as he may be the only moderate in either party running for president so he would draw independents like crazy. He has sterling credentials and a firm grasp on the commander in chief side of being president. Unfortunately, there is no party for moderates anymore. The Democratic Party though at least embraces moderates. The Republican Party simply spurns them.

As the debate dragged on not only did it become the Hillary vs. Bernie debate but the choice seemed to be pragmatic progressive (Clinton) vs. ideological progressive (Sanders). Clinton impressed me in the debate. She did not make me anxious to vote for her, but she did reduce my anxiety should she win the Democratic nomination. She deftly handled the mostly bogus controversies surrounding her, in one case with the assistance of Sanders. While Clinton was polished, Sanders was too. Eloquent and passionate, he seemed to be the only candidate on the stage that was just being himself. Most observers gave Clinton the edge in the debate, but Sanders raised two million dollars from people after the debate and Google was overrun with queries from people wanting to learn more about socialism. Sanders was not just passionate, but passionately convincing. His long career demonstrates an ability to correctly line up on the issues.

So it should make for an interesting campaign and I look forward to more debates. Clinton proved herself not to be the stereotype projected by her opponents. Sanders doubtlessly got a lot of interest from people who did not know what he is about. Webb, O’Malley and Chafee are on the way out to pasture; they just don’t know it yet. Clinton needs to keep her projection going forward and Sanders needs to see if he can develop a critical mass of progressives to overwhelm Clinton’s natural advantages, principally with blacks and women. It all depends on just how fed up the American people actually are in this election. If the polls are right, Clinton should make no assumptions about a smooth path to the nomination.

 
The Thinker

Obama demonstrates he is the real grown up in the room

Our national government currently resembles a three-ring circus. Between carbon copy Republicans running for president on a platform of mostly hot air, pabulum from the so-called leaders of the U.S. congress and the weird rulings and opinions from our Supreme Court justices, a whole lot of nothing meaningful is happening in Washington at your expense.

There is thankfully one exception: we’re getting a lot of leadership from President Obama. And yesterday, the president tentatively scored a major win: a negotiated agreement with Iran over its nuclear weapons program, in concert with four other major powers that participated in the talks. The agreement reduces Iran’s nuclear capabilities over the next ten years and Iran gets release from the crippling sanctions against the country. This will be done through unfettered inspections of its nuclear facilities and sealed commitments to reduce its uranium stockpiles.

I breathed a huge sigh of relief when the agreement was announced but I was also grinning. In his first presidential campaign, Obama had promised change we could believe in. It’s been hard to deliver a lot of this change given the relentless obstruction in Congress, but this agreement should it be realized certainly will be change I can believe in. This is the kind of change I voted for, and it’s meaningful change.

While Republicans fall over themselves to deny global warming, restrict a woman’s right to an abortion and make life increasingly miserable for the poor and the wretched, at least Obama has kept his focus long term. While CEOs do conniptions to show higher quarterly profits, our president has ignored the rhetoric of the moment and concentrated on what we paid him for: real leadership. And boy did he deliver yesterday!

Consider what would happen if “Bomb, bomb, bomb Iran” John McCain had been elected president instead of Barack Obama. It’s pretty clear what would have happened based on McCain’s own words then and over the last six and a half years. Negotiate with Iran? It would not have been an option. It would have been framed as negotiating with terrorists. It’s quite likely that instead we would now be hip deep in another long, ghastly and frighteningly expensive war with Iran. Bombs would be dropping. Our ships would be shelling Iran’s shores. Aircraft would be dropping bunker-busting bombs all over the country, and maybe outside of it. Our troops would be dying, and overstretched in the area, which is already rife with conflict. That region would be even more so with a major war in Iran and the Islamic State even more resurgent. Consider what would be giving up now if we were at war with Iran: support for the Iraqi government, and the Kurds and pretty much anyone else trying to contain the Islamic state, and that’s just for starters. Our attention on other threats in Asia and Africa would be largely nonexistent.

This new war, as awful as it would be, would be far more awful because it would set in motion a series of future wars. Rather than contain Iran’s nuclear might, it would unleash decades of future madness in that region. Iran, which already hates America, would find it hated us even more due to the war. It would be working that much harder to undermine our national security through its proxies. You don’t have to look far in the Middle East to see how the hate business propagates endlessly. Israel and Palestine are locked in an eternal war fought as lots of major skirmishes. Each action by Israel or proxies for the Palestinians simply set up the participants for the next one, and further inflames tensions, making it impossible for them to cool. There is no military solution to their problems, just as there is no military solution to the West’s conflict with Iran.

The difference is that unlike Israel’s relentless intransigence, the United States can affect real political change through diplomacy instead of war. Obama figured that out long before he was president. He realized that the most important thing was to stop the cycle of hate and paranoia, because this puts out the flames of war. He spoke openly to the Iranian people that change was possible. He said that Iran and the United States did not have to be eternal enemies. He said we could resolve our conflict through diplomacy, but only if both sides were earnest and passions could cool. To improve the odds he worked with an international coalition not just to maintain sanctions on Iran but also to work together to find a peaceful way to lift them through a comprehensive agreement. And amazingly with the help of two hard working secretaries of state (Hillary Clinton and John Kerry) and of course our international partners (which gave us credibility), they pulled off this agreement.

Of course there are no guarantees that Congress will approve this agreement. It will probably be rejected, but because it is not a treaty, Obama’s veto of their bill rejecting it probably means he will win. This is because Congress probably can’t muster two thirds majority in both chambers to overrule his veto. Of course it is fraught with lots of potential pitfalls. But it also significantly reduces Iran’s nuclear weapon making capability and brings Iran back into the international community. It eases tensions and allows time for Iran’s demographics to take hold. It is a country full of young people, and it’s likely as they age they will have much more liberal values than their current leaders. You can see this from the satellite dishes on pretty much every house of size in Iran today. Iranians are more than ready to embrace Western values. They are just waiting for the political climate to change.

You will hear the usual noise from the war hawks about why this agreement is actually a calamity and how we are selling out our values not to mention our national security. In reality, Obama is holding us to our values, showing that we are a nation that values peace and goodwill. This buys real national security because when people don’t have reason to hate you, something called real peace happens. Obama is showing that we can model what is best about our country to the rest of the world again, rather than assert what is worst about it. He is reminding us of a time in the late 1940s and early 1950s when this was the United States and we really were that shining city on the hill. We sponsored the United Nations. We rebuilt Europe. We built international coalitions to handle the Korean conflict. We fed much of the malnourished world. We were an awesome country back then.

To quote the late Hubert Humphrey, I’m as pleased as punch with our president. Obviously he is not a flawless president. I too have major concerns with some of his decisions as president. However, his focus on a long game and doing the intelligent thing rather than the emotional thing certainly garners not just my respect, but also my deep admiration and gratitude.

Thank you for being one of the few grown up leaders in our government, Mr. President.

 
The Thinker

Election 2016 preview

You need quite a long scorecard to keep track of the people running for president these days. As in 2012, the number is disproportionately high on the Republican side. This time around the number of Republicans running is even higher. As of today there are eleven officially declared candidates: Ted Cruz, Rand Paul, Marco Rubio, Ben Carson, Carly Fiorina, Mike Huckabee, Rick Santorum, George Pataki, Lindsey Graham, Rick Perry and Jeb Bush. Unannounced candidates will likely include Scott Walker, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal and John Kasich. Fox News and CNN get to figure out how to put them all on a debate stage. As a practical matter they should have two or three debates with subsets of the candidates at each. That way at least there is some chance of a debate.

But will any of them say anything that truly distinguished them from the other candidates? With the exceptions of Rand Paul (who recently tried to kill the Patriot Act) and George Pataki (a suspiciously moderate former governor of New York state) the answer is pretty much “no”. The rest are all cut from the same cloth; they accept the same orthodoxy and thus all kind of blend into the debate stage together. Some are slightly more socially conservative than others, but even Republicans will have a hard time finding any meaningful differences between them.

Some of these candidates could at least be laughed off the stage as simply not credible or for suffering from terminal foot in mouth disease. It appears that shame is no barrier to running for president:

  • Carly Fiorina made a mess during her tenure as Hewlett Packard’s CEO. Despite this and never having held a political office, but she thinks she can lead the country.
  • Shortly after the death of his son Beau to brain cancer recently, Ted Cruz joked about the Vice President.
  • Ben Carson opined that prison makes men gay, as if being a victim of rape in prison makes someone gay. He also said that Obamacare is the worst thing to happen since slavery. Presumably it is worse than two world wars and the Holocaust.
  • Mike Huckabee, referencing Caitlyn (formerly Bruce) Jenner, says it would have been convenient to pretend to be a woman when he was growing up so he could have gone into the women’s showers.
  • Rick Santorum, supposedly a devout Catholic, said the pope should shut up about climate change because he’s not a scientist, presumably ignorant that the pope worked as a chemist before joining the priesthood.

So far at least Democratic candidates haven’t suffered much from this problem. Hillary Clinton has learned the hazards of opening her mouth to the press from past campaigns and largely ignores them with listening tours. The closest crazy candidate is not the “Democratic socialist” Vermont senator Bernie Sanders, whose opinions are actually mainstream. No, it’s Lincoln Chafee, former Rhode Island senator, governor and Republican whose announcement the other day at least managed to draw some attention for some controversial opinions. These included proposals that we should negotiate with the Islamic State and that we should embrace the metric system. (Those of us who remember the 1970s remember how popular moving to the metric system made politicians.) Martin O’Malley is running to Hillary’s left. The exception, if he decides to run, is Jim Webb, the only candidate in either party that could be considered a genuine moderate.

How all this will play out at this time is anyone’s guess. Republican candidates figure they can increase their odds of success with affiliated PACs stuffed full of cash, or by quietly getting the endorsement of well funded billionaires like the Koch Brothers or Sheldon Adelson. At the other end is Bernie Sanders, whose campaign is funded through lots of small donations, principally from committed liberal activists. While the effect of money on campaigns will doubtless be an issue in the campaign, every candidate will be doing their best to rake in obscenely large campaign contributions, if they can get them.

Eventually though one or more candidates has to break through somehow. Hillary Clinton arguably has already broken through with her wide name recognition and her wide approval among women of all parties. On the Republican side it’s much less clear who will break through. One strategy is to see who can hold on the longest and generally that means the candidate with the most money, i.e. the Jeb Bush strategy. Occasionally a distinct personality will emerge that tickles Republicans. All bets though are off on who this will be. Already sure things (Chris Christie and Jeb Bush) look like has beens. Last time Mitt Romney won in part because he looked like he could bring in non-Republicans. Fewer Republicans are willing to try what they see as a failed strategy. If I had to place my money on a Republican candidate right now, I’d probably go with Scott Walker, who’s not even announced yet.

The general election dynamics are in great flush as well, with much riding on who wins the nomination and the extent to which they excite both their base and moderates. Obama won in 2008 because he was seen as very different and thus exciting. Hillary won’t seem at all fresh but she can draw excitement from women, who comprise a majority of voters anyhow. If so 2016 could be a wave election favoring Democrats. Lacking a wave election much will depend on how enthusiastic voters are in general. Also voter disenfranchisement is a considerable factor and will tend to tilt things toward Republican states where it exists.

What’s unknown is what the sleeper issues, if any, will be. Bernie Sanders seems to speak for a lot of people. He is dragging the Democratic Party in general to the left, which could be dangerous in a general election. But many of his issues are issues most Americans feel strongly about but candidates aren’t seriously addressing, such as a living wage. If voter apathy can be harvested, the political dynamics might move sharply toward the left, at least in the Senate and in presidential races. Gerrymandering has made it unlikely that Democrats can regain the house before 2022.

So who eventually wins really depends on whom we choose to focus on and why. Will we choose to be dazzled by showmanship and money, or will we vote based on common values? Few candidates are speaking to the political moderates. The candidate that can do this and win their party’s nomination is the one likeliest to be our next president.

 
The Thinker

Not quite ready for Hillary

To no one’s surprise, Hillary Clinton is planning to finally confirm that yes, she is running for president in 2016. This will happen probably via a Twitter post tomorrow that will link to a video of her announcement. Officially she’s been undecided, but given all the backstage machinations going on within the Clinton camp it’s been obvious for months if not years that she was going to run. Thence she will be off on a listening tour. She has learned from previous campaigns that she does better when she is not giving speeches and when she is seen as relatable.

I hope I am not the only one out there feeling underwhelmed. It’s not that I can’t support her for president, particularly since there is not a sane Republican running for president. Hillary for President sounds about as exciting to me as a bowl of mushy oatmeal for breakfast. Maybe it’s good for me but most mornings I don’t want to eat it. I’m not sure who I am looking for, but it’s not Hillary Clinton.

For most on the Democratic left, the choice would be Senator Elizabeth Warren (MA), who will soon be my senator. I could get behind her of course if she were going to run, which she is not, even though I doubt she would be an effective president. She has been quite clear about not wanting to run for president. Hillary is not quite without competition. Former Maryland governor Martin O’Malley is running, some say in the hope to end up on her ticket. Former Republican governor of Rhode Island and Democratic senator Lincoln Chafee sounds like he will be running. And former Virginia senator Jim Webb sounds like he might do the same.

O’Malley is definitely politically left but is otherwise uninspiring. Lincoln Chafee is virtually unknown outside his tiny home state. Jim Webb is an intriguing possibility. He was a decent if unconventional senator, without much in the way of accomplishments for his six years in the senate, but with lots of interesting ideas that succumbed to the usual partisanship. Webb seemed happy to leave after a single term. However, Webb likes to flit from thing to thing. Flitting with the presidency is his current thing. He would be the closest thing to a non-controversial and mainstream candidate that the Democrats could nominate. Hillary brings baggage.

With Hillary I think: Is this really the best we can do? Perhaps so. Hillary hits all the right demographics. She is broadly popular, particularly among women. She is well known and won’t surprise us. We know all her dirt and in particular we know all of her husband’s dirt. We have seen her as First Lady, senator, candidate and secretary of state. As First Lady she was seen as uppity and controversial. As a senator she learned to be toned down and conventional. She also made some really bad calls, such as voting for the Iraq War resolution. As a candidate in 2008 she ran an overly scripted, haughty and very flawed campaign that was as exciting as, well, my bowl of morning oatmeal. Her only real political success was as our Secretary of State. That’s not a bad asset to bring to the presidency. Like it or not, foreign policy will occupy much of the next president’s time. It’s not something that voters will care much about.

What does she bring to a campaign? She brings an I’m not one of those nutty Republicans, pretty much any of whom with the possible exception of Jeb Bush are unelectable. Mostly she brings the undeniable fact that she is a woman with a serious chance of winning her party’s nomination. Seeing the mess so many men have made of the presidency, we’d like to see a female in that post in the hopes that she would bring more pragmatism and common sense to the office. Certainly the tone would be different, wouldn’t it?

Perhaps but tone doesn’t change much. The power dynamics will not change much when Obama exits stage right and if Clinton enters stage left. The senate has a decent chance of returning to Democratic control in 2016, but unless there is a huge wave election for Hillary the House will stay with the GOP. Districts are too tightly gerrymandered for a switch there. Democrats really have to hope they can win sufficient power in key states in 2020 when the next census takes place. Any first term for Hillary Clinton would look a lot like Obama’s current term.

So electing Hillary certainly won’t solve the gridlock in Congress or change the overall political dynamics. It would not surprise me if Republican misogyny toward Hillary replaces their obvious racism toward Obama. Clinton would certainly do her best to keep the status quo in place: no major changes on the Supreme Court or changed to entitlements. In that sense her presidency would feel comfortable. The biggest political problem today is actually within the Republican Party. They don’t know what they stand for. The libertarians and Wall Street Republicans loathe the social conservatives and visa versa. The party refuses to come down to earth and wants to chase bogeymen and impossible goals. Just like modern Christianity bears no resemblance to the religion Jesus founded, today’s Republican party bears no resemblance to Ronald Reagan’s vision of the party. It’s become impossibly twisted and bizarrely out of the mainstream.

A vote for Hillary is really a vote for more of the same, which is not necessarily bad given that with the reigns of power Republicans would likely be doing insane things like turning over our national parks to the private sector. However, there is nothing compelling about her candidacy, nothing to inspire voters other than she is a woman, and no coherent and inspiring message to rally around. The power of such a message should not be discounted. It provided a mandate for Barack Obama in 2008 and both a Democratic House and Senate. Real change happens when people have a strong motivation to vote, not just for a candidate, but also for candidates supporting a distinct and credible platform.

Given Clinton’s cautious nature, we are likely to see more of her 2008 campaign. It is likely to be carefully scripted and stage-managed. It will be a cautious and focus group tested campaign rather than a bold one. If Hillary were a man instead of a woman, would any of us vote for her with the same interest and enthusiasm? I doubt it. She would be another milquetoast Martin O’Malley, but much more centrist and likely less inspiring.

So I’m not ready for Hillary. I probably never will be. I can’t see myself voting for any of the crazy Republican candidates. If she wins the nomination she will likely get my vote. Unless she can demonstrate a passion and a compelling vision I’ve never seen from her I’ll probably dutifully vote for her. I just won’t feel inspired doing so.

 

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