Monday, August 27, 2018

What the McCain Eulogies Say About Us


The response to John McCain has been absolutely fascinating. It says a lot more about where we are as a country in the age of Trump than it does about McCain. We seem to be hungering for a hero who reflects the America we wish we had, someone whose heroism brings us reflective glory, someone who personifies public service, dedication to country, not party, a truth-teller and a statesman. There aren’t many examples of such a person in politics right now, and so McCain has been elevated. A sampling of headlines:

  •  John McCain, 2008 Presidential Nominee Who Was Driven By Code of Honor, Dies at 81 (WaPo)
  • John McCain and the Lost Art of Decency (The Atlantic) 
  • Great-Heart is Gone (The Atlantic)
  • John McCain, independent voice of the GOP establishment, dies at 81 (NBC)
  • John McCain, Last Lion of the Senate (NYT)
  • John McCain, towering senator and GOP ‘maverick,’ dies (Politico)
McCain served his country much of his life, was a 5-year POW, and GOP candidate for President. He deserves honor for these things, and even veneration for the way he handled his time as a POW. (It’s amazing that he was able to function at all when he got out.)

But he was in so many other ways a flawed vehicle for the title of “hero.” After Vietnam, he had a number of affairs and ultimately divorced his wife of 15 years to marry one of his mistresses. He was a member of the Keating Five, and even he admitted this corruption acted as “my asterisk.” During the 80s he supported Reagan’s backing of the Contras and famously met with Pinochet. This was characteristic of his approach to foreign policy, where he pursued maximal intervention. He always felt Vietnam could have been won, and was the staunchest supporter of the Iraq war (2003), wanting as late as 2008 to send many more troops there, believing the war was winnable.

He was continually wrong about intervention and foreign policy, and yet even today the Wall Street Journal wrote, amazingly: “As a third-generation naval officer and his detention in Vietnam, Mr. McCain had the moral authority and stature to question the executive branch, the Pentagon and its top military officers in a way few others are able or willing to do.”

He carefully cultivated the image as an independent (brilliantly branded as a “maverick”) and did have a couple issues of disagreement with his party (immigration, campaign finance). Yet he was a reliable conservative and almost always supported his party, particularly GOP presidents. And, when his campaign was in trouble in 2008, he chose Sarah Palin as his running mate, a figure who made Donald Trump a more plausible candidate eight years later.

Every politician who serves for decades will have important wins to go along with missteps. I don’t mean to suggest McCain should be overly criticized. His service should be honored. But he was a flawed man who got much wrong as a politician. (In his autobiography this year, he admitted Iraq was a mistake.) In writing these over-the-top eulogies, Americans are telling themselves a comforting story: honor and bravery still exists among our leaders; there are still those who serve the constitution first and put politics second.

It’s not a terrible instinct and I can see why McCain is the focal point for this lionizing. (Ted Kennedy, another flawed person, got quite a bit of positive coverage after his death.) But it’s telling that we need a hero so badly right now.

Friday, August 24, 2018


Impeachment is on everyone’s mind, and I have been hearing a lot of talk that Dems will move that direction if they take the House. If Nancy Pelosi is Speaker, I find this highly implausible. Because, while the House could vote to impeach, there is absolute zero chance the Senate will scare up 67 votes to convict. That would make the impeachment look like an empty political gesture—as when the House voted 973 times to repeal Obamacare—and lower the bar for future Houses to impeach as a political tactic. Pelosi knows politics better than any Democrat in the country and she will see what a loser this is.

But why won’t Republican senators break with the party?—they did it in 1974 and forced Nixon’s resignation. This is the wishful thinking people engage in, failing to notice how radically the two parties have changed in the past 44 years. The GOP of 2018 is vastly different than the GOP of 1974.
Below are three election maps. They illustrate how politics changed from the post-civil war era, when the Democratic Party was rural and white and dominated by the south and the GOP was coastal and elite. The map will look instantly familiar because mapmaker Dave Leip uses red for Dems and blue for the GOP. It looks eerily like the current maps we’re familiar with, even though the parties are exactly reversed.



Now look at 1968. This was the moment the consequences of the civil rights movement reshuffled the parties. The Democrats have started to morph into that party of the upper Midwest and coasts, but their ancient bulwark in the south has gone full racist and voted Wallace—foreshadowing the realignment that we know today. Finally, we have the famous map from 2000, which forms the terrain of politics we know: the GOP as the party of the South and rural West and the Democratic Party as coastal and urban.

More importantly, the pre-60s parties were politically diverse. Both had liberal and conservative wings. These cleavages account for the famous bipartisanship old timers now wax fondly about. It was possible to work across the aisle because Dem and GOP conservatives formed a bipartisan bloc. As did Dem and GOP liberals. This was the environment in 1974 when the Nixon tapes were released. It was the dam breaking that forced GOP senators to join against Nixon. But that senate comprised many liberal members whose seats would later go to staunchly liberal Dems in very blue states.

In 2018 GOP is factional, not coalitional. There are no liberal Republicans and the members will actually be on net more conservative after the midterms. The GOP has understood since at least the 1990s that solidarity gives them unusual power, and that even as a minority party they can often dictate outcomes over the fractious Democratic Party, which does still maintain a coalition of different groups. They also know that 42% of the public will never abandon Trump for any reason. Those voters are unequally distributed and in many states and districts comprise large majorities of voters.

In 1974, Republican senators jumped ship because their skins depended on it. In 2018, GOP senators will go down with the ship because their skins depend on it. There will be no watershed moment that causes GOP Senators to recalculate their political fortunes and vote to impeach. Politics and the parties have changed. Trump may be forced to resign because of personal legal jeopardy and legal pressure against his family, but he will not be removed from office by the US Senate.

Wednesday, August 22, 2018

Manafort Found Guilty, Cohen Cuts a Deal


A few thoughts on the state of democracy in the wake of more Trump administration convictions for corruption.

The election of Donald Trump has presented the country with a shock test. What happens when a demagogic, racist autocrat with no interest in democracy or democratic norms becomes president? How well equipped to address this shock are the various components of our democracy—the other branches of government, the media, the voters?

We’ve failed the test. The Republican Party has not just ignored Trump’s corruption, they’ve actively tried to prevent investigation into it. The judiciary is wonderfully personified by the person of Brett Kavanaugh, a judge whose record on the exercise of executive power changes depending on the party of the man in office. The media has extended to both the Trump administration and its GOP abettors an assumption of good faith that is logically torturous. Imagine how the US media would cover the corruption of the Trump administration if he headed, say, Poland or Kenya? They would inform their readers of the self-serving justifications, highlight lies, and not look past race-baiting demagoguery. They would not turn credulously to members of the President’s party for quotes, treating them as neutral, good-faith informants and their comments. 


Finally, the voters are the most disturbing of all. I was given the political education of my lifetime in Nov 2016, when 46% of my country voted for a man whom we knew then was incompetent, corrupt, and racist. It’s no surprise that he has only lost 4% in the polls since then. Americans have supported this man *because* of who he is, not in spite of it. What does he have to do to lose their support? As long as he keeps waking up a white man, that support will hold. As if to emphasize it, Trump held a rally last night in which “lock her up” and “drain the swamp” were regular chants. Angry white voters have signaled they have no interest in democracy or law, just that the raw exercise of power remains in their faction’s hands. All the verbal tics of their rhetoric serve to emphasize it. MAGA, libs.

So yesterday Michael Cohen and Paul Manafort joined the sprawling list of convicted or accused/indicted members of Trump’s inner team (on a day when another GOP congressman was indicted by the DOJ). What has changed? Nothing. The Trump shock test has never been about the law. It has tested how committed to democracy we are. We knew Trump was a crook before these convictions and we know it still. The GOP will continue to support him, install a Supreme Court Justice who will allow Republican presidents—including Trump—to act above the law, and try to hold onto Congress to further protect him. The media will continue to fail to report the actual news of what’s happening, and voters will continue to support Trump.

These convictions are a particularly florid plot twist in this farce of a presidency, but nothing has changed. We continue to fail the test.

Friday, August 10, 2018

Nancy Pelosi is Just the Latest Dem to be Demonized


This is an evergreen story (this quote is the WaPo), and I wouldn’t be surprised to see the Democratic Party be swayed by it. Again.
“While Democrats grow optimistic about their chances of taking control of the House in November, they are increasingly anxious that the presence of their longtime and polarizing leader, Nancy Pelosi, is making it harder for many of their candidates to compete in crucial swing districts.”

It is not Nancy Pelosi. If Democrats replace her, Republicans will not delightedly welcome the new Democratic leader who replaces her. They despised and demonized Harry Reid, and they despise and demonize Chuck Schumer. Bill Clinton was so hated they impeached him. They hated and demonized Gore. And Kerry. And Obama. There is no Democratic leader the Republican Party will not despise and demonize. Why Dems give a flying fig is inconceivable to me. Why Dems would give ground now, in the era of Me Too, when one of the most egregiously misogynist presidential campaigns exposed how unable to tolerate powerful women the GOP is—well, it leaves me speechless.

We have a powerful female leader being demonized by the GOP. Dems need to grow a spine and back her. Voters would respect that a lot more than they will the cowering Dems are now offering.

Monday, July 30, 2018

[Rant] Why Are Women Always Seen as Radicals?


This not just journalistic malpractice; it’s also an echo of the constant barrage of male journalism in the 2016 cycle that painted Hillary Clinton as an unacceptably corrupt extremist (a disturbing number of whom have resigned in disgrace following revelations of sexual misconduct). It is why getting elected as a woman remains a massive challenge.

Two men discuss the election in Georgia. Their framing mechanism is this: good ole Georgia, a bastion of moderation, is now confronting an election in which two extremists leave the poor citizens of the state with none of the moderate choices they have carefully cultivated in recent decades. I kid you not:
“In the five decades since the death of legal segregation, the image-conscious state has been led by a succession of white male centrist governors — first moderate Democrats, then, for the last 16 years, right-leaning Republicans. They have more often than not been steady and bland, focused on improving education, corporate recruitment and job growth. The unemployment rate has declined by more than 6 percentage points since the current governor, Nathan Deal, took office in 2011.”
Having set up the extremely rigged terms of debate (those governors’ “moderation” is in the eye of the beholder, and the drop in unemployment exactly mirrors the country’s 6% drop over the same period), the authors then describe the two candidates afflicting the state in 2018. One is running on a nakedly racist platform (in one ad he bragged of personally rounding up illegals) and is, as the authors acknowledge, so extreme he’s spooked business leaders. The other is ... a black woman. The authors can’t identify any actual extremism, citing her support of immigrants and Medicare, and so turn to Republican informants to paint the picture of her horrors:
“Republicans warn that Ms. Abrams, who hopes to expand Medicaid health coverage for the poor and disabled, will raise taxes they have cut, reverse the state’s job growth, deplete its rainy-day surplus and threaten its superior bond ratings.”
Race is never mentioned as a factor in the election, nor gender. An alien reading the article would no idea the history of slavery or the civil rights era had anything to do with the politics of the state. The closest the authors get is this, a tell that gives away the game: “By contrast, Mr. Kemp, 54, is a drawling agri-businessman from Athens who has revived a populist style that has lain dormant in Georgia since the late 1960s.” A “populist style” lain dormant since the 1960s? Why, whatever could that mean?

Nor do the authors note that the racist undercurrents have switched parties. At one point, a former governor speaks favorably of “moderates” like Zell Miller, one of those 1960s Dems who opposed the civil rights act and became a Republican in later life—endorsing Dubya and working on Newt Gingrich’s 2012 campaign. Crocodile tears, please, for the passing of these wonderful, neutral, bland old standard-bearers of yore.

These articles are going to keep being written by white dudes for the next few years. What counts as the baseline, moderate—and to the writers, “reasonable”—position will always be a white man equidistant in rhetoric between the parties’ extremes. Women, whether Stacey Abrams, Kirsten Gillibrand, Elizabeth Warren, or Kamala Harris, will by virtue of their gender seem dangerously extreme. Only their election will change this—and more women reporting the news.

Wednesday, June 27, 2018

Ocasio-Cortez


A while back I mentioned an x-factor in the upcoming midterms: women running as Democrats tend to be far more impressive than the “generic” Dem. (Because it’s still harder for women to break into politics, fund-raise, and beat powerful incumbents, the ones jumping in tend to have well above-average resumes.) I wondered it this might not be evidence that the Dems would over-perform in November. All the modeling and probability-generators depend on normal populations. But in individual elections, voters choose between actual humans. 

We would expect a Republican to win an open Senate seat in Alabama, for example, but in the actual event, a reactionary sexual predator couldn’t beat a competent moderate Dem. candidates matter.
A perfect example of this dynamic in action is the upset of Joe Crowley in NY’s 14th district last night. Crowley’s not a bad guy; he’s fairly progressive and had worked himself into a position to replace Nancy Pelosi as leader one day. But he is also not inspiring. He’s a schlubby middle-aged guy who inspires no one. He didn’t bother to show up for primary debates. He’s very much a Wall Street guy. Still, he would have coasted, as expected, to an easy victory against an average Dem.

Instead, he got Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a spectacular candidate who easily crushed him. She’s young, smart, very charismatic, and ran on a slate of progressive issues (she’s a self-identified socialist). Watch the video below and you’ll see instantly why she won. Again, candidates matter, and the Dems have some very impressive ones.


 

Monday, June 25, 2018

A note on civility.

There is a repeated pattern in politics that goes something like this: a group (usually the government) does something despicable to a group with little power. We’ve seen it most recently with the border child separations, but it is as ancient as slavery and the oppression of women, with all the offenses committed up to the Trump administration’s latest outrage. Then there is a backlash against the despicable act. Then sometime later, there is a call for “civility.”

This is the sleight-of-hand the powerful use to silence the powerless. Anti-suffragist men scolded suffragists as unwomanly. Whites demonized “uppity” blacks. This is pure bad faith in action: the powerful deploy the technique not because they care about civility but because they want to change the conversation from their despicable acts.

When the media or others amplify the message, they may not do it in bad faith, but they launder the charge of incivility and turn criticism on the powerless. We’re seeing t play out now with immigration, and it’s worth taking note of.