Monday, November 5, 2018

Weekend Roundup

Last pre-election post. One measure of the impact of elections is that I've been writing about 50% more on politics since Trump and the Republicans won big in 2016, as compared to the previous four years under Obama. And it's not like I didn't have things to complain about with Obama -- although I wrote much more then about foreign affairs and wars, including a lot on Israel (which hasn't in any way changed for the better with Trump, but has been crowded out of consciousness). And the fact is, the ratio would be even greater if I had the time and patience to dig through everything that matters.

One thing I learned long ago is that elections don't fix problems, but if they go the wrong way they can make many of our lives worse off. You can't expect that the people you elect will do good things with their power -- in fact, power doesn't make anyone a better person -- but you can at least try to weed out the ones you know better than. I can't really blame people who thought they were doing us a favor in 2016 by retiring Hillary Clinton. I could have written a long book on why she should never have been considered for president, so I'm not surprised that many other people didn't like or trust her. Of course, that doesn't justify them voting for Trump. Elections are almost always about "lesser evils," and it helps to weigh them out carefully, even to lean a bit against your prejudices. While it was easy to see why people might think Hillary "crooked," you have to flat-out ignore tons of evidence to judge Hillary more crooked than Trump. Nor was that the only dimension: build a list of any trait you might think matters in a president, and if you're honest about the evidence, Trump will lose out to her. Electing him was a glaring lapse of judgment on the part of the American people.

Nor was it their first. My first election was 1972, when we had the change to elect one of the most fundamentally decent people who ever ran for high office, but by a large margin the American people preferred Dick Nixon. Given that Nixon was even less of an unknown than Reagan, the Bushes, or Trump, that's a pretty damning reflection on the American people. I've regularly been disappointed by elections. After my 1972 experience, I didn't vote again until 1996, when I was living in Massachusetts but couldn't ignore the opportunity to vote against Bob Dole (who was second only to Nixon among the villains I voted against in 1972 -- people forget what a rat bastard he was in his first couple of terms).

Still, worse than Trump's election in 2016 was the Republicans seizing complete control of Congress. Not only did this make Trump much more dangerous, it shows that voters haven't fully realized the monolithic threat that Republicans represent. I think a lot of the blame here belongs to Obama and the Clintons, who pursued their presidential campaigns with scant concern for the welfare of the rest of the party, largely by not leading the public to understand what Republicans were up to. In particular, Clinton focused her campaign on picking up Trump-averse Republicans in the suburbs with little concern for Trump-attracted working class Democrats. When the 2016 returns came in, Republicans who didn't particularly like Trump still voted for him due to party loyalty, as did independents who for various reasons (deplorable and sometimes not) happened to like Trump.

Even now, when I meet up with Democrats, they're more likely to want to talk about who they like for president in 2020 than winning Congress here and now. My answer is simple: whoever works hardest to put the party ahead of themselves, but no Democratic president is going to be worth a damn without a solid partisan base. I've never been a diehard Democrat, but Republicans have left us no other choice.

I wouldn't call these links recommendations, but here's a brief list of things I'm looking at to get a feel for the current elections:

Silver's piece above mentions a number of historical and current trends, and how they weigh on the elections. Obviously, one reason people are leery about predicting big Democratic gains is that Trump in particular and Republicans in general did better in 2016 than the polls suggested. That has people worried that Republicans are being systematically undercounted, and we won't know if that's the case until the votes are counted. Could just be a statistical fluke with no relationship to past or future elections. To the extent that any correction needed to be made, it's likely that pollsters have done that already. My own view is that Republicans have developed a very effective get-out-the-vote system, which Democrats (except for Obama, and then mostly for himself) never matched. (Clinton was especially lax in that regard.)

My own reservations about the Democrats' prospects are mostly due to respect for their "ground game" -- their ability to keep their base motivated, angry, hungry, and responsive to their taunts and jeers. The Democrats totally dropped the ball in 2010, and didn't fare much better in 2014. One thing you have to credit Republicans with is not letting up in 2018. And while Obama seemed aloof from his party, Trump has been totally committed to rallying his voters. Moreover, he does have a fairly robust economy to tout, and no big new wars to be mired in, and he was saved from blowing a huge hole in health care coverage. A lot of things he's done will eventually cost Americans dearly, but many of the effects are incremental. So he should be in pretty good shape, he's clearly trying hard, and his party machinery remains very efficient. Also, he's fortunate in having a playing field very tilted in his favor: the House is so thoroughly gerrymandered Republicans can lose the popular vote by 5-7% and still wind up with control, and the break on Senate seats favors the Republicans even more. The fact there is that even not counting California (where the top two open primary finishers are both Democrats, so there's no Republican on the ballot), the Democrats can win the popular vote by 10% or more without gaining a seat.

On the other hand, even though Trump has managed to hang on to virtually all of his supporters (and in many cases he's delighted them), he never has been very popular, and people who dislike him really detest him. By making the election so much a referendum on himself, he's drawing many young and disaffected people out to vote against Republicans, pretty much everywhere. Silver identifies two important points favoring the Democrats. One is that they've done a very strong job of raising money. Even more important (although the two aren't unrelated) the Democrats have recruited exceptionally strong candidates to contest virtually every election.

Some other briefly-noted stories on campaigns, polls, and some more general statements of principles:

Some scattered links this week:

  • Matthew Yglesias: Journalists should stop repeating Trump's lies: Refers back to the author's Hack Gap piece, which should be required homework before voting in this election. Trump's claim that no other nation has "birthright citizenship" is a prime example of a lie that's been much repeated simply because Trump told it. Other Yglesias posts this week:

    • What's at stake in Tuesday's elections: Nice, concise statement of the implications of various outcomes. The one that's missing is the question of whether Trump, presented with a Democratic Congress, might veer off in a direction of bipartisan compromises, which could steer the Republicans out of the dead-end the party's far-right has trapped them in. As long as he's had Republican control of Congress, he's had no reason to reach across the aisle, and this has let the far-right effectively veto any attempts at compromise. But if there's no way a strict party vote can deliver him any results, he would likely find the Democrats more agreeable than the far-right. And one thing that is fairly certain is that, win or lose, Trump has gained strength as the party's leader. He has, after all, really pulled out all the stops to promote the party. Of course, he could just as well hold firm and run his 2020 campaign against the Democrat-obstructionists. Indeed, his base may prefer that stance, and he may prefer it. But there is middle ground he could gain if he actually did something constructive (infrastructure is a likely place to start). So he could emerge stronger after a defeat than a win.

    • What Democrats can learn from Larry Hogan: Also Charlie Baker, who looks to be "cruising to reelection in Massachusetts." Hogan and Baker are Republican governors in otherwise solidly Democratic states -- states that Democrats would start with if they really were looking to push a far-left agenda. I'm not sure what lessons Democrats should draw from this, but one for Republicans seems pretty obvious: that Republicans can win and even thrive in solid Democratic states by running candidates that are moderate, judicious, and not sociopathic. There's an element of luck to this, but also a deep-seated distrust of Democratic politicians, not least among the party rank-and-file. Massachusetts, for instance, has had many more Republican governors over the last 30 years than Democrats, but note that the latest Democrat, Deval Patrick, elected with impeccable progressive credentials, wound up so tightly enmeshed in business interests that he wound up as one of the villains in Thomas Frank's Listen, Liberal! (eclipsed only by Andrew Cuomo among governors, Rahm Emmanuel among mayors, and the Clintons nationwide). It strikes me that there's a double standard here: people expect more from Democrats; when Democrats are elected, they get swamped in everyday administration tasks (which mostly means working with business lobbies); they can't figure out how to get their platforms implemented; people are disappointed and grow increasingly cynical. The best one can hope for in a Republican is quiet competence, and in the rare cases when a Republican can do that without embarrassment, he or she gets a free pass.

    • The cynical politics of John Bolton's "Troika of Tyranny": the subject of what was effectively a campaign speech delivered in Miami, a fairly transparent attempt to galvanize Cuban support for Republicans in Florida "even as President Donald Trump's closing argument in the 2018 midterms is demagogic fear-mongering about would-be asylum-seekers from Central America." Pre-Trump, Republicans distinguished between "good" and "bad" refugees from Latin America: the "good" ones fled from communism in Cuba, the "bad" ones from capitalism and US-allied "death squads" from elsewhere. Trump has managed to muddle this a bit, as his racist, xenophobic base tends to group all immigrants and all Latin Americans together -- a point that threatens the Cuban-Republican alliance. Still, not clear to me this works even as cynical politics. Obama's opening to Cuba actually played pretty well to Cuban-Americans, who saw opportunities as Cuba itself was becoming more business-friendly. Moreover, Trump's militant stands against Venezuela and Nicaragua do more to prop up the left-ish governments there than to undermine them. Nor is it likely that Bolton can parlay his strategy into visas for right-wingers to immigrate to the US, as happened with Cuba. And as policy, of course, this is plain bad. Also see: Alex Ward: John Bolton just gave an "Axis of Evil" speech about Latin America.

    • Ted Cruz and the Zodiac Killer, explained.

  • Jill Lepore: Reigns of Terror in America: A brief history lesson on what's new and not after last week's terrorizing shootings and would-be bombings. Mostly what's not:

    On Friday, May 9, 1958, Rabbi Jacob M. Rothschild, of the Hebrew Benevolent Congregation, in Atlanta, delivered a sermon called "Can This Be America?" Crosses had been burned and men had been lynched, but Rothschild was mainly talking about the bombs: bundled sticks of dynamite tied with coiled fuses. In the late nineteen-fifties, terrorists had set off, or tried to, dozens of bombs -- at black churches, at white schools that had begun to admit black children, at a concert hall where Louis Armstrong was playing, at the home of Martin Luther King, Jr. One out of every ten attacks had been directed at Jews, at synagogues and community centers in Charlotte, in Nashville, in Jacksonville, in Birmingham. In March, 1958, about twenty sticks of dynamite, wrapped in paper yarmulkes, had exploded in an Orthodox synagogue in Miami. The blast sounded like a plane crash. . . .

    America's latest reign of terror began not with Trump's election but with Obama's, the Brown v. Board of the Presidency. "Impeach Obama," yard signs read. "He's Unconstitutional." In 2011, Trump began demanding that Obama prove his citizenship. "I feel I've accomplished something really, really important," Trump told the press, when, that spring, the White House offered up the President's birth certificate.

    I'm still working my way through Lepore's big book, These Truths: A History of the United States -- currently 575 pages in (roughly 1956), 217 to go before the notes -- and even though I've been over this terrain many times before, I'm still picking up new (or poorly understood) pieces of information. For instance, she puts some emphasis on the development of print and broadcast media, of journalism and advertising and political consultants, and the effects of each on our democracy.

  • Mike Konczal/Nell Abernathy: Democrats Must Become the Party of Freedom: notably economic freedoms: "Freedom From Poverty"; "Freedom for Workers"; "Freedom From Corporate Power."

  • PR Lockhart: Georgia, 2018's most prominent voting rights battleground, explained. The governor's race there will largely be determined by who goes to the polls and who doesn't. The Republican candidate, Brian Kemp, is currently Georgia's Secretary of State, which gives him a direct hand in managing voter access, and he's been using his position to tilt the election his way. Same sorts of things are happening elsewhere, but Georgia has an especially long history of voter suppression, and Kemp is actively adding to that legacy. For the latest, also note: Emily Stewart: Brian Kemp's office opens investigation into Georgia Democratic Party days ahead of the election.

  • Gregory Magarian: Don't Call Him "Justice": A few more words on Brett Kavanaugh, whose new position on the Supreme Court only promises to debase the word "justice" even further.

  • David Roberts: The caravan "invasion" and America's epistemic crisis: Yglesias linked to this above, but I wanted to show the title, and the piece is worth examining closer. Especially the term "epistemic crisis" -- a blast from my past, applicable to all sorts of gross misunderstandings, including how the right-wing mythmongers take tiny germs of fact and reason and spin them into lurid fears and fantasies. Not to deny that sometimes they totally make shit up (like the ISIS jihadis alleged to have joined "the caravan"), but "the caravan" is basically a dramatization of a fairly common process, where the poor, threatened, and/or ambitious of poor countries like Guatemala seek a better life in a richer country like the US. One might think that an influx of poor people to a rich country might drag the latter down, or that the continued impoverty of immigrants might make them more prone to crime, but there is hardly any evidence of that.

    The thing I find most curious about "the caravan" is that it is so public -- more than anything else, it reminds me of civil rights marches, which makes it very different from past migration routes (more like the slave era "underground railroad": quiet and stealthy). Civil rights marches challenged relatively friendly federal powers to intervene and limit unfriendly local powers. Nothing like that applies here, with Trump's administration more likely to be provoked to harsher measures than to accept the migrants. Given the timing and publicity, a much more rational explanation would be that "the caravan" is a publicity stunt designed to promote and legitimize Trump's rabid anti-immigrant political platform. I'm surprised I haven't seen any investigation into such an obvious suspicion. Maybe it's that the liberal press assumes that everyone secretly wants to move here, so it doesn't occur to them to ask: why these people? and why now? Roberts sticks to the safe ground of "epistemic crisis":

    Trump does not view himself as president of the whole country. He views himself as president of his white nationalist party -- their leader in a war on liberals. He has all the tools of a head of state with which to prosecute that war. Currently, he is restrained only by the lingering professionalism of public servants and a few thin threads of institutional inertia.

    The caravan story, a lurid xenophobic fantasia that has now resulted in thousands of troops deployed on US soil, shows that those threads are snapping. The epistemic crisis Trump has accelerated is now morphing into a full-fledged crisis of democracy.

    Other "caravan" links:

  • Emily Stewart: Trump said there was a middle-class tax cut coming before the election. There's no way that's happening. "Instead of running on the tax bill they already passed, Republicans are trying to convince voters with a new (nonexistent) one."

  • Kenneth P Vogel/Scott Shane/Patrick Kingsley: How Vilification of George Soros Moved From the Fringes to the Mainstream.

  • Alex Ward: The US will impose new sanctions on Iran next week: "The goal is to change Iran's behavior. It's unclear if that will happen." There's hardly any evidence that sanctions do anything other than to lock in and harden existing stances. If the goal was to "change Iran's behavior," the key element would be laying out a path for that changed behavior to be validated, but the sanctions described are all stick, no carrot, and they're being imposed by a Trump regime that has already shown no consideration for Iran's steady compliance with the previous agreement. Moreover, the politics behind the new sanctions are almost totally being driven by Israel and Saudi Arabia. One obvious Saudi goal (shared by US oil companies and other major oil exporters, including Russia) is to keep Iranian oil off the world market -- an interest that will remain regardless of Iran's "behavior." It's a shame that Trump cannot conceive of the US having any broader interests (like peaceful coexistence) than the price of oil and the market for arms. Also see: