Sunday, January 19, 2020


Weekend Roundup

Last week's 6-candidate mini-debate reminded us that the Iowa Caucuses are fast approaching: February 3. It will be the first opportunity any Americans have to vote for candidates, the remnants of a field that has been reduced by half mostly through the whims of donors and the media. Unfortunately, the Americans voting will be Iowans. I was reminded of this by John Kerry, campaigning these days for Joe Biden. Kerry scored a surprise win in Iowa in 2004, kicking off an ill-fated campaign that resulted in a second term for GW Bush and Dick Cheney. As I recall, a lot of weight then was put on the idea of "electability," with many of Kerry's supporters figuring that Kerry's military record would sway voters against Bush. They miscalculated then, yet they're still in position to choose our fates.

I've been rather sanguine about the Democratic nominating process so far, but closing in on the start of actual voting, everyone is starting to get on my nerves. Even Sanders, who has by far the best analyses and positions, and the most steadfast character, but who I fear the media will never respect much less accept, and who will be hounded repeatedly with mistruths and misunderstandings. (The articles below that explicitly call out CNN will give you pretty glaring examples of what I mean.) Even Warren seems to have decided that the way to gain (or save) votes from Sanders is by resorting to half-truths and innuendo. I discuss one example below, but the whole pre-debate dust-up reflects very poorly on her, not least because it was done in ways that leave scars over trivial issues. Meanwhile Biden seems to be getting a free pass as he's blundering along.

I haven't been bothered much by the so-called moderates' plans, because no matter who wins it's effectively the right-most half of the party in Congress that will be passing laws and setting policy. But it does bother me that they've spent so much time trashing Medicare for All. In don't have a problem advocating half-measures to ameliorate the present system here and there, and figure that as a practical matter that's how reform will have to happen, but even the most reticent Democrat should realize that single-payer would be a better solution, and is a necessary goal. They really should acknowledge that, even if they doubt its practicality. But instead they're attacking it on grounds of costs and/or choice, which is simply ignorant.

I'm also rather sick of the "electability" issue, not least because I'm convinced that no one really understands the matter, because it's unprovable (except too late), and because it invites strong opinions based on nothing more than gut instincts. Still, I write about it several places below. Clearly, I have my own opinions on the matter, but can offer no more proof for them than you can for yours. I only wish to add here that one more thing I believe is that the election will turn not on whether the Democrats nominate one candidate or another but on whether Americans are so sick and tired of Trump they'll vote for any Democrat to spare themselves. And in that case, why not pick the better Democrat?


Some scattered links this week:

  • Damian Carrington: Ocean temperatures hit record high as rate of heating accelerates. Also wrote: Who do record ocean temperatures matter?

  • Jonathan Chait:

  • Aida Chávez: Bernie Sanders's lonely 2017 battle to stop Iran sanctions and save the nuclear deal.

  • Timothy Egan: Trump's evil is contagious: "The president has shown us exactly what happens when good people do nothing."

  • Lisa Friedman/Claire O'Neill: Who controls Trump's environmental policy?: "Among 20 of the most powerful people in government environment jobs, most have ties to the fossil fuel industry or have fought against the regulations they are now supposed to enforce." Names, faces, resumes. E.g., David Dunlap, Deputy head of science policy at EPA, former chemicals expert for Koch Industries, earlier VP of the Chlorine Institute (representing producers and distributors); currently oversees EPA's pollution and toxic chemical research.

  • Dan Froomkin:, in a series called Press Watch:

  • Masha Gessen: The willful ambiguity of Putin's latest power grab.

  • Anand Giridharadas: Why do Trump supporters support Trump? Book review of Michael Lind: The New Class War: Saving Democracy From the Managerial Elite. A fairly critical one, as the reviewer thinks Lind is a bit gullible when he attributes economic fears to Trump voters.

  • Maya Goodfellow: Yes, the UK media's coverage of Meghan Markle really is racist. We just finished streaming this season of The Crown, which reaffirmed our understanding that the British monarchy is a preposterous institution inhabited by ridiculous people. The series reached the 25-year mark in Elizabeth II's reign, finding her lamenting the steady decline of the nation and the decay of its imperial pretensions, to which we could only add that the next 25 (actually 40 now) years would be even worse for British pretensions of grandeur. Few things interest me less than the bickerings of the Windsors, or surprise me less than that the few who still cling to monarchist fantasies would resort to racism when pushed into a corner. Indeed, back in the 1990s when I worked for a while in England, I was repeatedly struck by the casual racism of white Brits (even those quick to frown on American racism).

  • Amy Goodman: Phyllis Bennis on Dem debate: Support for combat troop withdrawal is not enough to stop endless wars. Bennis noted:

    You know, I think one of the things that was important to see last night was that all of the Democratic candidates, including the right wing of the group, as well as the progressives, as well as Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, were vying with each other essentially to see who could be more critical of the Iraq War. They all have said that at various points, but last night it was very overt that this was a critical point of unity for these candidates. Now, whether that says much about the prospects for the Democratic Party is not so clear, but I thought that was an important advance, that there's a recognition of where the entire base of half this country is, which is strongly against wars.

  • David Graeber: The center blows itself up: Care and spite in the 'Brexit election'.

  • Sean Illing: "Flood the zone with shit": How misinformation overwhelmed our democracy: "The impeachment trial probably won't change any minds. Here's why." Not his usual interview piece (although he cites interviews along the way). Makes many important points; for example:

    As Joshua Green, who wrote a biography of Bannon, explained, Bannon's lesson from the Clinton impeachment in the 1990s was that to shape the narrative, a story had to move beyond the right-wing echo chamber and into the mainstream media. That's exactly what happened with the now-debunked Uranium One story that dogged Clinton from the beginning of her campaign -- a story Bannon fed to the Times, knowing that the supposedly liberal paper would run with it because that's what mainstream media news organizations do.

    In this case, Bannon flooded the zone with a ridiculous story not necessarily to persuade the public that it was true (although surely plenty of people bought into it) but to create a cloud of corruption around Clinton. And the mainstream press, merely by reporting a story the way it always has, helped create that cloud.

    You see this dynamic at work daily on cable news. Trump White House adviser Kellyanne Conway lies. She lies a lot. Yet CNN and MSNBC have shown zero hesitation in giving her a platform to lie because they see their job as giving government officials -- even ones who lie -- a platform.

    Even if CNN or MSNBC debunk Conway's lies, the damage will be done. Fox and right-wing media will amplify her and other falsehoods; armies on social media, bot and real, will, too (@realDonaldTrump will no doubt chime in). The mainstream press will be a step behind in debunking -- and even the act of debunking will serve to amplify the lies.

  • Umair Irfan: Australia's weird weather is getting even weirder.

  • Malaika Jabali: Joe Biden is still the frontrunner but he doesn't have to be. "Biden is surviving on the myth that he's the most electable Democrat. He's not."

  • Louis Jacobson: The Democratic debates' biggest (electoral) losers, by the numbers. Elizabeth Warren usually makes well-reasoned arguments to advance carefully thought-out plans, but I found her debate point on the superior electability of women (or maybe just Amy Klobuchar and herself) to be remarkably specious and disingenuous. She said:

    I think the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record. So, can a woman beat Donald Trump? Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they've been in are the women, Amy and me.

    She went on to add that she was "the only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican any time in the past 30 years." The time limit was especially critical there, as Bernie Sanders defeated an incumbent Republican to win his House seat in November 1990 -- 30 years ago, if you do some rounding up. The time limit also excluded Joe Biden from comparison, as his first Senate win (defeating Republican incumbent J. Caleb Boggs), was in 1972, 48 years ago. One could also point out that Warren's win over "Republican incumbent" Scott Brown in 2012 wasn't really an upset: Brown had freakishly won a low turnout special election[1] in 2010 in a heavily Democratic state -- the only one that had rejected Reagan in 1984, one that hadn't elected a Republican to the Senate since Edward Brooke (1967-79) -- which made him easy pickings in 2012.

    PolitiFact ruled that Warren's quoted statement was true, but the only way they got to 10 was by counting three "ran and lost for president" elections -- two for Biden (1988 and 2008), one for Sanders (2016). Sanders had 6 of the other 7 losses, all from early in his career, the House race in 1988 (against Peter Smith, who he beat in 1990). The other loss was Pete Buttigieg's first race, in 2010 for Indiana state treasurer, against a Republican incumbent in a solidly Republican state. One could say lots of things about this data set, but Warren's interpretation is very peculiar and self-serving -- so much so I was reminded of the classic sociology text, How to Lie With Statistics.

    If you know anything about statistics, it's that sample size and boundary conditions are critical. Comparing two women against four men (one who's never run before, the other much younger so he's only managed three races, two of them for mayor) isn't much of a sample. The 30-years limit reduces it even more, excluding a period when Biden and Sanders were undefeated. That's a lot of tinkering just to make a point which is beside the point anyway. When I go back to Warren's quote, the first thing that strikes me is that the premise is unproven ("the best way to talk about who can win is by looking at people's winning record") and frankly suspect. I can think of dozens of counterexamples even within narrowly constrained contexts, but that just distracts from the larger problem: that running for president is vastly different from running for Senator or Mayor. (Biden's experience running for VP may count for something here, but not much.) Moreover, running against Trump poses unique challenges, just because he's so very different (as a campaigner, at least) from the Republicans these candidates have faced and (more often than not) beat in the past. In fact, the only data point we have viz. Trump is the 2016 presidential election, which showed that Hillary Clinton could not beat him (at least in 2016 -- and please spare me the popular vote numbers). Indeed, based on history, we cannot know what it takes to beat Donald Trump, but if you wish to pursue that inquiry, all you can really do is construct some metric of how similar each of the candidates is to Clinton. Even there, the most obvious points are likely to be misleading: Clinton is a woman, and had a long career as a Washington insider cozy to business interests (like, well, I hardly need to attach names here). On the other hand, Trump today isn't the same as Trump in 2016. Still, there is some data on this question, not perfect, but better than the mental gymnastics Warren is offering: X-vs-Trump polls, which pretty consistently show Biden and/or Sanders as the strongest head-to-head anti-Trump candidates. Maybe they could falter under the intense heat of a Trump assault. Maybe some other candidate, once they become better known, could do as well. But at least that polling is based on real, relevant data -- a far cry from Warren's ridiculous debate argument.

    [1]: Brown got 51.9% of 2,229,039 votes in 2010; in 2012, with Obama at the head of the ticket, Warren got 53.7% of 3,154,394 votes, so turnout in the special election was only 70.6% of what it was in the regular election. Aside from the turnout difference, Obama/Biden carried Massachusetts in 2012 with 60.7%, leading Warren by 7 points -- one could say she coasted in on their coattails. Warren did raise her margin in 2018, to 60.4%, a bit better than Clinton's 60.0% in 2016.

  • Sarah Jones:

  • Ed Kilgore: No Senator is less popular in their own state than Susan Collins: Yeah, but when she loses in 2020, she'll never have to go there again. She can hang her shingle out as a lobbyist and start collecting the delayed gratuities she is owed for selling out her constituents and what few morals she ever seemed to profess.

  • Catherine Kim: New evidence shows a Nunes aide in close conversation with Parnas.

  • Jen Kirby: Trump signed a "phase one" trade deal with China. Here's what's in it -- and what's not.

  • Ezra Klein: The case for Elizabeth Warren: Second in Vox's slow release of "best-case" arguments for presidential candidates, following Matthew Yglesias on Bernie Sanders.

  • Eric Levitz:

    • Joe Biden's agreeable, terrific, very good, not at all bad week.

      But, by all appearances, the fact that Biden is no longer capable of speaking in proper English sentences will be no impediment to his political success -- in the Democratic primary, anyway.

    • Bernie isn't trying to start a class war. The rich are trying to finish one.

    • Trump tax cuts gave $18 billion bonus to big banks in 2019.

    • Bernie Sanders' foreign policy is too evidence-based for the Beltway's taste.

      The fundamental cause of all this rabid irrationality is simple: America's foreign-policy consensus is forged by domestic political pressures, not the dictates of reason. Saudi Arabia's oil reserves may no longer be indispensable to the U.S. economy, but its patronage remains indispensable to many a D.C. foreign-policy professional. Israel may no longer be a fledgling nation-state in need of subsidization, but it still commands the reflexive sympathy of a significant segment of the U.S. electorate. Terrorism may not actually be a top-tier threat to Americans' public safety, but terrorist attacks generate more media coverage than fatal car accidents or deaths from air pollution, and thus, are a greater political liability than other sources of mass death. And the Pentagon may have spent much of the past two decades destabilizing the Middle East and green-lighting spectacularly exorbitant and ill-conceived weapons systems, but the military remains one of America's only trusted institutions, and its contracts supply a broad cross section of capital with easy profits, and a broad cross section of American workers with steady jobs.

    • 5 takeaways from the Democratic debate in Iowa:"

      1. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren's friendship has seen better days.
      2. In hindsight, Joe Biden probably shouldn't have voted for the Iraq War.
      3. Tom Steyer wants you to know that he will put his children's future above "marginal improvements for working people." [This, by the way, is an unfair and misleading dig at Steyer for opposing USMCA. Given that Steyer is famous as a billionaire, you might think "his children's future" has something to with the estate tax, but (like Sanders) he is rejecting USMCA for its failure to make any positive step toward limiting climate change.]
      4. Amy Klobuchar made one-half of a very good point. [But only as part of "an argument against tuition-free public college."]
      5. Iowans' fetishization of politeness (and/or, the Democratic field's political cowardice) is a huge gift to Biden.
  • Ian Millhiser:

  • Jim Naureckas/Julie Hollar: The big loser in the Iowa debate? CNN's reputation.

  • Heather Digby Parton: Lev Parnas spins wild tales of Trumpian corruption -- and we know most of them are true.

  • Daniel Politi: Trump targets Michelle Obama's signature school nutrition guidelines on her birthday.

  • Andrew Prokop: Lev Parnas's dramatic new claims about Trump and Ukraine, explained.

  • Matthew Rozsa: One-term presidents: Will Donald Trump end up on this ignominious list? Various things I'd qibble with, starting with "the list starts out well" -- I'd agree that John Adams and John Quincy Adams were great Americans with mostly distinguished service careers, but the former's Alien and Sedition Acts were one of the most serious assaults ever on democracy, and his lame duck period was such a disgrace that Trump will be hard-pressed to top -- and his decision to omit one-termers who didn't run for a second, like the lamentable John Buchanan. But this dovetails nicely with one of my pet theories: that American history can be divided into eras, each starting with a major two-term president (Washington, Jefferson, Lincoln, Roosevelt, and, sad to say, Reagan) and each ending with a one-term disaster (Adams, Buchanan, Hoover, Carter, Trump?). I can't go into detail here, but will note that each of these eras ended in profound partisan divides, based on real (or imagined) crises in faith in hitherto prevailing orthodoxies. That's certainly the case today. The Reagan-to-Trump era is anomalous in its drive to ever greater levels of inequality, corruption, and injustice, which have found their apotheosis in Trump.

  • Aaron Rupar:

  • William Saletan: Trump is a remorseless advocate of crimes against humanity.

  • Jon Schwarz: Key architect of 2003 Iraq War is now a key architect of Trump Iran policy: Remember David Wurmser? He was a major author of the 1996 neocon bible A Clean Break: A New Strategy for Securing the Realm (which advocated "pre-emptive strikes against Iran and Syria"), author of the 1999 book Tyranny's Ally: America's Failure to Defeat Saddam Hussein, worked for VP Dick Cheney, helped "stovepipe" intelligence in the build-up to the Iraq War. After Bush, he cooled his heels in the employ of right-wing think tanks, then landed a Trump administration job thanks to John Bolton.

  • Dylan Scott: The Netherlands has universal health insurance -- and it's all private: Sure, you can make that work. Their system is much like Obamacare, with an individual mandate and "a strongly regulated market," so "more than 99 percent" are covered, insurance companies have few options to rip off their customers. Also "almost every hospital is a nonprofit," and subject to government-imposed cost constraints. None of this proves that the Dutch system is better than other systems with single-payer insurance, but that it would be an improvement over America's insane system. TR Reid wrote an eye-opening book on health care systems around the world, showing there are lots of workable systems with various wrinkles: The Healing of America: A Global Quest for Better, Cheaper, and Fairer Health Care (2009). I don't recall much from Netherlands there, but he did especially focus on Taiwan and Switzerland, because they were relative late-adopters, and their systems were implemented by right-of-center governments. The Swiss system basically kept everything private, but imposed strict profit limits. Until then, Switzerland had the second highest health care costs in the world (after the US, which it had tracked closely). Afterwards, Swiss costs held flat -- still the second most expensive, but trailing the US by a growing gap. So, sure, the Swiss came up with a better system than they had (or we have now), but one that's still much more expensive, with slightly worse results, than countries like France and Japan, which seem to have found a better balance between cost and care. [PS: For another data point, see Melissa Healy: US health system costs four times more to run than Canada's single-payer system.]

  • Tamsin Shaw: William Barr: The Carl Schmitt of our Time. You know, the eminent Nazi jurist and political theoretician.

  • Emily Shugerman: Trump just hired Jeffrey Epstein's lawyers: Alan Dershowitz and Kenneth Starr -- I'm not even sure Epstein was the low point of either legal career (even if we don't count Trump yet). Many more articles point this out. One that seems to actually be onto something is: Laura Ingraham praises Trump for putting together a legal team straight from "one of our legal panels".

  • Andrew Sullivan: Is there a way to acknowledge America's progress? He makes a fairly substantial list of things that do mark progress (certainly compared to when I was growing up), yet, as he's very aware, there's Trump, his cabal of Republicans, and the moneyed forces that feed and feast on his and their corruption. If those who oppose such trends tend to overstate the peril of the moment, it's because we see future peril so very clearly. Still, I reckon those who can't (or won't) see anything troublesome at all will find the hyperbole disconcerting, and I don't know what to do about that, beyond trying to remain calm and reasoned. This piece is followed by "But can they beat Trump?": where Sullivan tries to weigh the Democratic field purely on electability consideration. He's most withering on Warren, and most sympathetic to Biden, but gives Sanders the edge in the end. His list of positives is worth reading:

    I have to say he's grown on me as a potential Trump-beater. He seems more in command of facts than Biden, more commanding in general than Buttigieg or Klobuchar, and far warmer than Elizabeth Warren. He's a broken clock, but the message he has already stuck with for decades might be finding its moment. There's something clarifying about having someone with a consistent perspective on inequality take on a president who has only exacerbated it. He could expose, in a gruff Brooklyn accent, the phony populism, and naked elitism of Trump. He could appeal to the working-class voters the Democrats have lost. He could sincerely point out how Trump has given massive sums of public money to the banks, leaving crumbs for the middle class. And people might believe him.

    On the other hand, he argues that "the oppo research the GOP throws at him could be brutal," and gives examples that impress me very little. Most of them are sheer red-baiting, and I have to wonder how effective that ploy still is. Sure, many liberals of my generation and earlier find this very scary, but well after the Cold War such charges have lost much of their tangible fear -- even those liberals who still hate Russia must realize that the problem there now is oligarchs like Trump, not Bolshevik revolutionaries. Sure, Trump attacking Bernie is going to be nasty and brutish, but I expect it will be less effective than Trump attacking Biden as a crooked throwback to the Washington swamp of the Clintons and Obama -- charges that Bernie is uniquely safe from. There's also a third piece here, "Of royalty, choice, and duty," about you-know-what.

  • Chance Swaim/Jonathan Shorman: Kansas energy company abandons plans for $2.2 billion coal power plant. This is a pretty big victory for envrionment-conscious Kansans, but the irony is that it comes at a point when virtually all political obstacles against been overcome. In the end, the company decided that coal-fired electricity is simply a bad investment. Kansans have followed this story for more than a decade, at least since Gov. Kathleen Sebelius halted development on the plant expansion. After she left to join Obama's cabinet, her successor reversed course, and Gov. Sam Brownback was a big booster, but Obama's EPA became an obstacle. Under Trump, all the political stars have aligned to promote coal, but the economics have shifted so much that coal use is declining all across the nation. Despite frantic efforts by the Kochs and Trump, wind power has become a major source of electricity in Kansas (fossil fuels account for less than half of Kansas electricity -- nuclear also helps out there). And thanks to Obama's support for fracking, natural gas has also become cheaper relative to coal. So it looks like we've lucked out, and been spared from the worst effects of having so corrupt a political system in Topeka and Washington. For that matter, Sunflower Electric Power Corp. has lucked out too, being saved from such a bad investment.

  • Matt Taibbi: CNN's debate performance was villainous and shameful: "The 24-hour network combines a naked political hit with a cynical ploy for ratings."

  • Peter Wade:

  • Alex Ward:

  • Libby Watson: Let them fight!: "A great nation deserves a raucous and argumentative primary, not a fake demonstration of unity." Choice line here: "If Warren saw this as a way to innocuously smarm her way to the top . . ."

  • Matthew Yglesias: Joe Biden skates by again. Notes that none of the other candidates are really attacking Biden, who remains the front-runner:

    This pattern of behavior raises, to me, a real worry about a potential Biden presidency. Not that his talk of a post-election Republican Party "epiphany" is unrealistic -- every candidate in the field is offering unrealistic plans for change -- but that he has a taste for signing on to bad bargains. There's potential for a critique of Biden that isn't just about nitpicking the past or arguing about how ambitious Democrats should be in their legislative proposals, but about whether Biden would adequately hold the line when going toe-to-toe with congressional Republicans.

  • Karen Zraick: Jet crash in Iran has eerie historical parallel: You mean in 1988, when the US "accidentally" shot down an Iranian airliner, killing 290 people? Doesn't excuse this time, nor does this time excuse that time. Both were unintended consequences of deliberate decisions to engage in supposedly limited hostilities. They reflect the fact that the people who made those decisions are unable to foresee where their acts will take them and/or simply do not care. And while it's difficult to weigh relative culpability, the fact that the US alone sent its forces half-way around the world to screw up must count for something. For more examples, see Ron DePasquale: Civilian planes shot down: A grim history.