Friday, July 29, 2016

Watch Donald Crack

I enjoyed that Democratic Convention a lot, and mostly for the right reasons. In fact, I'm still enjoying it, because I'm currently five time zones ahead of Philly time and so watch the major speeches the next day. [SPOILER ALERT: Don't tell me who they nominate in the finale!] The Democrats presented a positive vision about candidate, cause, and country: inspiring reminders about what they are about, what we are about, and what America is about. It's great, and also I'm walking around London with Stevie's "Signed, Sealed, Delivered" stuck in my head. I am one happy Democrat.

This is a much happier feeling than watching the Republican convention was. That was a mix of fearful apprehension for my town, sickened horror at the speakers' outpouring of authoritarian hatred, and mocking schadenfreude at Trump's torpedoing his own convention. I had some fun in there, but it wasn't pleasant fun. It was more the point-and-laugh kind. It didn't make me feel especially good about myself. Thanks to Bill, Barack, and Hill for re-centering the moral compass.

There are far more opportunities for schadenfreude ahead, unfortunately. Because Donald Trump is already starting to come unglued.

One of the most useful psychiatric terms I've picked up in my travels is the word "decompensation." Decompensation is, just like it sounds, the opposite of "compensation." It is when a patient responds to stress or setbacks by getting sicker. The going gets tough, and the patient's symptoms get worse. That doesn't fix whatever's causing the stress; it just deepens it. An alcoholic gets fired and goes on a four-day bender.  A bipolar patient who's having trouble finding work becomes too depressed to even leave the house. Just when the patient needs to step up and cope with a challenge, they become even worse at coping. Bad, bad times.

It's been no secret on this blog that I consider Donald Trump to have at least one fairly serious psychiatric condition. He is, to put it politely, a profoundly disordered personality. And under the stress of the campaign, he is going to decompensate badly. Running for President of the United States is incredibly challenging and stressful, even for strong, sane people who have already run many successful campaigns. Donald Trump is neither strong nor sane, and he has never been elected to any public office in his life. Not dog-catcher, not zoning board, not public water commission. He is not going to be able to take this. He is going to crack.

In fact, he has already started.

Over the last few days, as the general election gets underway, he has done a huge number of maladaptive things: expressed his desire to punch various speakers from the Democratic convention, decided to rant on Twitter about how Mike Bloomberg was mean to him, and mostly damningly urged the Russian government to spy on his election opponent. None of that is rationally calculated to help him. None if it is something you would do to help yourself. And I don't think he planned to plea to Putin at all; it was just another troubled impulse he could not control. Lack of impulse control is one of his symptoms.

You can look at his behavior as demonstrating his lack of fitness for office, and you should. He is appallingly unfit for that office. But you can also understand what Trump is doing as the expression of psychiatric symptoms getting worse under pressure. Maybe that moves you to some compassion for him, and maybe it doesn't; Trump's condition prevents him from feeling compassion for anyone else, and in his current position he is extremely dangerous to our country. But we shouldn't necessarily lose our compassion because he has. We're bigger than he is.

Those symptoms are only going to get worse, because the pressure of the campaign is only going to get worse. I mean, the general election hasn't even really gotten started yet. Donald Trump is going to crack under that pressure, and he is going to do it in front of the entire world. I am not looking forward to watching that. But anything is better than watching him crack in the Oval Office.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Monday, July 25, 2016

Just a Thought (DNC Convention)

It would really be great if DNC delegates would stop, you know, booing black people.

Comments disabled. End of post.

Sunday, July 24, 2016

RNC Cleveland: Local Grievance Edition

Trump and his circus have left town, and so have I. But before I turn myself over entirely to watching the DNC on GMT, let me point out a few local Cleveland issues that bothered me about this convention. I've already blogged about the big stuff. Let me just get some Cleveland things off my chest.

1) As someone who used to live in downtown Cleveland (at least for most of the week) I felt a special sympathy for the immigrants and first-generation Americans who live and work downtown in the convention zone. Back when I lived on East 12th Street, I did all my local grocery shopping from a little store run by Arab immigrants. For a party that talks endlessly about small business owners, the Republicans talk a lot of smack about the hard-working immigrants who own many of those small businesses.

I found myself thinking a lot about the family that runs that grocery, and what it must be like to have the neighborhood around your family store be taken over by America's Number One immigrant hater and Muslim basher. Sorry, guys. I am really, really sorry.

2) Well-known former actor Scott Baio used some of his ridiculous prime-time slot to misuse Langston Hughes. This is standard practice among conservatives, who find "Let America Be America Again" too tempting a phrase to resist (although they can easily resist actually reading Langston Hughes's poem, which means the opposite of what they think it means. Generally, they seem pretty good at not reading things.).

But even if this has become standard operating procedure, it takes a special amount of ignorance to misuse Langston Hughes's words in Cleveland. Langston Hughes is from Cleveland, Chachi. There are places named for him inside the convention "event zone." Do a little research before you open your mouth, and have some respect.

Also, for those of you keeping score at home, Baio kicked off the Republicans' Monday-night theme of "taking language from black folks without giving them credit."

Hughes's poem is a little masterpiece, at once embracing the best version of the American Dream, the dream of freedom and equality, while acknowledging that "America was never America to me." Or, out another way, Hughes points out that that vision of America has never been completely real, but that it can and should and must be. Here's a little taste:

O, let my land be a land where Liberty
Is crowned with no false patriotic wreath,
But opportunity is real, and life is free,
Equality is in the air we breathe. 

(There’s never been equality for me,
Nor freedom in this “homeland of the free.”)
If you like that, just wait until Hughes really gets going:
O, let America be America again—
The land that never has been yet—
And yet must be—the land where every man is free.
The land that’s mine—the poor man’s, Indian’s, Negro’s, ME—
Who made America,
Whose sweat and blood, whose faith and pain,
Whose hand at the foundry, whose plow in the rain,
Must bring back our mighty dream again.  
You can read the whole thing here. If this sounds to you like exactly the opposite of the hateful Republican convention and the hateful demagogue it nominated with a "false patriotic wreath," you're exactly right. It is the opposite of that.

On a related topic: Shut up, Chachi.

3. In the middle of all the disorganized hate-mongering, Unindicted Co-conspirator Chris Christie revealed that Trump the First would, if elected, purge the civil service of Obama appointees.  Not just get rid of Obama's political appointees whose terms automatically end when parties change power, but any career civil servants, the non-political types who are there to do their jobs no matter who the President is. What Trump and Christie want is the power to fire the entire civil service, everyone with a government job, and potentially replace them all with political appointees.

We used to do it that actually, and it is no way to run a serious country. It rewards partisanship over competence. (Imagine a system in which every election leads to someone replacing your mailman, and where the mailman doesn't actually have to do his mailman job as long as he does his real job as a political activist. Sound like fun? It wasn't.) This is outrageous just on the level of basic good governance and, you know, wanting to actually operate like America.

But here's what really hacks me off: it was Republicans who changed that corrupt system, Republicans who created our professional, non-partisan civil service, and for that to happen a Republican President of the United States had to die.

He was President James Garfield. He was murdered by a lunatic assassin who was enraged at civil service reform. He was from Cleveland. He is buried in Cleveland. His tomb is about six miles or so from the convention floor.

So let me say that it is particularly grotesque that these alleged Republicans demand a return to the old corrupt "spoils system," in the city where the man who gave his life to end that corruption has his tomb. Chris Christie wants to turn basic civic services into crass political tools? Huh, funny. No one is surprised. That's what he's already in trouble for doing.

But if Chris Christie wants to badmouth that particular Republican achievement, all I can tell him is: "Meet me at the Garfield Monument and say that again."

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog


Thursday, July 21, 2016

How Donald Is Screwing Up His Convention

I've had enough of the Republican Convention. I'm getting out of Cleveland today and flying to London. So I won't see Trump's speech in real time. I'll just get the replays tomorrow, and spend the next two weeks reassuring frightened Brits that the end of the world is not approaching. (Someone, please, reassure me.)

But it's already clear that the RNC has not gone well for Trump, and even the best speech tonight will, at best, make up part of the ground he's lost. It's been one problem after another, so much so that some aides getting in a car accident on the first day counts as one of the good points. So instead of getting bogged down in the details, let me leave town with four big take-aways from three troubled days:

1. Trump is not the party boss. People are chattering about Ted Cruz not endorsing Trump. But why would anyone expect Ted Cruz to endorse Trump? Cruz never said that he would. The convention started with Cruz's #1 wing man Mike Lee trying to start a floor revolt over the convention rules. But this isn't about Cruz. Trump has not made peace with any of the other major players in the party, and he has no control over them.

Before the convention even started on Monday, Trump's surrogates were attacking prominent Republican office-holders wo had not come to heel. Campaign manager Paul Manafort was berating Ohio Governor John Kasich for boycotting the convention, and getting booed for it by the local crowd. (Pro tip: if Ohio Republicans didn't like Kasich, he wouldn't be Republican Governor of Ohio. QED.)  Meanwhile Gingrich was sent out to call the Bush family "childish." That's right. "Childish," coming from the Trump camp, about George H. W. Bush.

These attacks have been a spectacular failure in bringing anyone to heel. Kasich has defiantly avoided the convention and paid the Trumpies back by leaking, on the day Mike Pence accepted the Veep nomination, the news that Kasich had been Trump's first choice for VP and outright refused. So bullying Kasich has just paid off in spades. And what on Earth does Trump think antagonizing the other Republicans will get him? He needs help from these people to turn out the vote, especially since they have GOTV organizations and Trump does not.

Trump has no control over the Republican Party. The Republican Party is currently without a political boss, because Trump hasn't managed to assume that job. He should have made peace with all the rival chieftains in the months before the convention, and come into Cleveland with a show of party unity. Instead, he's operating like a factional leader.

One of the great rules of politics is to take care of business before the meeting. You should not go into the meeting with things unsettled. Yes, I know, there are meetings where things get hashed out, but those are private meetings. Trump should have been having those private hash-it-out meetings for the last three or four months, so that the big public meeting could follow a smooth script. Apparently, Trump was unwilling or unable to make any deals.

More to the point, it's become obvious that the other party players are not afraid of Trump. They can defy him, because they do not fear him. He has no way to punish them, unless he actually becomes President. The level of open defiance from Kasich, Cruz, and several others makes it clear that they are not in the least worried that Trump will be elected. You don't do this to a member of your party who might be President in six months. Cruz and Kasich aren't just betting that Trump will lose. They are completely confident that he will lose.

2. It's personal, not business. Melania Trump's pointless, self-inflicted plagiarism incident is just the most vivid illustration of how Trump World rolls, ignoring the professionals in favor of family members and family retainers. It's not simply that the Trump campaign has not professionalized, which it has not. It's that the inner circle actively vetoes and undermines the attempts at professionalization. The Trump family runs like the Corleone Family would if everyone had to listen to Fredo.

There are some professionals around, but their professional judgment is ignored and they are told instead to enable the amateur insiders' decisions.  That misunderstands what professionals are for. They are not there to tell you what you want. They are there to provide expertise that you need and don't have. When a medical doctor gives you his professional advice, you should take it. When a rich client starts telling the doctor that the doctor is paid to do what the patient says, well, that's a rich client who is going to OD on something.

Two professional speechwriters, who had done this before and done it well, wrote a script. Melania, who has no experience with anything like this task, threw out that speech. She then rewrote it with a Trump family retainer who has done some writing but was not at all prepared for a high-stakes task like a major convention speech. So you had a family retainer who wasn't fully qualified operating at the direction, and following the instructions, of a family member who was thoroughly unqualified. Surprisingly, the result was not good.

Then Paul Manafort, one of the allegedly grown-up professionals, was forced to go out and do what the Trumps wanted, which was to flatly and obviously lie for two days, insulting his own intelligence with every word. On the same morning that Manafort had to sit and be called a liar to his face on CNN, the Trumps changed tack and had the family retainer admit to exactly the things Manafort had just denied. The professionals, again, got thrown under the bus.

Professionals only help you if you take your advice. Trump hires professionals to enable his own bad instincts. There is no reason to believe this problem will go away.

3. Trump is still running a primary campaign. It has been shocking how much the Trump convention has been about throwing red meat to the base. Even leaving aside the shocking calls to jail and even kill Hillary Clinton, in a complete break with America's civil politics, the whole show so far has been about riling up the base rather than reaching out to swing voters.

If you didn't know what Benghazi was, or why the Republicans blame Hillary for it, before Monday night, you still wouldn't know after watching this convention. And that's after a solid forty-five minute block of Benghazi programming on Monday. That material wasn't just pitched to the base's biases. It was pitched to people who had already absorbed the fairly complicated conspiracy narrative, which it never really bothered to explain. Even the hate-monging is only for the initiated.

I mean, yes, conventions are meant to get the activists excited, so they will go out and work hard for the campaign. But they are even more important as outreach to the wider electorate. Trump cannot win with just the base of voters who want to imprison Hillary. And what I'm seeing and hearing is a convention that's splitting and alienating even the Republican activists.

I'm not saying he's turning off swing voters. I'm saying he's not even trying to reach them.

4. Losing control of the narrative.  Trump needed this convention to change the press's conversation about him, and to dispel the conventional wisdom that he is a disorganized crazy person who's running his campaign into the ground. And the press would be willing, even eager, to go along with that "New Trump" narrative if Trump game them some slight and superficial grounds to go along with it. He doesn't really need to convince the media that he isn't crazy. He just needs to give them something they can use to pretend he isn't. Instead, Trump has gone out of his way to cement the crazy screw-up story. He has done this by 1) being crazy and 2) screwing up.

But it's worse than that. Trump has gotten as far as he has by bullying the media, by rolling them, and by counting on their laziness. When he's called on things, he's turned it around into an attack on the press, and then moved on to the next crazy. Those tricks are beginning to stop working now. They're not effective as they used to be, and sometimes they're counter-productive. The stakes are too high, the stage is too big, and the media have already been lied to so baldly that they're out of free passes to give. At this point, Trump is putting the media in the position of embarrassing him or embarrassing themselves, as he tries to force them to accept his Humpty-Dumpty lies in front of millions of people. They should have stopped accepting his lies a year ago. But he's pushed it to the point where they can't afford to accept his lies even if they wanted to.

Trump's basic communication strategy is signal jamming. He doesn't make a strong case for himself, He just creates so much noise, in the radio-engineer sense of "noise" as static, that no one else can get their message out clearly. That's what happened to the other 16 palookas in the primary. They couldn't make their cases to the public because Trump drowned them out with his endless static.

Hillary Clinton isn't the catchiest tunesmith, but she is a very experienced communicator and she has an enormous broadcast apparatus to send out her message. I expect Trump to spend most of his energies, especially during the Democratic convention, on creating distractions to try to dull Hillary's message. It may or may not work, depending on how the media play along. But what I do know, now, after a year of this nonsense, is that Trump has very little positive signal of his own to broadcast. He can't even get his own children to tell heart-warming anecdotes about him, suggesting that there really may be no heartwarming anecdotes about him. (Compare Melania's speech to the Michelle Obama speech she ripped off; what's missing are all the detailed personal stories Michelle told about her husband, the stories that are the point of the nominee's wife giving the speech in the first place.)

What we are looking at is a fall campaign between a politician and her fine-tuned campaign machine sending out a message about Hillary Clinton, on one hand, and a disruptive troublemaker trying to sabotage that message on the other. There will be no positive Trump vision. If he hasn't shown it by now, he doesn't have one. But Trump will now face trouble sending out even disruptive static, since he has actively trained the press to push back at him hard.

It's an old lesson: you can fool some of the people some of the time, but you can't fool all of the people all of the time. I admit I didn't come up with that line myself. I borrowed it from a Republican.

cross-posed from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Sunday, July 17, 2016

What to Watch For

So, they're finally here. After months of anxious preparation here in our city, the Republican National Convention has come to Cleveland. The city is as carefully groomed and as nervous as a teenager before the prom. The pedestrian walk on East 4th Street is filled with broadcast booths. High-end restaurants have turned into the temporary headquarters of Bloomberg or Twitter. The park in Public Square has been completely, and beautifully renovated; we had to close it down for more than a year. The construction scaffolds are finally gone from Euclid Avenue, but new traffic barriers and fences are up. It's impossible to know which roads will be blocked off, where you can drive and where you can't. I won't be going back downtown until this is over. I'll be up in the Heights, holding my breath.

What goes on in the convention hall doesn't concern me. If the Republican Party and its loathsome nominee want to screw up on national television, that's their business. What happens in the streets matters enormously. We're trying to build this city up. We really don't need any additional trouble.

So I'm worried about protests turning into confrontations, because peaceful demonstrations can attract hangers-on who have no peaceful intentions. I'm worried about violent opportunists, including various lone-wolf lunatics, who might choose Cleveland as a target to attack. I'm nervous about a police department with some ugly recent history being put on edge by recent attacks against police.
I'm downright terrified by the open-carry activists who have apparently already taken to standing in Public Square with goddamn AR-15s, basically insuring that nearly anything that goes bad will go worse. And I'm nervous that pro-Trump demonstrators will look for an excuse to go after Black Lives Matter or other anti-Trump demonstrators. One of the things that's scary about this situation, and different from previous conventions, is the possibility of ideologically-opposed demonstrators looking for a brawl.

The good news is that many of the armed and/or truculent fringe groups who previously planned to descend on Cleveland to declare their allegiance to "protect" Trump and his followers, have now decided to skip the show. I'm more than happy that the Oath Keepers, the white supremacists, and the Bikers for Trump won't be arriving. (h/t to the great JJ Macnab's Twitter feed for providing updates on these groups). I watched the head of Bikers for Trump on the local news this week, raving about "protecting" Trump and "protecting" the police and keeping anti-Trump protestors in line. That, obviously, is the most brilliant event-safety idea since the Rolling Stones hired the Hell's Angels to provide concert security at Altamount. (To give Donald Trump his very limited due here, he did not explicitly invite any of these yahoos to Cleveland, while Mick Jagger actually went out and hired the Angels.) But the Bikers for Trump guy could not get a parade permit, so he's not coming. That gust of wind you hear in the trees is my sigh of relief, all the way from Ohio.

We're at a tense moment when people are wondering if we can maintain our civil peace and our democracy, when we can no longer entirely avoid the debate over whether or not Trump represents a genuine American fascism. That argument is endless, because "fascism" has never been especially well defined, but I do want to point to one thing we should look out for.

Authoritarian regimes generally, and fascist regimes specifically, tend to have a body of irregular, semi-official thugs, separate from the official security forces. Those groups conduct most of the violence and intimidation. Hitler had his brown shirts, the original Storm Troopers; Mussolini had his black shirts. But tyrants with different ideologies often have the same groups: the Duvalier regime in Haiti had its tontons macoutes, the Iranian mullahs have their "people's militia," the basij. The Rwandan genocide against the Tutsi was conducted by local militia. The Klan, a nominally secret society, carried out terrorism against southern blacks from the 1860s through the 1960s. Dictators don't necessarily send the army or the police. They often have these irregular groups to break windows and bust heads outside the official apparatus of power, and to help keep that apparatus in the tyrant's hands.

Donald Trump is, at best, a racist demagogue with no respect for the Constitution. He is a real danger to American democracy. But so far, he has not mobilized the support of any irregular or paramilitary forces. Should that ever happen, it will be a sign that things have taken a hard turn for the worse.

Trump has had some impromptu violence at his rallies, which he has both incited and pretended not to incite. But violent rally-goers have not yet formed any organization. So far they're just one-time, single-use mobs, and the Trump campaign doesn't necessarily have the skills or discipline to organize them as campaign volunteers, let alone as a paramilitary auxiliary. There are plenty of unsavory folks around Trump, but -- thank heavens -- he doesn't have an Ernst Rohm.

There are also pre-existing paramilitary groups who are clearly excited by Trump and willing to follow him: the Oath Keepers, the Three Percent Militia, and various white supremacist types including some chapters of the Klan. The actual capacities of these groups, as opposed to their fantasies, are not really clear. But these are people who talk about various kinds of action to promote their ideologies, and extra-legal violence is part of their ideology.

The Trump campaign has not taken these groups on board. Trump's own approach to them is the familiar one of winking disavowal: he clearly is happy for their votes, but will officially disavow them (he actually prefers the phrase "I disavow," with nothing else in the sentence) in ways the white supremacists apparently take as just window dressing. But Trump has not shown any interest in these groups busting any heads for him.

But if we reach a point where any of these groups, or a new group like them, starts to act in concerted ways to aid the Trump campaign: intimidating voters, vandalizing Clinton headquarters or wholesale trashing yard signs, then we'll have turned an ugly page. They might have some excuse or pretext, such as "fighting back" against the New Black Panthers or another group they call "thugs," but that will just be an excuse. And if Trump ever seems to give such behavior his ambiguous blessing, then it will be a genuine national emergency.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Wednesday, July 06, 2016

She Was Never Getting Indicted. Really.

So, Hilary Clinton is not getting indicted. The media presents this as a surprise. But it is pretty obvious that no major political actors are surprised. The press has talked for a year as if Clinton could possibly be indicted. The players (the national Democrats, the Republicans, the White House, the donors) have acted as if they knew she would not. Even politicians who publicly said that she was in danger of indictment acted as if she would not. The simplest answer here is that this story has not been covered honestly.

Before we get into the bottomless-pit argument about the details of various reports and the phrasing of various clauses in those reports, I am not arguing about whether or not she should be indicted or whether she could be indicted in some hypothetical scenario. If you want to build a hypothetical case that she could be indicted, you surely can, because that is how hypotheticals work. What I am saying is that various movers and shakers have visibly acted on the belief that she would not be. It is clear that the various party actors have taken as given that Clinton would not be indicted, and they have acted on that presumption in ways that we can see, even from the cheap seats.

How do I know this? I know this because Joe Biden is not running for President.

If the Democratic or Republican presidential nominee were actually indicted on criminal charges, that would be a disaster for the nominating party. It would be throwing a national election away. No party would just let that happen. If there were even a tiny risk, a 1 or 2% chance, of that happening, there would be a concerted effort to find someone else. That effort might fail, as the effort to stop Trump did. But someone would make it.

Would Barack Obama gamble his legacy on a Democrat who might be on criminal trial during the election?  No. If Obama thought that there were even a slim possibility that Hillary Clinton might be indicted, he would have made sure that another strong contender from the Democratic mainstream was running. But Obama's behavior indicates someone who has not worried about that possibility at all.

Would the DNC and the big Democratic donors be willing to risk a nominee who might face a criminal trial? Of course not. They would have made sure someone else ran: if not Joe Biden, then someone like Andrew Cuomo or Cory Booker, someone with business-friendly policies and a reputation as a solid campaigner.

Would those party decision-makers and donors be willing to have Bernie Sanders be the understudy in case Hillary Clinton was indicted? Of course not. Would they be willing to entertain the risk that HRC would get indicted and thus lose the nomination to Bernie Sanders? Of course not. The primaries weren't rigged in any paranoid way, but it is true that the Democratic establishment genuinely doesn't want Bernie as their nominee, and if they thought HRC were vulnerable, they would have rounded someone else up. Didn't happen, because no one was worried.

"Ah!" you say, "The fix was in! Obama didn't act worried because he knew he could quash any prosecution." Actually, I didn't say that. If there had been a conspiracy -- if this had been a situation where a conspiracy were necessary -- what you would have seen would be a large number of party actors behaving as if they were very nervous and a small number of individuals, the actual parties to the hypothetical conspiracy, either seeming unusually calm or (more likely) pretending to act nervous rather than tipping their hand. Conspiracies are, by their nature, small and secretive. If the entire Democratic Party establishment is in on something it isn't a conspiracy. It's a campaign strategy.

If this had been a situation where someone needed to obstruct justice, you would still have seen lots of pressure on Biden to run, and if he refused pressure on someone else. The party as a whole would have been running scared. But in fact, none of them acted especially worried. They weren't worried precisely because they didn't think anyone needed to obstruct justice. Everyone clearly acted on the belief that HRC would be cleared of criminal charges. They didn't deny that her e-mail arrangement wasn't a huge mistake. They just all took for granted that it wasn't a criminal mistake.

But it's not just the Democrats. The Republicans have also acted, every step of the way, as if they did not expect HRC to be indicted. The endless Republican primary debates all harped on the e-mails, because it was good campaign material, but the whole teeming horde of candidates in those debates spoke matter-of-factly about Clinton as the eventual nominee. All the Republicans have planned, all along, for Clinton to be nominated. They haven't planned for the chance that a criminal indictment might derail her nomination. They didn't plan to face Bernie instead. They did not expect an indictment. And I think we can all agree that no Democratic cover-up would include the various Republican candidates for President.

If there's no conspiracy, and there isn't, why the mismatch between the way Clinton's indictment chances were discussed and the way people seemed to act on those chances? If both party establishments were acting on the premise that there was no realistic risk of indictment, why was it played a s a big question mark in the press?

You don't need a conspiracy to explain it. The motives of various actors are right there to see. For the Republicans, obviously, the idea that HRC might get put on trial was beneficial. Making the e-mails a campaign issue is a no-brainer: this is something that Clinton messed up, and it fits the existing narrative about her that has already been established in the public minds. The idea that Clinton's mistake wasn't just a bad mistake but maybe a crime only helps their campaign pitch. I mean, these are the people who held a seventh Benghazi investigation.

And the media obviously benefited from the idea that criminal charges might be coming, because that's a better story. You don't even have to be slanted against Clinton to want a juicier story. Campaign reporters sell the possibility of unlikely scenarios all the time. Look at how slow the press was to let go of the idea of a brokered Republican convention, long after it became clear that it wouldn't happen. To be fair, mainstream coverage of Clinton never outright said that she would  be indicted. But it was very reluctant to leave out the suggestion that she might.

That coverage was not accurate. The story was always dog-bites-man: former Secretary of State goofs on e-mails security, is publicly embarrassed, but is never in any real danger of criminal charges. That story was dull, so they hinted at the cooler story instead. The truth didn't bring the media any value this time: what's the point of telling a story everyone already knows?

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Losing the North: Republican Realignment

People have been asking if we're seeing a realignment of American electoral politics, with Donald Trump  scrambling the campaign map. There are no real signs of that yet: polls show the presidential electoral map unchanged so far, with the Democrats and Republican leading in the same states they carried last time and the time before that. The real story is the realignment that has already happened, without fanfare, over the past quarter-century. This Fourth of July weekend I'd like to talk about Maine and Vermont.

The largest political realignment of the last half century has been the movement of the Dixiecrats, the traditional Southern bloc of segregationist whites, out of their traditional home in the Democratic Party and into the GOP. That realignment took decades, and made uneven progress; some key Dixiecrats, such as Robert Byrd, remain Democrats for their entire lives while other figures, such as Strom Thurmond, literally switch party affiliation over the course of their careers. LBJ famously remarked after he'd signed the Civil Rights Bills that he'd likely signed away the South for a generation, and the results of his re-election campaign a few months later bear him out. (Here I'm going to use 270toWin's collection of historical electoral maps as the perfect digital visual aids.) Although LBJ absolutely destroyed Barry Goldwater in the 1964 landslide, Goldwater carried the five states of the Deep South (Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama, Georgia, and South Carolina), all traditional Democratic strongholds. That switch in party allegiance is all the more striking because those were the only states Goldwater carried except for his home state, Arizona.

But the realignment LBJ had been worrying about had already been solidly underway for at least sixteen years, since Thurmond's rebellion against Harry Truman and run for President on the third-party Dixiecrat ticket in 1948:

As you can see here,  four of those five deep-South states that defected to Goldwater in 1964 had already made an attempt to secede from the Democrats well before the Civil Rights Act. (Thurmond and his followers left the Democratic Party in a righteous rage over Harry Truman's allegedly radical civil rights agenda. That included things like desegregating federal housing projects and integrating the military. Some white Southerners were not only ready to walk but actually in process of walking before Brown v. Board of Education, the Bus Boycott, the Freedom Rides, and the rest of the classic Civil Rights Movement as we remember it.)

In 1968, there is yet another third-party run by another Southern Democrat, George Wallace, still angry about the Democratic position on civil rights but not entirely ready to turn Republican. In this map you can see some division and indecision: Texas voting Democratic, Arkansas and four of the five Deep South states voting for Wallace, and the rest of the South (including South Carolina) voting for Nixon. But from 1972 on, those states trend solidly Republican, part of Nixon's "Solid South." The South does vote for southern-boy Jimmy Carter in 1976, but abandons him for Reagan in 1980 (with Carter only carrying his native Georgia in the South). And in 1992 another Southerner, Bill Clinton, manages to take roughly half of the Southern States, and holds on to a little less than half in 1996.

But by 2000, even a Democratic nominee from the South can't get any purchase. Al Gore doesn't get a single electoral vote in the South, not even in his home state of Tennessee. From 1976 to 200 we go from the South willing to vote for a Democratic President, but only if he's a southerner, to the South willing to split its vote for a Democratic nominee from the South, to the South voting as a solid Republican wall no matter where the Democrat is from.

That's a striking and extremely important realignment. And it leaves us, by 2000, with our familiar red-state/blue-state battle lines. Each party has its own fairly stable electoral base, with a handful of swing states (Ohio, Florida, Colorado, etc.) in active play.

But I want to talk about a smaller development that we've overlooked. While the Southern tier was migrating to the Republican column, some long-time Republican strongholds have turned reliably blue. That includes what had been the two most reliably Republican states in the nation: Vermont and Maine.

Vermont and Maine have voted for the Democratic Presidential candidate in every single one of the last six elections, from 1992 to 2012. (Current polling, which could change, suggests that it will be seven in a row.) This in itself is not a huge deal, because those states are so small. They have only seven electoral votes between them, the equivalent of Oregon or Oklahoma. (Of course, in a polarized election, every little bit counts.) I'm more interested in Vermont and Maine as bellwethers of changing political coalitions. Since 1992 those two northern New England states have always voted Democratic in Presidential elections. Previously, they almost never did.

Vermont voted Republican in 33 of the previous 34 presidential elections, from 1856 to 1988. That's every presidential election from the founding of the Republican Party until the election of Bill Clinton. The single exception is the 1964 landslide in which LBJ blows out Goldwater. Maine voted Republican in 31 of those 34 presidential elections. The three exceptions are the Goldwater election of 1964, the second Dixiecrat uprising in 1968, and the 1912 "Bull Moose" election in which Teddy Roosevelt and William Howard Taft split the Republican vote. (Vermont was one of only two states to stick by Republican incumbent Taft when his home state abandoned him.) For 132 years, Maine and Vermont were the two most reliably Republican states in the nation. This map shows how reliable they were: the only holdouts in FDR's 1936 re-election landslide.
One of the striking things about this is that Maine's turn against the Republicans in the Electoral College begins with a repudiation of George H. W. Bush, who is nominally a Texan but actually a prized resident of Maine. (GHWB voted from a hotel address in Houston but owned a home in Kennebunkport.) And then Maine went on to vote against another Bush twice, despite his local Down East ties.

What happened? How did Vermont and Maine go, over the last 80 years, from the most Republican of Republican strongholds to solid membership in the Democrats' national base?

Most of the stories we hear about changing party allegiances focus on urbanization and changing ethnic demographics. States become more Democratic as they become more urban, and as minority populations, especially African-American and Latino populations, grow. All of that is true enough, but none of it explains Maine or Vermont. Those states are still extremely rural. (I have been to Burlington, Portland, and Bangor, and they are all wonderful towns, but none of them will be mistaken for a major metropolis.Neither state has any city with even 100,000 inhabitants.) Furthermore, Vermont and Maine are the two whitest states in the union: Vermont is 94.3% non-Hispanic white, while Maine is a resplendently snowy 94.4% non-Hispanic white. (The two states' shared neighbor, New Hampshire, is 92.3% non-Hispanic white; Vermont and Maine are actually whiter than the White Mountains.) This is not about racial politics, or at least not in the terms we usually discuss it.

One possible explanation is Democratic voters moving to Vermont and Maine from other, more urban Northeastern states, bringing a more general Northeastern liberalism, and Democratic party loyalties from places like Hartford, Boston, and New York. There's at least some truth to this theory; Brooklyn-born Senator Bernie Sanders (I-VT) is only the most obvious example.

But that is not the whole story. People have also been migrating to the Sun Belt without changing its social conservatism. And rural New England's social liberalism is not simply an urban import. The Vermont and Maine Republicans were traditionally socially liberal: not merely moderate Republicans but progressive and liberal Republicans. Remember, the Republicans were originally the civil-rights party, and the Northeast was originally one of their heartlands. It was Maine who sent Margaret Chase Smith, a Republican, to the US Senate for four terms.

Those voters don't fit terribly well with the Dixiecrats. And part of what we're seeing is that adding one of these groups to a party means that, over time, the other group will leave. It is basically a counter-realignment, a smaller response to the large movement of the Dixiecrats from the Republicans to the Democrats.

Look at that Goldwater map from 1964 again: Vermont and Maine flip blue when the Deep South flips red. Vermont, which had stuck by every single Republican candidate including Taft. abandons the Republican nominee that the South crosses party lines to vote for.

It's not that anyone articulates this. No one in Vermont or Maine announces, "I won't stay in the party with those Southerners!"  Nobody complains when a national election swings a party's way because a region that usually goes for the other side suddenly goes for yours. Northern Republicans like having majorities in Congress. But northern Yankee Republicans and Southern converts to Republicanism make strange bedfellows, who disagree strongly about the temperature of the bedroom. They have different cultures and different priorities. Their religious histories are different. As the old Dixiecrat bloc has become ascendant in the party, they have come to set an agenda that often leaves the old-school New England Yankees indifferent and sometimes actively upsets them. You can't keep both groups happy, and pleasing the (relative) newcomers means gradually driving the old guard into the other party.

This doesn't mean that there aren't plenty of Republicans left in Vermont, Maine, and the rest of New England. Of course there are. (Maine currently has a Tea Party governor who squeaked through in a four-way race and is currently antagonizing everyone in the state including the lobsters.)  Regions change political allegiance slowly, by fits and starts.  State and local Republicans can still win in Vermont and Maine even if Republican presidential nominees can't, just as conservative Democrats could keep winning state and local races in the South for years after it had switched its Presidential loyalties. (See: Senator Susan Collins (R-ME).) In fact, you can see a surprisingly large number of independents winning statewide office in Vermont and Maine, and to some degree in other New England states like Connecticut. For a while there, Vermont's three-person Congressional delegation included a Republican, a Democrat, and a Socialist Independent.

But I would suggest that all those independent officeholders are part of the region's piecemeal migration from the R to the D column. It's fairly rare for voters, much less career politicians, to switch parties after a certain age; party identity is an identity, too, and it's hard to switch sides. You have some official party-swapping in Northern New England, including some pretty high-profile examples, but you have many more examples where former Republicans simply become independents: disaffected from their original (and in some sense natural) party, but not willing to sign on with the Democrats yet. So you see former Republicans running as Independents, but also former Democrats running as Independents in order to appeal to that body of swing voters who've migrated away from the Republicans but aren't ready to call themselves Democrats. Senator Angus King (I-ME), who became an Independent in the 1990s, won both the governorship and a Senate seat with this strategy.

But you also can see dramatic switches happening in real time: back in 2001, Senator Jim Jeffords, (R-VT), a traditional Yankee Republican, left the party to become (I-VT), caucusing with the Democrats and handing the Senate majority over to the Democrats from the Republicans. Jeffords blamed George W. Bush. (That Bush did not know how to handle New England Republican Senators, despite the fact that his own grandfather had been a New England Republican Senator, tells you how much the party has changed.) But that's part of a larger story, in which the original, foundational base of the Republican Party, the heirs of the Lincoln Republicans, leave (or are driven off) because they can't co-exist with the party's new, post-Confederate base.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog

Friday, July 01, 2016

Fairy Tale Promises: The Brexit, Conservatives, and Trump

The shocking result of the "Brexit" referendum, with Britain leaving the European Union, has widely been taken as Good News for Donald Trump. He was happy to say so himself, and to attempt to take credit somehow for the referendum's success. And people have been panicking about the danger that Trump's campaign could beat the conventional wisdom just as the British "Leave" campaign did. That danger is probably overrated, as Jamelle Bouie points out: the UK is much whiter than the US, so the angry white vote doesn't carry as far here any more, and we should remember that the Brexit result wasn't really a surprise: "Leave" and "Remain" had been polling neck-and-neck down to the wire, so the 52-48 result wasn't unlikely. But Trump, who led the Republican primary polls wire to wire, is clearly behind in the general-election polls. On the other hand, it's easy to see Trump and the Brexiteers as part of a wider movement: angry nativist populists, hostile to policy experts and welcoming to xenophobes and racists.  That movement won't meet with the same success everywhere, but it's real.

I want to move past the obvious similarities to look at two more important comparisons. Both the American and British situations feature 1) the country's major conservative party tearing itself apart, mostly because of 2) a long history of campaign promises that were never meant to be kept, because the people making them considered them impossible. Let's take these one at a time.

First of all, the Brexit is deeply tied to  a civil war inside the UK's Conservative Party. The "Remain" and "Leave" campaigns were led by rival Tory politicians: the Prime Minister, David Cameron, led the campaign to stay in the EU and Boris Johnson, who has long been gunning for Cameron's job, led the campaign to quit the EU. That would be bad enough, but it's worse: the leaders of BOTH campaigns have destroyed their political fortunes. Cameron resigned his Prime Ministership the day after losing the vote. Today, Boris Johnson turned his expected announcement of his campaign for Prime Minister into a surprise resignation speech. He won't be running for PM, and is resigning his seat. It's like House of Cards, but with lots of twists and drama.

The Brexit vote itself was meant to ward off Tory civil war, with Cameron throwing the referendum out as a sop to fend off both the anti-immigrant fourth or fifth party called the UK Indepence Party, and the Brexiteer faction of his Cameron's own party ... essentially to shut Boris Johnson up. So, that plan has gone as badly as it could go: UKIP and its loathsome chief, Nigel  Farage, have now been empowered, Cameron has lost his premiership, and Johnson has immediately fallen on the sword he used to decapitate Cameron. How did it go so wrong?

It went so wrong because the Brexit itself was a poison pill: easy to campaign for, but a disaster to put into practice. Once the Leave side had won, and Cameron had chosen to resign without triggering the exit (as opposed to triggering the exit and then resigning, which only a fool would have counted on him doing), Johnson and the other Leave leaders were stuck. The Prime Minister who actually triggers the Brexit, who begins the formal process of withdrawal, will be on the hook both for the bad effects that follow, especially the flight of business and banking from London to other European cities, and for the drawbacks of whatever deal the UK hammers out with the remaining European powers.

Here's the thing: Boris Johnson knows the consequences of the Brexit will be bad, and he knows that the deal with Europe won't deliver what he promised. London has become the financial capital of Europe under the current deal, and that becomes impossible if the UK leaves. An enormous amount of business WILL leave the UK, and take jobs with it. Meanwhile, the EU will never allow a country access to its market without both paying dues and (more importantly) allowing free immigration from the rest of the EU. Countries like Switzerland, which have side deals with the EU, have to allow free immigration, so the end to immigration that the Brexiteers promised will never happen without losing access to all that sweet tariff-free trade. BoJo knows these things.

But BoJo and the other Brexiteers publicly denied all of these things. They denounced the (true and totally common-sense) warnings that the Brexit would lose British jobs as "scaremongering." And BoJo began making noises after the vote about how the UK could stay part of the European market, etc. etc. etc. Except it can't without, you know, staying in. So Johnson, who has made his entire career on basking the EU, had no way forward. The backstabbing finale, in which Johnson's deputy from the Leave campaign put the knife to his prospects, was just the inevitable ending.

Johnson has been living for years off a popular (and populist) movement which he knows would be disastrous but which he didn't really think could succeed. It's very obviously that he had no plan for what to do when he won. He didn't plan for the Brexit because he never expected not necessarily even wanted it to happen. It was just a convenient set of talking points to rally a populist base against the party insiders, splitting populist Tories from the party's pro-business establishment, to advance BoJo's career. He was making a set of fairy tale promises.

Boris Johnson has campaigned for years, as both politician and journalist, on a "Let's All Go to Narnia" platform. It's not practical in any way, but it strikes a deep chord with voters and gets them passionately enthusiastic. Even better, it forces Boris's political opponents into the unenviable position of arguing against Narnia, and sounding like passionless, pedantic jerks. No one likes the Anti-Narnia guy. And Boris never had to worry about what he proposed coming true, because it was so far from being possible.

Then one day, Boris Johnson found himself hip-deep in snow, staring dumbfounded at a lamp post. What to do, but crawl back into your uncle's wardrobe and hide?

Here in America, we're seeing a parallel breakup of the Republican coalition, as its populist wing breaks away from its traditional business-oriented policies. Everything Trump promises the crowds would be catastrophic for American business. But the other Republicans aren't in much position to debunk Trump, because they have been cynically feeding Trump's own fairy-tale promises to their base for years now. Trump's border wall is not Trump's idea. Trump has no policy ideas of his own. The border wall with Mexico has been a fairy-tale proposal that various Republicans have hawked during primaries and off-year elections for years. (Sometimes they have called the wall a "security fence" in order to sound smarter, and make the totally unworkable proposal sound like something practical.) I've been hearing about that "build a wall" plan since at least the 90s. No one who made that promise ever had to worry about it happening. And if Trump actually won, he would quickly discover that building the wall would be ruinously expensive and pointless.

Here's the Republicans' real problem. They have a whole batch of fairy tale policies that they've been pushing to their voters for years now. (The Democrats also have some pie-in-the-sky plans that they don't think are achievable at the moment, but the actually think those things could work if put into place. And they have a habit of only campaigning on what they think they can get done in the next few years.) Clinton's policies are things she that she thinks could get through Congress and will work if they do.

"Repealing Obamacare" is a classic fairy-tale promise. It excites the Republican base like no one's business. But the Republicans also know that they can't actually do it, and that doing it would be a disaster. Throwing people off their health insurance is not something you do in office. Likewise, actually banning abortion would be the ruin of the party that does it for decades afterward. That doesn't stop them from campaigning on these fairy-tale promises. In fact, they campaign on them so hard because they know they can't make these things happen. But if they did, it would be a disaster. This is red meat you feed the rubes. The problem comes, not just for a political party but for a whole nation, when the rubes expect you to do what you've promised them.

cross-posted from, and all comments welcome at, Dagblog