Objectivity of Your Imagination

One of the most stupefying defenses of the rigid, free-market libertarianism that took over the American right in the age of Obama was that freedom from government interference was an essential principle no matter the price. This idea came up in many forms. There was the notion that government programs fostered dependency, that redistribution actually harmed its beneficiaries. There was the view that the immediate benefits of expanding government disguised a larger restriction of innovation and prosperity. But no matter the form, the philosophy of Ayn Rand—which conveniently benefited those already possessing resources and power—always cherished a vague ideology of liberty at the expense of basic human needs.

This is how dogmatic adherence to intangible ideas always goes astray. It demands fealty to abstract principle over the primal truths of lived experience. Yet elevating theory while minimizing observation is usually misguided. Government dependency is hardly a concern when you’re starving.

Which is why the latest self-serious journalistic justifications for treating President-Elect Trump with the respect and even-handedness of past leaders are so off-base. Continue reading

Together at 10,000 Feet

America has a drinking problem. I know this because for the third time this year I am seated adjacent to a fellow cross-country traveler with a particular taste for the good life. A month ago, I was two seats down from a kindly older man with deep crags in his face who urgently pressed the help button as soon as the seatbelt sign turned off. At ten in the morning, my lifeline was a tall, styrofoam cup of coffee procured from the terminal just before takeoff. He, on the other hand, clutched at the two miniature bottles of whiskey dutifully brought to him as a child would his stuffed bear. After pouring the first bottle of Dewar’s into a plastic cup of ice usually reserved for diet ginger ale, the man unscrewed the second. Perhaps he should have finished the first one off before turning to the next because his shaky hands betrayed him just as he freed the sticky screw top from the bottle’s lips, sanitizing the aisle between row 22. You’ve never seen a more forlorn expression. “Don’t worry about it,” I tell the man, even as I continue to do just that. Continue reading

Not as Wrong as it Seems

The results of this presidential election should inspire reflection from political prognosticators everywhere. They were wrong. The conventional wisdom, the counter-conventional wisdom, all of it. The collective reassurance that, no, this couldn’t happen here was mere wishful thinking. Going forward, greater caution is warranted.

At the same time, let’s not make this something it’s not. The levers of power may be held according to the binary system of wins and losses, but the story of an election—and its portent for the future—is much fuller. Democrats gained six seats in the House and two in the Senate, after winning eight House and two Senate seats in 2012. As of this writing, Hillary Clinton is just 158,987 votes short of Barack Obama’s vote total from 2012 and won the popular vote by more than 2.84 million votes—a full 2.1%. With her lead likely to grow slightly larger over the next week, she will at worst be only 1.8% short of Barack Obama’s reelection margin of 3.9% in 2012, just a few tenths of point behind George W. Bush’s 2004 reelection margin, and with a larger margin than ten different presidents (not including Donald Trump). Spare me the self-flagellation. Continue reading

This President; that man

President Obama and Donald Trump meet in the Oval Office after the 2016 election.

There was a time before Barack Obama was the president when things made sense. The world may have been a chaotic and unruly place, but the political world was orderly underneath. Inside the beltway, a problem was a problem, a scandal was a scandal, and a gaffe was most certainly a gaffe. Administrations came and went as eventually power corrupted and it was time for a change. Those on top seemed invincible—until they weren’t. Those were the rules, and we all abided by them. Continue reading

How We Hate

We are now just days away from accomplishing the seemingly forgotten purpose of this presidential campaign—electing a president. It has been a wild race of unprecedented developments. Some were welcome (the nomination of the first woman to lead a major political party), others not so much (pretty much the rest of it). We started by discussing whether Mexican-Americans were predisposed to rape and murder, and are now embroiled in Russian intrigue, sexual assault allegations, and the reemergence of an investigation into the former Secretary of State’s electronic communication storage and transmittal practices, thanks to a laptop seized from a disgraced former congressman caught sexting a minor. But if this sixteen-month whirlwind of busted hopes and broken norms seems far too like the story arc of a House of Cards season, two baseline facts deserve attention in these final days. The two candidates are very, very different, and yet are nearly equally disliked. Continue reading

The House is in Play

The most under-covered story of this endless election is the battle for the House of Representatives. While it’s true that based on what we know right now Democrats are unlikely to take back the House, that statistical likelihood is being covered as a near certainty. Yet a shift of a few points in the national mood in the Democrats’ direction could completely reshape the post-election political scene. Considering that control of Congress is the difference between whether a President Clinton could enact her far reaching agenda or become further entangled in the legislative morass of the last six years, the possibility of such a shift is of major importance. If Democratic turnout is higher and Republican enthusiasm is tepid—and there is real reason to think it will be—the greatest drama as election night turns into the small hours of the early morning might be over control of the House.

The national polling data and the current state of play in races around the country suggest that Democrats will gain seats in the lower chamber, but fall short of the 30 pickups needed to regain control. Yet, the amount of coverage national media outlets and respected nonpartisan congressional analysts have given to the simple possibility that Democrats could take the House is far too low. Even though the national polling averages have remained steady in this election, the amount of uncertainty in the polls is far higher than four or eight years ago. A landslide victory at the presidential level would likely push Democratic House gains into the 25-35 seat range. That scenario is very much in play. Continue reading

The Lowest Point

Shortly after the second presidential debate ended, Donald Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway gave an interview to CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. As their conversation drew to a close, Blitzer noted that CNN’s post-debate polling had Hillary Clinton winning the encounter, 57%-34%. “I watched a different debate but thank you,” Conway tartly replied. While Conway may have felt far differently about the debate than the public, her general sentiment wasn’t wrong (only the logic behind it was). TV news commentators watched the ninety-minute exchange and saw something far different from the rest of us. The operative phrase for the night was “Trump stopped the bleeding,” as this off-hand and misguided comment spread like wildfire throughout the punditocracy. That exact phrase was repeated over and over again on television and in print media. Apparently commentators were grading on a curve and refusing to deduct for lies and incoherence. But even applying such a forgiving standard, the analysts were indeed watching a different debate. Those ninety minutes in St. Louis, Missouri did not staunch Trump’s downfall. Instead, they hastened it toward the nadir of this already depressing election. Continue reading

Trump’s Reflection

The Republican Party is falling apart. Donald Trump is dropping in the polls and hemorrhaging support from his party’s elected leaders after his recent rampage of disturbed performances following a series of scandals. Unable to restrain himself or soothe his ego without exacting revenge, Trump veered into the oncoming traffic of deeply damaging storylines over the last two weeks. Those revelations include past shaming of a former Ms. Universe contestant over her weight, manipulating the tax code to avoid paying federal taxes for the better part of two decades, bragging about acts of sexual domination and assault into a hot mic before an appearance on Access Hollywood in 2005, and groping a seemingly inexhaustible list of women now emerging from obscurity. Rather than play damage control, Trump surrogates actively bragged about his “genius” tax avoidance while the candidate dismissed his disturbing sexual comments as nothing but “locker room talk.” And so yet again, as he did with his remarks on Mexican rapists, on captured POWs, on the Muslim Ban, and on Judge Curiel and Khzir Khan, Trump has forced the political party that leant him its ballot-line to repudiate his conduct. But try as they might to separate themselves from their standard-bearer’s noxious behavior, Republican officials just can’t seem to quit Trump. Distance without disavowal.

In a normal political environment, Trump couldn’t get away with any of what’s going on right now. Not the racist, sexist, far-right demagogy part—that’s actually been remarkably successful for many GOP politicians. Rather, the extraordinary factor in Trump’s ascent is how little deference he has shown to party leaders and how easily he has bullied them without repercussion. For all the talk of the unprecedented number of Republican leaders refusing to support the Trump campaign, what may be more incredible is how few defections there have been. Trump has bludgeoned party leaders, donors, and even his own supporters at every turn in this campaign. That so many are still willing to stand by him as he drags them through the dregs of sex tapes and Bill Clinton’s accusers reflects the true predicament bedeviling the party. Trump, one day, shall pass. The GOP’s real problem is not the candidate, but the voters who enable him. Continue reading

Cool and Collected

For all the talk of Donald Trump’s primetime disintegration last Monday, the first presidential debate resulted in a clear win for Hillary Clinton for a less obvious reason. Yes, Trump was his typical boorish, mendacious, and uninformed self. It’s true that his lack of preparation and hateful rhetoric were bound to leave voters shocked and disgusted in what was for many their first lengthy exposure to it. And as described here yesterday, Trump’s complete inability to resist provocation led him astray time and again. Yet, left mostly unnoticed and underappreciated in this telling of Trump’s first one-on-one clash with Clinton, however, was how perfectly composed Clinton was in dealing with the potential stumbling blocks laid by her opponent and by the moderator Lester Holt.

It’s not as if Clinton was on the attack all night. She, too, is subject to biting critiques from her opponent and victim of unfavorable public perception of many aspects of her past. Unlike Trump, however, she did not feel the need to use her ninety-minute debate appearance as a means to vanquish every foe and right every wrong. She had goals and a strategy for achieving them. And she stuck to it.

Even with Trump’s run-on sentences and bizarre defenses, the narrative that emerged from Monday’s contest might have been far different had Clinton felt the unquenchable need to respond to every goading insinuation. A botched answer on emails or the crime bill or her record as Secretary of State—even if it answered a misleading and unjust attack—might have led debate coverage and swung the dial back in Trump’s direction. Her willingness to take unfair flak and move on has long been one of Clinton’s defining features, but it shone through in her debate performance. Continue reading

Finger on the Impulse

Even before Donald Trump’s epic twitter meltdown in the early morning hours today—where he tripled-down on his misogynistic comments about former beauty queen Alicia Machado, and in doing so created the first-ever news reports with the words “presidential nominee” and “sex tape” in the same sentence—it was very clear that the GOP standard-bearer had absolutely no impulse control. Whether it was leaning into fights with a federal judge over his Mexican heritage or a Gold Star family over their religion, or repeatedly defending his retweeting of an anti-Semitic meme, Trump has shown that he cannot resist regaining the perceived upper hand, no matter how great the political damage or how shameful the behavior necessary to do so. This pattern is what Talking Points Memo founder Josh Marshall called “the fever inside,” explaining: “Trump lives in a psychic economy of aggression and domination. There are dominators and the dominated. No in between. Every attack he receives, every ego injury must be answered, rebalanced with some new aggression to reassert dominance. These efforts are often wildly self-destructive. We’ve seen the pattern again and again.” It’s the character defect Hillary Clinton highlighted in her convention speech when she proclaimed: “a man you can bait with a tweet is not a man we can trust with nuclear weapons.”

But as damaging as each of Trump’s self-inflicted controversies have been, nothing has been as harmful to his presidential campaign than the first presidential debate. More than 80 million people tuned in on Monday—many of whom were focusing on the candidates in a meaningful way for the first time—and what they saw was one candidate of presidential mettle and another ill-suited to managing even his own twitter account. As we approach the final month of the presidential campaign, it’s worth examining Trump’s inability to resist taking the bait during the first debate. And it’s also worth considering how when faced with similar temptations, Clinton chose to absorb the smaller attacks rather than lash back and risk greater injury. The transcript is telling. Continue reading