Dem Debate Recap: Madame Secretary That’s a Low Blow

DemFeb11WideViewWith Iowa and New Hampshire behind us, and all eyes now on Nevada and South Carolina, of course the logical place to hold a presidential candidate debate is … Wisconsin! Makes perfect sense, like everything else happening in this campaign cycle. And so it was last night: another round of Hillary v. Bernie head to head up in beautiful downtown Milwaukee. (The Repubs will give it another go Saturday in, more logically, South Carolina.)

Last night’s faceoff came at a crucial point in the Democratic race. Bernie Sanders, having just thrashed Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary, is now trying to figure out how to parlay his massive win up north into any kind of win anywhere else (‘anywhere else” being a euphemism for “anywhere with fewer white people”). Thrashee Clinton, relieved to be done with that bit of unpleasantness in New England, looks forward to competing on more comfortable turf (“more comfortable turf” a euphemism for “turf with more non-white people”). For those of us who pay way too much attention, the 48 hours between New Hampshire’s outcome and Thursday evening’s debate was largely a contest between the two camps to see who could put more African-American surrogates in front of cable news cameras.

Here’s how it went down last night.

8:02 I figured that since this is the PBS-hosted debate we’d be liberated from trendy nonsense like social media types asking vapid questions. No such luck as moderators Judy Woodruff and Gwen Ifill inform us that there will be Facebook questions. Whatever happened to stodgy old PBS? I’m not sure I can keep giving annual donations to an outfit that asks Facebook questions.

8:05 Sanders’ opening statement is largely a compilation of his stump speech greatest hits, but one that quickly panders to black voters by emphasizing criminal justice concerns. Clinton in her opening agrees with what Sanders has to say about the “rigged economy” but quickly panders to black voters by talking about barriers and equality. Yes, Dorothy, we’re not in New Hampshire anymore.

8:10 Woodruff asks Sanders how much larger government would be under a Sanders presidency. Declining to put a number on it, Sanders offers a broad philosophical statement that “the government of a democratic society has a moral responsibility to play a vital role in making sure all of our people have a decent standard of living.” It’s a compelling big-picture principle rarely articulated by politicians, but as is typical of the Sanders campaign, he makes no attempt to quantify what it means or how it works in practice. Clinton does respond with a number: “It would probably increase the size of the federal government by about 40%.” We have no idea how she arrived at this number and Sanders doesn’t quarrel with it. It does seem like she is scoring points here with people who hate government, or as many would label them, “Republicans.”

8:16 Tussling on health care, Sanders insists his advocacy of a single-payer system doesn’t mean he’d dismantle Obamacare first. Clinton insists “based on every analysis that I can find” that Sanders numbers don’t add up and that “many people will be worse off” with single payer. Calling that “absolutely inaccurate” Sanders explains that he’s merely advocating a system that virtually every country has (which is true though that fact doesn’t actually refute Clinton’s point). Noting the post-World War II origins of our present system, Clinton observes that “we are not England, we are not France” (she doesn’t opine on whether or not we are Ecuador or Guinea-Bissau) and gives Obama props for building on the system we have to get to where we are. The Obama hug aside, it is a bit dispiriting to see Clinton resort to the kind of nativist “we’re the U.S. we’re special so to hell with those Europeans” notion that drives so much of the charmingly cosmopolitan rhetoric on the right these days.

8:19 Should Americans who fear government fear you Democrats who want government to do more? Clinton claims she’s the one with plans that are concrete and transparent regarding costs and revenue sources. Sanders goes all in with infrastructure spending and free college tuition. Clinton responds with a canned zinger (and a fairly good one) about how doing free tuition depends on the cooperation of bad boy conservative governors like Scott Walker of Wisconsin (where the debate is taking place – big applause from the crowd in the room all of whom probably detest Walker with every fiber of their being). Sanders responds with an eloquent defense of the concept of higher education as essential in the modern economy, but ignores Clinton’s process concern. Clinton is hammering him on the pragmatics of implementing his lofty agenda; Sanders has now let her do that without a response on health care and again education. It’s not clear he can win over undecideds and expand his base by continuing to ignore it.

DemFeb11Podiums8:24 Woodruff asks Clinton why in New Hampshire women were unimpressed with her womanly candidacy. You can see on her face that it thoroughly annoys Clinton to have everyone reminded of this or of anything to do with the debacle that was New Hampshire. Even so, it’s a softball question that lets her talk about issues she is very knowledgeable about and comfortable with. Not much Bernie can say when it’s his turn on this one other than brag about his voting record and say chicks dig me too. Ifill asks Sanders an odd follow-up: does it bother you that you might obstruct the historical accomplishment of a woman president? His reply, wryly delivered: electing someone like me “would be of some historical accomplishment as well.” (Translation: what am I, chopped liver?)

8:31 Sanders throws in a tangential but effective critique of Republicans for hypocrisy for hating government and pushing for less government except when it comes to regulating reproductive choice. Of course Clinton would completely agree, but his going there affords a nice illustration of how their campaign styles differ and why Sanders is having more success than anyone anticipated. Mostly they agree on the issues (and certainly on this one), but he is much more adept at forcefully articulating off the cuff the essential qualities and moral imperatives associated with many of these issues. She can manage this fairly well in prepared speeches; he does it very well improvisationally.

8:33 A Facebook undecided-voter question on mass incarceration. Sanders goes first. This being something he talks about all the time on the stump, it’s in his wheelhouse, though it also points to one of Sanders’ ongoing shortcomings: his inability or unwillingness to bridge big ideas into actionable public policy. He calls for “radical reform of a broken criminal justice system” – well said — but what does that actually mean in actual practice? Framing the problem with full-throated eloquence, alas, doesn’t point to specific policy solutions any better than mumbling the problem incoherently. Clinton is good on this issue as well, showing her more advanced political chops by connecting the issue to statistics in Wisconsin and a recent on-the-ground violent incident there. And keeping in mind that the race having shifted to the south is now much more about race, she pivots nimbly to the presence of systematic racism in not just criminal justice but also in jobs, education, housing, employment.

8:37 Why would race relations improve under your presidency when they didn’t under a black president? Clinton rejects the premise, arguing that Obama has accomplished a lot here, but acknowledges there is more to do. Nothing she says is wrong, but it highlights her inability to relate authentically with audiences on difficult issues. She is giving us a miniseminar on race-relevant areas of public policy, but there is no emotion or connection here. Sanders goes in an interesting direction: connecting Wall Street bad behavior in the financial crisis with loss of wealth in the African American community. After this intriguing claim Sanders goes in a stale direction suggesting that race relations will be improved because under his economics black kids will stay in school and get jobs. Kind of misses the point of the question in a clumsy way and hints at why minority support for Sanders is slow in coming. I think the bottom line here is that both candidates have a good grasp in a clinical sense of the problems of race, and both have relevant policy agendas, but neither really knows how the improve race relations writ large.

8:45 In a nifty move Sanders spins the conversation about race into one about how bad trade deals yield economic effects on jobs that disadvantage minorities in our economy … which spins into pointing out that he and Clinton disagree on trade. Clinton doesn’t take the bait.

8:47 On immigration, how far will you go to protect immigrants from deportation? Sanders gives a straightforward and unapologetic defense of the whole nine yards of immigration reform. On these issues where they both pretty much completely agree, the advantage always goes to whomever goes first: it’s much more rewarding to make the grand statement than to have to kill 60 seconds finding various ways to say “me too.” That said, Clinton does call out Sanders for voting against an immigration reform bill in 2007, a vote he defends on grounds it was a flawed bill that even some immigrant groups as well as the AFL-CIO opposed. She replies it was Ted Kennedy’s bill and how dare you besmirch the late great Ted Kennedy? He replies Ted Kennedy Schmed Schmennedy.

8:54 A Facebook question on meeting basic economic needs for low-income seniors. Sanders says more and better social security. Clinton says yep. Sanders then calls her out for being cagey about specific proposals to expand social security revenue by adjusting the cap on payroll taxes. Clinton dodges by saying c’mon dude we agree and we’ll end up in the same place. It’s not clear that’s actually true but Sanders lets it go.

DemFeb11HilllooksBern9:00 Ok it’s go time. Woodruff hits Clinton with a question about the influence of corporate money, and specifically a Wall Street funded Super PAC. Cue the minefield. She tries to dance through it first by saying she can’t speak for a Super PAC, and then by saying how proud she is of herself and (condescendingly) proud of Sanders for getting so many small individual campaign donations. She then hands it off to Sanders so she can be predictably pummeled on this. He duly pummels. She replies by wrapping herself around Obama and Dodd-Frank to claim that she’ll be tough on any and every industry that needs it. Sanders caustic reply: “Let’s not insult the intelligence of the American people.” Are we supposed to think, he muses, that industries make “yuuge” campaign contributions “just for the fun of it”? They go back and forth on whether Dodd-Frank works. This again is one of those issues where there isn’t all that much daylight between what they believe in concrete policy terms, but yuuge amounts of daylight between their respective abilities to explain the problem in a compelling way. Clinton will always lose this particular argument; the task for her when it comes up is to dilute the magnitude of the loss. She did that somewhat here.

9:15 After a lengthy halftime break, and a pointless question about reducing the size of government, we shift to terrorism and foreign policy. In the last debate Clinton came off a lot better than Sanders in this area. Clinton fields a question about readiness with a wide ranging discussion of capabilities and priorities. Sanders responds with his go-to move: she voted for the war in Iraq and I voted against it. He expands it into a far-flung lecture on the unintended consequences of the country’s history of regime change around the world over the last century. Clinton, prepared for this moment (and with a smug “take that, pal” smile on her face), ticks off a few regime change oriented votes that Sanders has cast in Congress. Sanders goes back to the Iraq vote. Clinton brags about how she personally killed Bin Laden with her bare hands.

9:20 Oh Henry! Sanders, pulling a tidbit out of Clinton’s book, links her to Henry Kissinger, “one of the most destructive secretaries of state in the modern history of this country” and (the ultimate insult) “not my kind of guy.” Clinton defends Kissinger in a way that suggests she listens to many voices including those of incredibly evil former secretaries of state. Sanders tries to persist with the Kissinger thing by relitigating the domino theory. (Talk about an oldie but goodie!) This is actually a somewhat engaging conversation about modern diplomatic and geopolitical history; one fantasizes about what the addition of a bottle of whiskey and Donald Trump could contribute to it.

The fact that the foreign policy part comes in the second hour of the debate is a double edged sword for Sanders. On one hand it’s good for Sanders because we know that fewer people always watch the second half, so fewer will see her dominance. On the other hand it’s less good for Sanders because the last debate showed that as the evening wears on Clinton does a better job of staying fresh and nimble, while Sanders is prone to descending into tired looking old guy territory.

9:31 On Russia, Sanders says reasonable things, then Clinton says reasonable things that are substantially more detailed. While she talks, we hear old-guy hacking cough from Sanders in the background. (Note to Sanders staffers: insist on a cough button on podium at next debate.)

9:35 Sanders does point out that they differ on questions of a no-fly zone in Syria and on the pace of normalizing relations with Iran. He’s right but she gets the better of him as they talk through the latter issue. It turns out that being secretary of state for four years does equip a person with quite a bit of detailed working knowledge about what’s going on in the world.

9:42 One of those “let’s see how interesting you are” questions: name two leaders, one American and one foreign, who would influence your foreign policy decisions. (My own answers: Jerry Garcia and David Bowie.) These kinds of questions tend to favor the person who goes second because that candidate gets more time to think up an answer. On the other hand, if the person who goes second thinks up the same person, then the advantage is lost. Sanders goes with FDR for the domestic choice, unsurprisingly since he talks about Roosevelt routinely on the campaign trail as one who redefined the role of government. For the foreign choice, he goes with Churchill, a classic selection. You just can’t beat someone who beats Nazis. Clinton agrees on FDR (ouch) and goes with Mandela (a cynic might call it a crafty selection under the circumstances; fortunately I’m not a cynic) for the foreign choice.

9:46 Riffing off the leadership question, Clinton comes out of nowhere with an attack on Sanders for questioning Barack Obama’s leadership, calling it the kind of criticism “I expect from Republicans” not from someone seeking the Democratic nomination. Sanders, with a “where the hell did that come from” look on his face: “Madame Secretary, that is a low blow.” He points out with no small amount of sneer that in a democratic society it’s okay for a senator to disagree with a president on some issues. “I have voiced criticisms, maybe you haven’t,” he tells her. She doubles down accusing him of making “personal assessments.” Yikes, personal assessments! He responds that “one of us ran against Barack Obama. I was not that candidate.” It sounds at first like a zinger, but the more you think about it, the less it make sense.

9:48 Closing statements. Both are effective in their way, but where Sanders is a good minute of improv, Clinton’s is a tight, prepared minute of forceful oratory. She ends on an orchestrated high note.

Verdict: Both came in prepared to be aggressive toward the other when necessary, and that did yield a few spirited clashes (but since they agree on most things at a fundamental level, only a few). As in the prior Dem debates, the Sanders’ challenge is to expand his base of support. To the extent that undecided primary voters are open to a principled liberal ideologue over a pragmatic centrist-turned center-left progressive, he’ll pick up some. But to the extent that undecideds are as interested in how things get done as they are inwhat candidates favor, Clinton continues to hold sway. If the point of Bernie’s campaign is to influence the discourse and elevate progressive thinking into the Democratic party mainstream, he is wildly succeeding. But if the point of his campaign is to actually get the nomination then he can’t pretend forever that questions about governing are beside the point.

Next up: the Republicans go at it Saturday in South Carolina. It will probably be a more entertaining affair because, let’s face it, a theatrical tragicomedy is always more fun when at least some of the characters are batshit crazy. So go ahead and make those Saturday night plans, safe in the knowledge that we’ll be watching so you don’t have to.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


On the Presidential Race as it Turns Southward

For months the presidential race was endlessly and excruciatingly geared toward Iowa and New Hampshire, Iowa and New Hampshire, Iowa and New Hampshire, Iowa and New Hampshire. Now, as we leave those two states behind forever (by which of course I mean three and a half years), it’s a propitious moment to take stock as the circus alights in our neck of the woods. Herewith, five semi-random observations.

[1] Polling still works. We hear lots of whining in the punditsphere about the evils of polling, and some want to believe that the fact that Trump didn’t win Iowa is more evidence of its failures. To the contrary, the Iowa results were within bounds given the structural weirdness of predicting likely turnout in caucuses, and polling in New Hampshire got things mostly right. It’s well known to those who understand how these things work that polling in primaries is especially vulnerable to late deciders (so late polls are better). More generally, the complications of cell phones for reaching poll victims and the higher likelihood that people once reached will refuse to be polled doesn’t make good quality polls significantly less accurate; it just makes them more challenging and more expensive to do right. Bad polling is a distraction, but good polling still matters.

[2] Hillary Clinton has problems that may not be so easily solved just by shifting to more diverse states south and west. Sure, she remains the likely nominee and her loss in New Hampshire was fully expected, but the scope of the shellacking astounds nevertheless. I’m not just talking about the shellacking in the actual vote, but also what the exit polls have to say. As The Washington Post reported, a third of all Dem primary voters in New Hampshire cited honesty as the key candidate trait in making their choice, and of this group Bernie Sanders won 92-6. Being perceived by many as questionably untrustworthy is one thing, but 92-6! Also of concern is the extent to which the post-NH hand wringing in Hillaryworld is about message. Carl Bernstein on CNN said “she has got to find her voice.” POLITICO quotes a Clinton superdelegate declaring that “her campaign is tone-deaf.” An accomplished woman who has been in public life for 30 years, has served in the Senate and has run three past campaigns is tone-deaf and needs to find her voice? Will her next ‘voice’ be any more persuasively authentic than her last one?

[3] Bernie Sanders needs to improve his messaging. Yes, compared to Clinton’s his message is simple, direct and powerful, but he can’t win unless he expands his base and it isn’t clear that his present approach will accomplish that. His victory speech Tuesday night in New Hampshire was more excruciating than inspiring – it was an overly long rehash of his stump speech. That’s not a cardinal sin, but it was a big-time missed opportunity, and it makes you wonder about the nature of the political advice he is getting. At some point he has to tackle head-on the legitimate concern that he will be unable to enact his agenda. Yes, I get the argument that implementation challenges are not by themselves reasons to shy away from being aspirational, but it’s not enough. And pure electability matters as well: he has to persuade influential Dems everywhere that giving Sanders the nomination isn’t just a way of handing two or three Supreme Court appointments to a GOP president. Saying the word “billionaire” over and over again doesn’t accomplish this.

[4] I miss Chris Christie, and not just because he did us all a favor by singlehandedly clubbing the baby seal that is Marco Rubio’s campaign to near-death with 30 seconds of nimble verbal sparring. Sure, Christie’s a blowhard and at times a bully, but he’s smart, and his true self appears to be pretty moderate and thoughtful. (What can I say? As a pushy New Yorker I have a soft spot for pushy New Jerseyans, though I agree with those who say there’s probably room for only one pugnacious asshole in the race.) I certainly wouldn’t want him in the White House, but I like him as an (ultimately failing) Republican nominee. Christie-Clinton debates would be sensational political theater – a battle royale between two intelligent and accomplished pols who both have a history of working with rather than merely demonizing the other side, and who probably both have a pretty healthy dose of respect for one other.

[5] I don’t miss Carly Fiorina. How someone who is best known for poor performance as a CEO (and second best known for running a feckless Senate race) imagines herself as an inspirational reform-minded political leader is beyond me. Announcing her departure from the presidential race on Facebook, Fiorina said her campaign was about “taking back our country from a political class that only serves the big, the powerful, the wealthy, and the well connected.” It was never clear to me how someone wealthy, powerful and well-connected is ideally positioned to take back our country from the wealthy, powerful and well-connected. Plus as the Planned Parenthood shenanigans amply demonstrated, Fiorina is an accomplished pathological liar. (She’s also good at fibbing about her own record as a CEO.)

We ramp up for the next round with tonight’s Dem candidate debate; look for my recap tomorrow.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


GOP Debate Recap: Leadership vs. Truancy Edition

NHDemDebate0While the Republican presidential candidates were taking the debate stage in New Hampshire Saturday night, Nashville’s Long Players were on stage down at 3rd and Lindsley covering the Rolling Stones album “Some Girls.” It was a fitting choice by Bill Lloyd and crew for a gig alongside the GOP debate: Side one of the album opens with a eulogy for the recently departed Rand Paul, Rick Santorum, and Mike Huckabee and the excluded Carly Fiorina (“Miss You”), and offers up tributes to the campaigns of Chris Christie (“When the Whip Comes Down”), Ben Carson (“Just my Imagination [Running Away with Me]”) and Ted Cruz (“Lies”). Side two celebrates Jeb Bush (“Before They Make Me Run”) and Donald Trump (“Beast of Burden” – you knew that was coming), and the album closes with a new anthem for a nation led by any of these jokers (“Shattered”). Sadly no song quite fits Marco Rubio, though he does come off at times as a respectable fellow with far away eyes.

A spirited time was in the cards on both stages, though only New Hampshire’s was charged with expectations of high drama given several floundering campaigns swerving on fumes toward a crackup in Tuesday’s primary. “Without a breakout moment” on Saturday, the Washington Post’s political writers foreshadowed, “the candidacies of Jeb Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich could end.” Note the omission of Ben Carson from that sentence. Yes, he was there Saturday in all of his usual somniferous glory (having completed his offbeat brand of debate prep), but even a breakout moment won’t revive his medically induced coma of a campaign.

Odds are pretty good you were doing something more, um, exciting with your Saturday evening than debate watching (like, say, catching the Long Players). But fear not pithheads, once again we watch the candidates so you don’t have to. So here’s the blow by blow…

7:17 The candidate introductions and walkouts are weirdly confusing, especially for Ben Carson who stayed backstage even after being introduced and had to be essentially urged to come out. There is some kind of metaphor for his campaign in there, I’m sure.

7:19 Trump is asked if he has the temperament to be Commander in Chief. His answer begins with him informing us that he has “the best temperament.” It ends with him telling us that “nobody’s gonna mess with us.” A cynic might observe that the latter sort of refutes the former.

7:23 Invited to answer the same question Ted Cruz instead opts to kick his standard Obama-weak-dangerous-world-evil-Islam engine into gear. In response Trump notes that Cruz didn’t answer the question, saying “that’s what’s going to happen with our enemies.” (Is he saying that Cruz won’t answer our enemies questions?) Trump adds “We’re going to win with Trump and people back down with Trump and that’s what I like.” Yeah there’s that temperament thing again.

7:25 Carson is invited to go after Cruz for being mean to him in Iowa. Carson says he’s not going to do that, then does it anyway (“Who would do something like that?”…“Washington Ethics”…“That’s not my ethics.”). The moderator asks Cruz to defend what his campaign did to Carson. Cruz apologies to Carson, then stupidly fails to stop there; thinks we’re interested in his convoluted play-by-play of how it all went down. The man does like to hear himself talk.

7:28 Moderator David Muir (aka the anchor monster) challenges Rubio with a readiness question, quoting Chris Christie (Rubio’s not ready to be president) and Rick Santorum (can’t name an Rubio accomplishments). Rubio offers an odd contrast of himself with Joe Biden, who was in Congress for “a thousand years” and “has passed hundreds of bills” but nobody on the GOP stage would want him as president. He then goes after Obama with a strange exceptionalism argument: Obama knows exactly what he’s doing, undertaking “a systematic effort to change this country, to make America more like the rest of the world.” When I’m president, Rubio promises, we’ll go back to being worse than the rest of the world on all those things that other countries do better than us because we are the most fabulous country ever.

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Christie lectures Rubio on what it’s like to be a real manly man who makes big manly man decisions.

7:30 Chris Christie, who has been verbally pummeling Rubio all week, is given an opportunity to pile on here, and he delivers, looking at Marco and telling him “you have not been involved in a consequential decision where you had to be held accountable. You just simply haven’t.” He then accuses Rubio of not showing up to vote for a terrorism measure in the Senate that Rubio had a moment earlier claimed as an accomplishment: “That’s not leadership, that’s truancy.” I believe “zing” is the word that comes next. Rubio on the split screen is gritting his teeth so hard I can spot tooth dust on his lips.

7:31 Rubio responds by talking about what a crappy governor Christie is. But then he pivots to repeat almost verbatim his last answer about Obama, the rest of the world, and American exceptionalism. “We don’t want to be like the rest of the world.” Christie’s rejoinder is to point out exactly what Rubio just did: “the drive by shot at the beginning … and then the memorized 25 second speech that is exactly what his advisors gave him.” Christie then hectors Rubio (I’m going to rephrase a bit here): we governors are big strong manly men who clear snow and wrestle hurricanes; you senators are weak little boys who make speeches and introduce bills and play with dolls.

7:33 Rubio, having let himself be baited, digs the hole he’s in deeper by claiming that Christie had to be shamed into returning to New Jersey to handle the recent big snowstorm. As he is saying this we can hear the crowd booing and see Christie on the split screen licking his chops. Even his in-state critics will concede that if there’s one thing Christie does do well as governor it’s emergency management. It just gives Christie another chance to pummel Rubio with the inexperience charge. Rubio is off to a dreadful start.

7:35 Jeb gets to talk, finally. He is invited to pile onto Rubio, which he does mildly (compared to Christie’s onslaught dropping an anvil on Rubio’s head is mild), then says some nice things about himself and the nice people supporting him. Doesn’t mention his mom.

7:37 Moderator Martha Raddatz, noting news just in regarding a North Korean rocket launch, asks Cruz if he’d do preemptive strikes against armed missiles on the ground. He bobs and weaves, so Raddatz says to him gee Ted you seem willing to bomb the bejesus out of anything that moves in the Middle East, so why the timidity here? He says he doesn’t have the intelligence. Viewers at home collectively nod in agreement.

7:41 John Kasich gets to speak for the first time, almost 25 minutes in. Kasich! I totally spaced him off and now feel bad that I didn’t have a Rolling Stones song for him. As usual Kasich says reasonable things. Bush then worms his way in with a comment that contributes nothing — it’s apparently his strategy tonight to try to grab himself more airtime, by force if necessary. Trump is asked if he has a red line vis-à-vis North Korea, and he decides to use the occasion to disagree with Rubio on how incompetent Obama is. Ever the master of nuance and understatement, Trump tells us Obama “has no idea what he’s doing and our country is going to hell.” On North Korea Trump advances the fantasy that China will take care of it for us. Rubio then goes after Obama again with the sinister “oh he knows what he’s doing all right” bit.

7:46 Bush is asked what he’d do about the American student being detained in North Korea. Says he’d doing everything possible to get him released. Christie, reminding us that before he was a burly manly man governor he was a burly manly man prosecutor, seems to be saying he’d never negotiate with anyone over any such things. Family of detained student clearly not backing Christie.

7:49 Immigration. Kasich gets the first shot and makes a moderate case for reform. Cruz is asked how he’ll deport 11 million people; doesn’t answer the question. Is asked again, and says “we’ll enforce the law” but still doesn’t answer the question of how. Rubio is called on to defend his “gang of eight” involvement with the immigration reform bill that he now secretly wishes he’d never touched. Christie jumps in to bludgeon Rubio (because it’s been a good 15 minutes since he last bludgeoned Rubio) on his hypocrisy and his failure to answer the question. Rubio’s response to Christie is more measured and less repetitive this time, though he is still not having a good night.

7:56 Trump is asked about the wild inconsistencies of his statements on health care. Classic Trump: “We are going to replace Obamacare with something so much better.” Naturally he gives us no clue about what SomethingSoMuchBetterCare will look like. Promises he will not let anyone die in the street in any city in the country. This gets a very modest smattering of applause. Apparently the audience on hand at St. Anselm College for tonight’s debate is largely pro-street-dying. Cruz’s ensuing comments on health care are a fact checker’s wet dream: a tangle of demonstrably false claims regarding Obamacare costs, medical outcomes in countries with single payer systems, and the effects of changing how insurance is sold here.

8:00 Carson gets to come in on health care a full 35 minutes after we last heard him speak. Uses precious time to express disappointment that he didn’t get to comment on North Korea, assuring us he has fantastic things to say about North Korea. Then gives an accounting of his own confusing approach to health insurance that makes you wonder how this guy was ever an actual part of the health care system.

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On eminent domain, Bush and Trump go at it while Rubio in between silently ponders the disaster that is this evening.

8:03 On eminent domain, Trump gives a rather sane little lecture on eminent domain as a necessary tool for a country that wants infrastructure. This is right in his wheelhouse, but it goes south for the Donald when Bush alleges that Trump tried to use eminent domain take an old lady’s property for private purpose (a limousine parking lot for his casino) in Atlantic City. Trump demurs. Bush insists. Trump tells Bush to zip it pal, I’m talking. Trump gets booed. Remarks that the people booing are Jeb’s “donors and special interests.” Gets booed again. Complains that he couldn’t get tickets for his own supporters to attend the debate because it’s all donors and he doesn’t have any. Gets booed again. Gets into an argument with Jeb over whether Keystone Pipeline would be a public or private project. Moderator tries to interject; Trump shushes the moderator. Gets booed again. We go to a commercial debate, giving Trump a few minutes off camera to eminent domain Jeb’s face.

ABC commentators George Stephanopoulos and Jonathan Karl pop in with a little halftime commentary which can be summed up as: (1) Rubio is sucking big time, and (2) If Jeb had been going after Trump like this months ago maybe he’d have half the poll numbers Trump has instead of just a quarter.

8:10 Following the break the debate resumes with a question about what it means to be a conservative. The answers, like the question, are lightweight and forgettable.

8:17 Trump is asked how (with emphasis on the word how) he would create millions of jobs, as he routinely promises. He replies by listing the countries we’d get jobs back from, then segues into tax inversion. Never actually answers the how question. Christie jumps in to defend his own jobs record in New Jersey and say some mostly nice things about Kasich, then pivots to (yet again!) hammer Rubio for saying that Obama knows what he’s doing. Kasich karate chops a correction and a thank you. Rubio then comes back in to say yet again that Obama knows exactly what he’s doing with his master plan to ruin the country. Interestingly this draws boos – I think the crowd is trying to tell him enough already.

8:22 Rubio is asked whether the 68% of Americans who would favor a tax increase on people who make more than $1 million/year are wrong. His reply: “I don’t know of any problem in America that’s going to be fixed with a tax increase.” Pivots to corporate taxes, which was not the question. You can tell he knows he’s not having a good night because he is starting to speak very rapidly. Thinks to himself that shot of espresso during the commercial break may not have been the best idea.

8:23 Same question for Bush about taxing very high earners draws an answer that is crowd-pleasing nonsense: “I’d like to see more millionaires.” Look, it’s fine to oppose more taxes at higher brackets if that’s your thing, but this simply isn’t a serious conversation about income tax policy or reform.

8:26 We shift back to overseas matters. Cruz is asked why he says he’d carpet bomb ISIS when everyone knows you can’t carpet bomb an enemy hiding within a civilian population. He tries to wriggle out of it by saying what his kind of carpet bombing looks like – targeting key military and strategic assets with the bombs. In other words, Ted, not carpet bombing, and pretty much what we and other countries are presently doing. But Ted’s bombs would be bombier, I suppose.

8:29 Rubio, still debating under the influence of a toxic mix of caffeine and bad debating, spews a breathless account of all the ways he’d go after ISIS with what he calls “overwhelming force,” though no matter how fast he speaks he is still basically restating current policy while hoping people will think he has some kind of plan to do something different. Rubio thinks Sunnis won’t get sufficiently involved in fighting ISIS on the ground because they don’t trust Obama. Rubio needs to get out more.

8:31 Raddatz tries to pressure Trump to say how he’d get rid of ISIS “quickly” (as he often promises on the campaign trail). His answers: oil (“you have to take the oil”) and banking (“nobody knows banking better than I do”). The answer is unmitigated drivel, everybody in the room knows it, but nobody says a word.

8:33 Bush gets to talk about Libya. His answer is well-meaning but vapid. I get the impression Bush doesn’t knows very much about foreign policy beyond the standard GOP let’s-wipe-out-bad-people talking points.

8:37 Cruz says waterboarding doesn’t meet “the generally recognized definition of torture.” He conveniently neglects to mention that he is alluding to a definition written by lawyers whose job it was to write a definition of torture that would exclude waterboarding. And Mr. Trump, you have said you would bring back waterboarding? “I would bring back waterboarding, and I would bring back a hell of a lot worse than waterboarding.” Should this come up In a general election debate I hope his Democratic opponent will respond, “So Mr. Trump, you’re pledging to the American people that you will violate U.S. law and commit war crimes?” This being a GOP debate, however, nobody says a word. (Though enjoying the show at home with a cocktail in hand Dick Cheney eyes Trump and thinks to himself “I like the cut of his jib.”)

8:39 Jeb: Closing Gitmo would be “a complete disaster.” Offers no substance behind it. He really doesn’t know much, or perhaps has just lost the motivation to bother sharing what he knows. Rubio, still speaking very rapidly, agrees on Gitmo. Wants us to send more people to Gitmo. Prudently refrains from sharing his intention to imprison Christie at Gitmo.

8:42 Asked about executive authority, Cruz restates the “on day one” pledge he has made in the past – that he will “rescind every single illegal and unconstitutional executive action Barack Obama has done.” It’s an interesting phrasing because it is quite plausibly the case that there is not a single Obama executive order that actually qualifies as “illegal and unconstitutional,” and an order doesn’t become such just because you don’t like it on the merits. So Cruz arguably is promising to repeal nothing, and President Cruz (just typing those words gives me the creeps) will have broken no pledge when he chooses to spend day one hanging the drapes instead of rescinding executive orders that most people are fine with.

8:43 Asked about deal making, Trump calls the Iran deal “amateurish.” It’s interesting that these GOP candidates all take pleasure in trashing the Iran deal as the most horrific foreign policy outcome in this or any century, but they never actually say how or why. It’s just accepted gospel on this stage that the pact blows and should be torn up (which in theory then makes them in favor of Iran restarting its nuclear program but nobody ever seems to ask them about that).

8:46 Sensing that too many minutes have passed without some good old fashioned Tea Party pandering, Bush conjures up props for the 10th Amendment, arguing that regulation and investment dollars go back to state control on everything from education to transportation to health care to the environment. Federal vs. state control on many issues may be public policy debates worth having, but to paint with such a massively broad states rights brush is crazy talk that just sucks up to a base that doesn’t like him anyway. Jeb fails to say if he’s also cool with all-white universities and miscegenation laws.

8:48 It occurs to me we haven’t heard from Chris Christie in what seems like forever. Is he still on the stage? Did he go backstage to get some water balloons to throw at Rubio? Did he decide to pull out of the race mid-debate?

8:50 The requisite New Hampshire heroin addiction question, which gives the candidates who answer (one of them Christie – he’s still here!) an opportunity to look concerned and compassionate on a social issue.

8:54 Though kind of a horserace question, it’s sort of an interesting one: how do you run against the historic nature of a Hillary Clinton nomination, first woman and all that? Trump, hallucinating in real time, assures us that “I’m the last person that she wants to run against.” Assures us he will win “handily.” Right. Like Iowa.

8:55 Rubio, apparently enjoying some of the same windowpane as Trump, asserts that 2016 is not just an election; it’s “a referendum on our identity as a nation and a people.” Oh for crying out loud … “our identity as a people” … what the hell does that even mean? Get over yourself. It’s an election.

8:56 They give Carson a chance to talk about how he’d run against Hillary Clinton. We are now beyond hallucination and into the realm of pure form fantasy. Carson gamely goes along, pretending there’s a universe in which he runs against her in the general, and on a positive note he does throw in the word “Benghazi” so we get to drink.

9:05 After another commercial break we’re onto criminal justice and policing. Trump gives a full-throated defense of “our really fantastic police.” He seems to regard actions taken when abuses are alleged to occur as nuisance litigation because police in this country are “absolutely amazing people.” Not a lot of nuance there (or grasp of why this is a question that would even be asked at a candidate debate).

9:07 Kasich starts his answer on policing by saying it can be a “win-win.” I hate that phrase so much I tune out the rest of his answer.

9:08 Rubio insists it’s an exaggeration to say there is a lot of discrimination aimed at Muslims in the country. Doesn’t say what country he has in mind.

9:10 Christie says he’d potentially quarantine travelers from another country (like Brazil) to stop the spread of Zika virus. Also says he’d quarantine Marco Rubio just, well, because.

9:12 Should young women be required to register for a potential military draft as young men are? Rubio says yes, pivots to a screed on how inadequate our massively bloated overfunded military is. Bush says yes also and adds we should not impose any kind of “political agenda” on the military. Sounds like Republican code for “let’s let them kick out the gay people,” the sort of thing I thought Jeb was above and beyond.

9:18 A question about veterans, and the answers are largely about VA health care. It’s interesting (and by “interesting” I really mean appallingly hypocritical) how all of these guys are perfectly keen on a single-payer approach to health insurance when it comes to veterans, but for everyone else it would be a first step down the road to Stalinism.

9:23 Should families of people taken hostage overseas be allowed to raise money to pay ransoms? It’s a yes or no question. Cruz gets to the time’s-up ding without actually answering the question though he implies his answer is no. Trump says no. Pivots to brag about the money he raised for vets last week in Iowa. Tries to then pivot to discuss the prodigious girth of his sexual organ but runs out of time.

9:25 Social issues: abortion and same-sex marriage. Rubio: “I don’t believing that believing in traditional marriage the way I do makes you a bigot or a hater.” Debatable, but believing that it’s okay to use the force of law to impose that belief and deny marriage equality under the law does kind of make you a bigot, Senator. His declaration that he thinks marriage should be between one man and one woman gets a refreshingly tiny bit of applause in the hall. This New Hampshire Republican crowd may be a bit too comfortable with people dying in the street for my taste, but at least it’s heartening to know they don’t object if people at risk of dying in the street have same-sex marriages.

9:27 Bush declares he’s the most pro-life person on the stage, but allows exceptions for rape and incest; thinks that puts him in the “sweet spot” on the issue. Christie bags about the fact that he defunded Planned Parenthood in New Jersey, then takes one last shot at Rubio for his opposition to rape and incest exceptions. It’s a reminder that despite how recent events have led conventional wisdom to frame Rubio as some kind of establishment moderate alongside the crazies in the race, he is in fact (to borrow Mitt Romney’s famous turn of phrase) severely conservative.

9:40 During closing statements Bush mentions that it’s Ronald Reagan’s birthday. I am amazed that it took two and a half hours for that to come up. Trump’s close: Cruz stole Iowa by screwing Carson. Carson’s close: “Guess what: I’m still here.” Oy vey yes you are.

Verdict: The headlines will be about Rubio, who has seen his New Hampshire numbers edge upward in the past week since his strong third place showing in Iowa. That upward movement may well halt in the wake of his shaky (a polite euphemism for devastating) outing here. Christie was energetic, baiting and dissecting Rubio at will. He hurt Rubio but did he help himself in the process? I suspect not enough, given how far back he is — too much ground to cover in too little time. Same probably goes for the Jebster. The talking heads will say that Bush did well, but lackluster is how it struke me, with the energy mostly in that one heated exchange with Trump over eminent domain. Trump was Trump, which a few weeks ago might have rendered a favorable verdict, but his act is starting to look a little tired, as audience jeering in a few spots revealed. In Iowa Trump did very poorly with late deciders, which may have resulted in part from his skipping the final-week debate there. Here at least he showed up, but a so-so performance doesn’t give late deciders much reason to move his way. And Cruz I suspect will continue to slide. He may have an effective campaign organization and be a polished (if overly verbose) public speaker, but he’s just not a very appealing candidate who fires up anyone but true believers, and these debates don’t do him any favors.

There’s that old nostrum that Iowa picks corn while New Hampshire picks presidents. It’s not very likely that New Hampshire Republicans on Tuesday will choose a president, but they will be helping us pick some ex-candidates. So to Ben, John, maybe Jeb, probably Chris, and certainly Carly: I want you to know I’ve been haunted in my sleep; you’ve been staring in my dreams. Lord I [will] miss you.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Dem Debate Recap: Artful Smear Edition

DemFeb4-0Going into last nights Dem tilt in New Hampshire the imperative for Bernie Sanders was maintaining his copious lead in the polls so that he doesn’t find himself falling short of expectations in next Tuesday’s primary. For Hillary Clinton the goal was partly to erode his lead a bit, but mainly just getting this whole New Hampshire thing over with so she can move on to more promising territory south and west. Although the debate vibe is less exciting now that we’ve lost the policy stylings of Marty the Party O’Malley, things did get spirited at times. Let’s go to the play by play.

8:03 The very first words out of Sanders’ mouth: “Millions of Americans are giving up on the political process.” That’s an upbeat start! It’s also actually sort of wrong. Given the chronically horrendous levels of voter participation in the U.S. compared to other advanced countries, it feels like those millions gave up long ago.

8:04 Clinton in her opening declares that “special interests are doing too much to rig the game.” A fair point, but it’s a bit, shall we say, rich coming from someone who just one night earlier on CNN couldn’t cogently answer a question about why it’s been okay for her to accept hundreds of thousands of dollars from Wall Street interests to give speeches.

8:06 Moderator Chuck Todd asks Clinton why she thinks Bernie’s ideas are untenable – why he won’t be able to make the things he’s running on actually happen. Her answer goes a bit wonky on several issues but doesn’t really answer the specific process question Todd posed. She concludes with a canned aphorism: “A progressive is someone who makes progress.” As a snappy way to synthesize her view on the (im)practicality of Sanders’ ideas, it’s mildly clever, but it’s also facile and wrong. It matters quite a bit what one makes progress on. Trump, for instance, plans lots of progress on his fabulous Mexican wall, but he ain’t no progressive.

8:08 Asked why he hasn’t gotten any of his expansive liberal agenda enacted in two decades in Congress, Sanders deadpans “well I haven’t quite run for president before.” (He then removes and cleans off the knife.) His answer, like Clinton’s, is unsatisfying because he, too, ignores the process question. His central claim is that he can’t believe we won’t or can’t do these things – hey Bern, you and me both – but unfortunately restating your agenda is not a defense of its capacity for enactment.

8:10 Clinton assures us there is no disagreement between them on universal health care. “The disagreement is where do we start from and where do we up.” She levels the accusation she has been making on the trail – that Sanders would have us start all over again, catalyzing a “contentious national debate that has very little chance of succeeding.” Sanders calls bullshit on the “start all over again” charge. He’s believable – surely nobody thinks he’d unravel Obamacare while trying to push single payer – but his angle here would be more compelling if he could persuade us he has the working leadership chops to make progress. Not there yet, and frankly not sure how he ever gets there.

8:12 Moderator Rachel Maddow asks Clinton to respond to statements by Sanders on the trail that she is too conservative and not sufficiently progressive. She throws out that progressive=progress trope again (drink). Needs to lose that, but then she offers up a strong, forceful answer with specific examples to make the point that a “progressive” litmus test would problemetize the lefty cred of several prominent liberals, including Sanders himself. Donning his cranky man pants, Sanders replies with a strident minilecture on “the reality of American economic life today.” It’s a short version of his stump speech, it gets lots of applause, but it has little to do with the question.

8:16 Chuck Todd asks if Obama would meet Sanders’ test of progressivism. Sanders reminds us that this whole conversation about Clinton’s liberal bonafides emanates from her own statement describing herself as a moderate. (So “moderate” is now a devil term like “child molester”?) He then goes on to say that he thinks Obama despite several non-progressive proclivities (on things like trade) is a progressive. Doesn’t say whether Martin Van Buren was also.

8:18 Clinton humble brags about the scars she has from health care battles in the early 1990s. Uses that to reject attacks on her for “where I stand and where I’ve always stood.” Says let’s talk about actual differences regarding what we’ll actually do. Sanders reply: you want differences? Fine I’ll give you differences. I’m the only one on this stage with no SuperPac and the only one not raising Wall Street money. Clinton, not amused to say the least, shoots him the dagger-glare across the split screen.

8:20 Asked how he can lead the Democratic party if he isn’t a Democrat, Sanders says a whole bunch of words and sentences that add up to, essentially, “well I am now so get over it.”

8:22 Clinton, apparently starting to let Sanders get under her skin, borrows his cranky pants and humble brags about all the Vermont Democrats who have endorsed her. Sanders concedes that she represents the establishment while he represents ordinary people. They both seem to be yelling at us now. I turn down the TV volume a few notches.

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Bernie: not enchanted by Hillary’s efforts to paint herself as smear victim.

8:24 Clinton muses that it’s “amusing” for someone running to be the first woman president to be seen as “exemplifying the establishment.” It’s a sharp little quip that gives rise to a very sharp exchange. Bernie returns the volley with the observation that having your SuperPAC raise $15 million from Wall Street in the last quarter = “establishment.” Goes on to decry the extent to which “big money controls the political process in this country.” Clinton riposte is the classic frame-it-as-a-personal-attack gambit: he is using “innuendo” and “insinuation” to create an “attack” suggesting that anyone who takes speaking fees from special interests has to be “bought.” Scolds Sanders: “attacks by insinuation are not worthy of you” and oh by the way “you will not find that I changed a view or a vote because of any donation that I received.” Probably should have stopped there but she’s on a roll, so she directs him to “end the very artful smear” you have been carrying on and talk about issues. That draws “ooohs” from the crowd. She’s forceful (and clearly pissed) but has she overplayed her hand?

8:28 Sanders says fine you wanna talk about issues let’s talk about issues, and then goes on to recite the litany of progressive policy goals that are obviously obstructed by corporate contributions and lobbying. Clinton replies that no person in political life has had more special interest money spent againts her than her. Virtually yelling now, she pulls a Sanders vote from 2000 on derivative deregulation out of her pocket. Puts him on his heels a bit with that one. We go to a commercial break, giving the network a welcome chance to hose down the candidates.

8:37 Asked about her big speaking fees that she has been struggling to explain, Clinton claims with a straight face that Wall Street was paying her big bucks to tell them before the recession that “they were going to wreck the economy because of these shenanigans with mortgages.” Convenient that nobody can produce any tapes to prove such a thing. “I have a record, I have stood firm” and I’m the one who can prevent them from wrecking the economy again.

8:40 Invited to respond, Saunders goes full Bernie on Wall Street as death star. Gives full throated attack on power and corruption in rigged system. Clinton replies that she’s the one with actual plans to fix it. Her strategy tonight is at every turn to grab onto Sanders anger, and assert that she will act on it. It’s an effective rhetorical approach in large part because Sanders isn’t prepared to challenge her assertions. On Wall Street power and the economy the fact is they agree on the essentials.

8:46 Chuck Todd asks Clinton if she would release transcripts of paid speeches to corporate groups. (Translation: if you want us to believe you accepted six figures from Goldman Sachs for telling them they are ruining the economy we’re going to need some proof.) Clinton replies “I will look into it.” (Translation: when hell freezes over.)

8:47 Clinton is talking about all the evil companies she wants to “go after.” If Sanders has done nothing else with this campaign he has turned her into at least a good imitation of an anti-corporate economic populist. Sanders replies that “the business model of Wall Street is fraud.” Strong stuff. Sort of true, sort of not. He oversteps here. Clinton wisely doesn’t refute, instead pivoting to the personal – people she’s met who have lost homes. Says she wants to “take back the power and increase the empowerment” of the people. This is a bit of a stretch. Let’s face it: the Clintons are the power, not a force that will “take it back” (whatever that means).

8:51 Sanders admits in reply to a question that there are good corporations, then hastens to add that there are also corporations that chew on babies and then spit the remains out into waterways as organic pollutants.

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Hillary shows Bernie her “you don’t know squat about foreign policy” smugface.

8:55 Foreign policy. After the previous lengthy exchanges in Sanders’ corporate bashing wheelhouse, Hillary sports a smug and confident “now we’re on my turf, grandpa” look. And we are. She talks foreign policy with the steady substance of a former Secretary of State. It’s hard for Sanders to argue with, and he doesn’t, resorting instead to reminding us that he opposed the Iraq war she voted for. Credit to Clinton for owning the vote rhetorically and trying to redirect the conversation to the present.

Sanders’ challenge on foreign policy is that his approach to present-day difficulties don’t really differ significantly from Clinton’s, and (to his credit) he isn’t inclined to manufacture artificial contrasts that don’t really exist. Just as he is more authentically effective at articulating full-throated economic populism, she is better at discussing the issues and nuances of our foreign entanglements. So what we get is a civil and somewhat interesting discussion of world affairs between two people of similar mind and sentiment.

9:04 Sanders articulates a “doctrine” of multilateralism and restraint. Clinton turns on him a bit, showing off her geopolitical knowledge and suggesting some naivete on Sanders’ part. “This is a big part of the job interview” that we are conducting with the voters of New Hampshire. Sanders (refreshingly) concedes that Clinton has more experience than him, but then reprises the Iraq war vote as a test of “judgment” rather than experience. Clinton avers that O wouldn’t have made her Secretary of State if she didn’t have judgment. Throws around the “ready on day one” thing. Doesn’t mention whether it’ll happen at 3 am.

9:08 Sanders tries to find some daylight between the two of them on approaches to negotiation with foreign adversaries, but has difficulty as Clinton lectures him how things “really work” (a rebuttal that is effective but would be even more so without the self-satisfied facial expression).

9:13 A similar dynamic on Russia: Sanders is reasonable and sensible; Clinton is reasonable and sensible, but also informed, substantive, and strategic. On foreign policy she pretty much cleans his clock. Wonder how long until he mentions her Iraq war vote again.

9:15 Rachel Maddow takes pity on Sanders by throwing out a softball question on veterans and possible privatization of the VA. Sanders being a former chair of Senate committee on veterans affairs hits this one out of the park.

9:22 Evidence that 80 minutes is long enough for this debate: At minute 82 Chuck Todd is asking the candidates what they think about a possible audit of the Iowa caucus results. Both candidates agree that they’ve never heard of Iowa and have no idea what Chuck is talking about.

9:25 Further evidence: Rachel Maddow asks Sanders if as nominee he will be “destroyed” in the general just like Barry Goldwater and George McGovern. Sanders gives a long-winded answer that adds up to some form of “no” though frankly it’s not clear he has convinced himself. Asked to comment Clinton heaps praise on the Sanders campaign knowing that as she is speaking these words a Clinton campaign worker is out in the parking lot letting the air out of the tires of the Sanders campaign bus.

9:30 Chuck Todd takes Clinton out for a spin around Scandal Harbor on the good ship Email. Clinton speaks of a new development in what she deftly calls “the email matter” – reports that former Secretary of State Colin Powell and aides to former Secretary Condelezza Rice used private email accounts. Calling the issue an “absurdity,” Clinton makes a clearly pre-planned Sherman statement about the whole email affair: “I have absolutely no concerns about it whatsoever.” Nice to hear but one imagines that lots of Democrats likely still have plenty of concern. Sanders declines to take response bait; celebrates his own restraint, yielding applause. Comes off as a bit of a self-aggrandizing moment for the gentlemen from Vermont.

9:34 Maddow is asking pointless questions about pointless inside baseball mini-controversies during the campaign. Your humble correspondent losing interest (and I have a remarkable tolerance for this stuff). So is Clinton, who when asked if she’d like to chime in just says “no.”

9:39 We go to the death penalty, which would be one kind of issue to raise in a GOP debate (who can kill the most people with the fastest dispatch and the nastiest methods?), but is a more interesting subject in a conversation with two intelligent Democrats. Clinton is ok with it, citing McVeigh and Oklahoma City as an appropriate context for the federal death penalty, but expressing skeptism about states that do it badly. Sanders takes an abolitionist position across the board, so they differ philosophically on this.

9:42 Flint. Very bad we all agree.

9:46 Trade. Clinton is put upon  to defend her flip-floppery on the Trans-Pacific Partnership. Sanders has to explain whether he opposes all trade. We’re deep in the wonk-weeds now.

9:50 The overlong debate format favors Clinton on optics: After an hour and a half Sanders looks the part of an old guy getting tired, while Clinton (no spring chicken herself) somehow manages to keep the fresh going. If I needed someone to plead for my life and could only choose between two people who had just spent the prior 100 minutes debating at podiums under TV lights, Clinton would get the nod hands down.

9:55 Chuck Todd tries to force both of them into prioritizing major issues once in office. It’s a dopey time-filler question and nobody cares about the uninteresting answers they offer.

Verdict: Clinton has generally fared well in debates and this one is for the most part no exception. Though she remains awkward and defensive on the matter of her corporate speaking fees and gives ground to Sanders on economic populism, she makes up for it with her advantage on foreign policy. Sanders is solid on the (domestic) issues he knows best, but does he please crowds other than those he already has in the fold? I’m not so sure. One imagines that his big New Hampshire polling lead will contract a bit as Tuesday approaches, but he’ll be okay as long as it doesn’t shrink much. The real question is what happens after Tuesday: Can Sanders expand his base of support so that he can become competitive in a state that doesn’t border Vermont? For Clinton the near-term goal is to lose less badly than expected in New Hampshire and move on, and the debate may well have  helped her some. The longer term goal is to not get indicted for email mayhem.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Dem Debate Recap: Fascism, Fusion, and Bed Bugs

DemDebate1There were some marked similarities between Sunday’s Democratic presidential debate (which you can watch here but why bother when we did it for you?) and last week’s GOP dustup. Both took place on shiny red, white and blue festooned stages in South Carolina with enthusiastic live audiences; both had two moderators; and both featured at least one candidate whose perseverance in the race is kind of delusional. There were also some differences: With only three in the race each of the Democratic candidates had about double the individual airtime on average; the Dem format included the precious if pointless distraction of questions posed by “YouTube stars”(no, not cats or babies, just a few hand-picked fresh-faced millennial liberals); and last night there were decidedly fewer promises to solve America’s problems by arming ourselves to the teeth and carpet bombing anything that moves.

Let’s go to the highlights…

8:05 Responding to an opening question about priorities in the first 100 days of their administrations, the three candidates collectively hit jobs, wages, health care, equal pay, the decline of the middle class, voting rights, climate change, labor rights, immigration. Whew … that’s a mighty busy 100 days. No wonder they’ll have no time to drop bombs. Martin O’Malley (guy on the left with the polka dot tie) out of the gate promises a “100% clean electric energy grid” by the year 2050. I want in on that grid! Oh wait I’ll probably be dead. Cancel that want in.

8:10 We go right to guns. Hillary Clinton has been coming at this issue hard in recent days, using Bernie Sanders’ past votes to open up some daylight between them. Moderator Lester Holt tries to pin Sanders down on whether he is backing off prior support for a liability shield for the gun business. A well-prepared Clinton puts on her grim face and responds with a litany of the implications of Sanders’ votes for the presence of guns in lots of public contexts. Although Sanders has been responding on this for several days, as he does here, with a boast that his voting record gets a D-minus from the NRA, his handling of this issue has been and remains clumsy. His jumbled mix of defensiveness and nuance doesn’t play well. Holt’s follow-up — “but you did change your position, right?” – shows that Sanders is dancing on guns, and it turns out he’s not a very good dancer.

8:14 On crime and violence we get a pretty clear illustration of why Sanders turned out to be more of a problem for Clinton than her campaign anticipated. Clinton uses the passive voice: “There needs to be a concerted effort” to deal with racism in the justice system. Sanders is far more direct: “We have a criminal justice system that is broken.” It’s not clear that he has better concrete ideas on what to do about this, but on this as on many other issues, he does frame the subject and its significance in a more stark and compelling way.

8:17 Holt the moderator turns to Sanders: So then why do polls have Clinton beating you like a drum among minority voters? Sanders responds with a bunch of numbers about how great he’s polling (including how he does better against Trump in a hypothetical matchup). He’s channeling Trump: why answer a question when you can brag about poll numbers?

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Hillary, not feeling the Bern.

8:31 We turn to health care, another place where there is some daylight between Clinton and Sanders. He’s been talking up a single-payer system, and over the weekend released details about how he’d fiddle with taxes to make it happen. Clinton, positioning Obamacare as a path to universal health care, frames what Sanders wants as an unraveling of ACA that plays into Republican hands. Sanders, citing his usual (and accurate) facts about how poorly the U.S. healthcare system compares with other countries on cost and universality, argues that ACA doesn’t get us there. Clinton replies with a big Obamacare bear hug, accuses Sanders of wanting to tear it up, and cautions that relitigating health care at a national level is just not a shitstorm we should walk into. Sanders, while correct in his analysis of the limits of Obamacare, hasn’t found a way to explain effectively why it’s worth opening the political spigot that Clinton fears to push for dramatic but very longshot (to say the least). They go toe to toe on who Harry Truman would side with in this conversation. Disappointingly, Martin O’Malley fails to jump in with a Harry Truman impression to settle the question. He does, however, mention how great things are in Maryland. Everyone moves to Maryland for the next question.

8:44 First of the YouTube questions: a young guy with interesting hair asks how you will you engage my generation? All three candidates speaking in unison point out that no matter what we say or do you punks don’t vote so although we pretend to care about your concerns and we spew nice things from time to time about millennials and jobs and students loans, we actually have no interest in your concerns because you’re not going to vote anyway. Moderator Holt follows up asking Clinton why Sanders is beating her 2:1 among younger voters. She replies “like I could give a shit because they won’t vote anyway.”

Ok none of the stuff in that last paragraph happened expect the first part with the interesting hair and the question, and Holt’s follow-up, but you didn’t need thought bubbles on the screen to know that’s what the candidates and their consultants were thinking.

8:52 On to banks and the financial system. Sanders boasts (or maybe laments is the right word) that “I don’t get personal speaking fees from Goldman Sachs.” Returning to the dead president motif, he invokes Teddy Roosevelt who would break up the big banks. Clinton decides it’s time for another Obama bear hug, slams Sanders for calling Obama weak on this issue, and portrays Dodd Frank as the greatest piece of lawmaking since the Magna Carta. Sanders replies that the drafters of the Magna Carta did not take speaking fees from Goldman Sachs. Clinton says my plan is tougher than your plan, and besides Karl Rove is running Wall Street-backed ads against me so you know my positions on this must be bad-ass. O’Malley jumps in to accuse Clinton of speaking untruths. She replies that O’Malley nuzzles at the teat of Wall Street campaign finance just as much as she does (though she doesn’t quite put it that way).

The problem with this whole exchange is that while it is somewhat substantive on an important subject, the viewer gets little sense of how they would actually differ concretely in their approach to it going forward. They are arguing about who is tougher and meaner at the task of uttering sentences about how unpleasant greed in the financial sector is, but they aren’t saying much about what they would do going forward (except for O’Malley who does mention reinstating a form of Glass-Steagall … you go Marty.)

9:00-9:15 They talk for a while about how they are going to pay for all the nifty liberal stuff they are promising on the campaign trail (short version: “I’ll pay for it, trust me”) and then chat for a bit about climate change (short version: “it’s bad, trust me”).

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This guy was there, too.

9:16 And it’s foreign policy time! Everyone here pretty much defends the Iran deal. It’s a stark contrast with the Republicans last week, who all think it’s the worst deal since the Magna Carta, which apparently didn’t thrill them, and who all pledged to cancel both the Iran deal and the Magna Carta “on day 1.” Everyone here also more or less defends Obama policy toward ISIS, rejecting the idea of deploying ground troops. Sanders does a nice job of identifying “perpetual warfare” as something that is not such a keen idea. Clinton boasts that she has spent lots of time in the situation room. Sanders replies that he’s been in rooms in which there have been situations. O’Malley chimes in that he’s met Wolf Blitzer.

9:29 A question about Putin and Russia directed at Clinton – what’s up with that reset button thing you and Obama were into? Her answer is actually balanced and impressive. In general the Democrats do foreign policy nuance a whole lot better than the “wasn’t shock-and-awe the best thing ever” GOP. Think of it this way (if you’ll forgive an inappropriately gendered metaphor): Repubs on a debate stage talking foreign policy want to compare the size of their sexual organs; Dems prefer to muse about shape and texture.

9:39 On domestic terror Clinton says our first line of defense against lone wolf attacks is Muslim Americans. Recall that last week Marco Rubio said our first and last line of defense are the guns we can buy anywhere anytime with no restrictions. O’Malley offers up a riff that weaves Donald Trump’s fascism, fusion, and bed bugs into a single response. Not sure I caught the point, but I do admire the man’s range and versatility (and no, those are not metaphors for shape and texture).

9:50 In closing statements Clinton commendably brings up the water crisis in Flint, Michigan and calls out that state’s governor for not giving a damn. Sanders seconds that emotion, demanding the governor resign. O’Malley talks about a “threshold of a new era of American progress” that seems to involve detention camps, hedge funds, and Puerto Rico. I do believe I am guilty of not paying enough attention when he is talking.

Verdict? One thing we have learned over the last few months is that Clinton does well in these debates, lacking Sanders’ populist passion, sure, but commanding a broader issue sense and depth (especially on foreign policy). The Democratic Party’s decision to schedule relatively few debates airing at odd times has pretty much backfired if the idea was to smooth the way for Clinton. What it has done is limited her chances to beat Sanders back. While Bernie is effective at framing systemic issues and conveying outrage about them, he is less effective at charting a governing agenda that might actually happen. To be fair, Clinton isn’t so good at that either, but there’s less of an onus on her to do so because she isn’t advocating for revolutionary change; she’s running for a third Obama term. That was on clear display last night. One imagines that reminding everyone that she is the bigger Obama clone perhaps helps her with late deciders in Iowa and New Hampshire, so in polling terms in early states last night may stanch the bleeding a bit. Nationally, where her substantial polling advantage over Sanders has been more durable, last night probably changed little.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


GOP Debate Recap: Lost in the Exoatmosphere

DemDebate1Live from South Carolina last Thursday it was a whopping three and a half hours of Republican fun and frolic on the national stage (assuming the Fox Business Network which almost nobody ever watches qualifies as “national”). What, you forgot to tivo it? No problem … We watch the GOP debates so you don’t have to!

Once again the evening began at the cocktail hour with an undercard of the also-rans … a testament to pluck and grit and perseverence (if you’re Rick Santorum, Carly Fiorina, or Mike Huckabee), or perhaps to the enduring power of self-delusion (if you’re a sentient being able to comprehend a poll). So did we learn anything new from the kids table?

We learned that quickly and peacefully defusing that dustup with Iran in the Persian Gulf earlier this week is Fiorina’s idea of a foreign policy failure. (Seriously, she said that.) We learned that Santorum is the candidate who will protect Citadel undergraduates from the spector of Islamic jihad. We learned that Huckabee has bought guns, lots and lots of guns. We learned that Santorum has a fantasy that mass deportation will trigger a Central American economic and cultural renaissance. (Seriously, he said that.) We learned from Fiorina that it’s time to take our future, our politics, and our country back, though she didn’t say if that’s for a full refund or just store credit.

We learned it is possible to assemble an audience so hostile to moderation that they actually audibly booed background checks for gun purchases – and then applauded a Fiorina hallucination that polls showing overwhelming support for background checks are wrong. And so we learned that Rand Paul’s decision to bag the kids table entirely made him the smartest guy in the room – or he would’ve been if he were in the room. Which he wasn’t.

Okay that was all good clean warm-up fun, but on to the main event. Let’s go to the tape…

8:05 Cruz opens the festivities by indicating, if I’m processing his agitation correctly, that he’ll bomb the hell out of a country that detains a few of our soldiers who stray into their territory rather than have them release our soldiers.

8:08 Kasich talks in rational terms about his experience and how it informs his approach to the economy. Nobody pays attention.

8:10 Christie gets things back on track by talking about how crazy it is that the Obama administration thinks it’s a good thing that the Iran situation this week was quickly resolved.

8:12 Bush, playing the hyperbole card early, asserts that under Obama “every weapon system has been gutted.” Frets about advance of China and Russia. Reeks desperation. Knows better.

8:15 Rubio declares that Hillary Clinton is summarily “disqualified” from being president. Pivots into Obama as Chamberlain, segueways into uberhawk mode. Promises to kill, capture, imprison everyone. Nice Marco has left the building.

8:17 We take a break for some of Ben Carson’s unparalleled performance art. He tells us we have enemies attacking our exoatmosphere. Yes, the exoatmosphere. Pledges free brain tumor surgery for all. Or something.

8:19 Trump on migration from Syria: Where are the women? They are all strong young men. Unexpected homoerotic turn here. How will it poll?

FoxBizChannelDebate28:20 Cruz accuses the New York Times of doing a “hit piece” when it ran a story this week showing he failed to disclose big loans in his Senate campaign. Blame the messenger — works every time, even when you end up admitting (as he does) that the Times story is accurate.

8:27 Cruz, responding on the birther business, pokes Trump with fancy talk about different theories of natural born citizenship. Trump replies by bragging about poll numbers and uses the occasion to make it clear he will never pick Cruz as running mate. Doubles down on the birther question, promises not to make a legal issue of it, but predicts Democrats will.

8:32 Cruz replies that he’s spent his entire life arguing things in front of the Supreme Court. Conjuring image of toddler Cruz at the lecturn arguing an abortion case. Throws Harvard Law Professor Lawrence Tribe under the bus as a left-wing commie. Offers Trump the VP slot. (Those who think that Prof. Tribe is arguing that Cruz can’t be president are missing the point and need to read Tribe’s piece.)

8:34 Rubio gets things back on track by reminding us that the U.S. is the greatest country in the history of this or any other galaxy, and reminding us that Barack Obama hates America, the constitution, the military, capitalism, education, cute children, chicken parmesan subs, and other things that many normal people like.

8:38 Rubio: Chris Christie is a bad man who gave money to Planned Parenthood and supported Sonia Sotomayor for the Supreme Court. Christie replies: “I never wrote a check to Planned Parenthood” and “I didn’t support Sonia Sotomayor.” (He deftly elects not to mention at this juncture his 1994 statement that “I support Planned Parenthood privately with my personal contribution” and his 2009 comment about Sotomayor that “I support her appointment to the Supreme Court.”)

8:42 Carson exoatmospherically points out that if a progressive is elected and gets to appoint a few Supreme Court justices, “this nation is over as we know it.” Blinks once or twice.

8:51 The moderators realize that Bush is still on the stage for some reason so they ask him a question about guns. Bush touts his A+ NRA rating. Comes out courageously for mental health. Silently wonders if his DVR is recording Conan.

8:54 Trump joins gunfest 2016: “guns don’t pull the trigger, it’s the people that pull the trigger.” Fails to grasp that the whole point of things like background checks is to vet the people pulling the trigger.

8:56 Rubio: “If this president could confiscate every gun in America he would.” Pivots to ISIS and holds up the Second Amendment as the only thing keeping them at bay. Wow, even moderator Neil Cavuto is taken aback by this (and it takes a lot to take aback a Fox moderator). Rather than position himself as a rational or establishment alternative, Rubio has apparently decided the way to beat Cruz is to be Cruz.

8:58 Christie calls Obama “a petulant child.” Glances at smartphone to see incoming “takes one to know one, dude” text from O.

9:02 Moderator asks Cruz what he meant recently referring to Trump’s “New York values.” (Your humble correspondent, a native New Yorker, is fascinated to learn that in Cruz’s New York we worship Stalin and eat puppies.) Trump, taking offense, aims a watergun full of 9/11 pride juice at Cruz’s face, aims, fires, hits the target square on. Cruz, smirking, shuts his piehole for now.

9:10 Back on foreign policy, Kasich (remember him?) calls on Saudi Arabia to stop doing everything that has defined their regime for the last half century. Yeah that seems realistic.

9:15 Carson, asked in the actual debate if he thinks ground troops are needed to fight ISIS, says we should ask military leaders what they want and just give it to them. Carson, asked in my fantasy debate if he has even a glimmer of an understanding of the concept of civilian control of the military, falls asleep and is never heard from again.

9:19 Trump, invited by the moderator to revisit his Muslim exclusion notion, declines. Reminds us that all of his “great Muslim friends” appreciate his anti-Muslim bigotry. Bush jumps in with a rationality break, making common sense points about the geopolitical hazards of Trump’s proposal. Rather than letting Trump respond, moderator Cavuto goes after Bush, who just can’t catch a break.

9:24 Moderator Maria Bartiromo polls the field on Trump’s exclude-all-entering-Muslims idea. Kasich, no. Christie, no. Bush, no. Rubio, no (I think he said no but he also said as President he’ll stop anyone from entering the U.S. if he doesn’t know why they are entering, which will probably take up a lot of his time.) Cruz, no (but whose got the time because I’ll be busy bombing the shit out of everyone). Carson, not sure he understood the question. Not sure he knows where he is or why.

9:31 We’re onto trade. Trump on China: “I hate those fuckers.” Ok he didn’t actually say that, not in so many words anyway. Calling himself a “free trader” Trump lays out an aggressively protectionist agenda, fails to see the paradox. Would undoubtedly declare it the best paradox ever if he did see it.

10:34 Kasich says sensible, moderate things about trade and manufacturing. Nobody listens.

10:36 Rubio, suddenly remembering that he hasn’t been out-Cruzing Cruz for a good 15 or 20 minutes, jumps in to say that ditching Obamacare is a way to deal with China. Seriously, he said that.

9:38 Trump pivots to Japan: “I hate those fuckers too.” Fortunately he’s friends with Carl Icahn, who can whip them into shape in trade negotiations. And that’s pretty much his trade policy: Carl. Note to file: call Carl after the debate and see if he’s on board with this.

9:39 Trump calls Jeb weak; Jeb calls Trump wrong; Trump lectures Jeb; Jeb looks visibly aggrieved but lets it go; wonders who Conan’s guests are tonight. Jeb is not good at this.

9:45 On tax policy and infrastructure, Christie gives an answer that is concrete, substantive, coherent. Heads explode throughout the hall.

9:48 Carson is asked how he’ll stop companies doing tax inversions and moving operations out of the U.S. His answer, focused on flat taxes and government spending, reveals he has no earthly idea what he is being asked or why. He does manage to work in the phrase “evil government,” though, drawing some pity applause.

9:50 Trump jumps into the unlikely role of smart guy, mentioning inversion by name and calling it one of the biggest problems we have. What’s interesting, of course, is that most free-market Republicans aren’t particularly bothered by inversions. A reminder that Trump’s brand of populism has some progressive tinges to it.

9:51 Rubio goes after Cruz for favoring a European-style value-added tax. Invokes Reagan. Cruz responds that Rubio fails to understand his tax policy, and tries to one-up Rubio on the Ronnie-love front by invoking Reagan economist Art Laffer: “My proposal is endorsed by one of the most discredited economic thinkers of the 20th century” (or words to that effect).

9:55 Christie bullies his way in, tells Rubio to zip it, and blasts GOP Congress for “consorting with Barack Obama” to mess with Social Security.

10:03 On crime and violence, Christie reminds us he’s the only one on the stage who has killed criminals with his bare hands. Wasn’t this thing supposed to end at 10?

10:08 Finally, the Rubio-Cruz mano a mano everyone has been waiting for. Confronted with his past support of immigration reform, Rubio positions himself as an immigration hardliner who sees ISIS threats at every turn. Cruz calls Rubio a flip flopper. Rubio calls Cruz a flop-flipper (and calls Edward Snowden a traitor for good measure). Cruz cries mega-foul. Moderator calls time. Verdict: Rubio on points.

10:13 Bush on domestic security comes off as lucid, thoughtful, measured. That guy has no chance.

10:19 Closing statements. Enough already. Wasn’t this thing supposed to end at 10?

The verdict? Trump and Rubio helped themselves, mainly through effective rhubarbs with Cruz, which (to the extent those exchanges dominate next-day clips) makes it a questionable night for Cruz. Bush was measured and earnest, which of course means he probably did himself no good whatsoever. Ditto Kasich. Christie acquitted himself well enough but there just isn’t room in the field for two pushy blowhards, and Trump owns that space. And if anyone doubted that Carson is done, this was a 140-minute fork.

Remember when Scott Walker got out back in September, saying he was “being called to lead by helping to clear the race”? Time for whoever did the calling (God? Mrs. Walker?) to dial up a few more of these guys.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


Don’t Validate Trump by Spreading His BS

trumphairIt was surprising to see the usually reasonable and moderate Tennessean columnist Saritha Prabhu’s Sunday op-ed lending legitimacy to Donald Trump’s nativism, and rather disappointing to find her doing so with assertions about immigration that are factually false.

Allowing that Trump is trafficking in xenophobia and ignorance, Prabhu’s offers up an apologia that the Donald is “giving voice to the anxieties of many people across the political spectrum.” He says things about immigration “that many independents and centrist Democrats are thinking.” While there may be some truth to this, Prabhu’s attempt to explain how Trump has supposedly tapped into some moderate political zeitgeist runs her off the rails into the same ditch of hallucination that is Trump’s home turf.

Prabhu: “Jobs are being lost due to globalization, technology and uncontrolled immigration.”

Uncontrolled immigration? Although the unauthorized immigration population grew rapidly during the 1990s and early 2000s, it dropped markedly in the couple of years after the recession and has been essentially stable for five years now. The number of babies born to unauthorized immigrant parents is also declining.

Prabhu: “Porous borders and uncontrolled immigration have got to stop.”

Porous borders? More Mexican immigrants have left the U.S. than have come here since the end of the recession, and the overall flow of Mexican immigrants is at its lowest level since the 1990s. The “immigrant share” (percentage born outside the U.S.) has dropped markedly over the last 15 years for Mexicans, Guatemalans, Colombians, Salvadorans, Cubans, Dominicans. There are fewer Mexican unauthorized immigrants living in the U.S. than there were in 2009.

Prabhu: “Our mainstream discourse has a kind of binary quality to it. For example, if you are against illegal immigration, you must be nativist.”

This observation rests on a foolish assumption: virtually nobody is actually in favor of illegal immigration. Prabhu seems to misconstrue nativism, defined as “the policy of protecting the interests of native inhabitants against those of immigrants.” Trump’s approach to immigration is precisely nativism, and by the way it is hardly mainstream: Recent polls show almost three quarters of Americans (including a healthy majority of Republicans) think undocumented immigrants currently living here should generally be allowed to stay, and only 17% favor deporting all immigrants here illegally. Two-thirds favor a path to citizenship.

The premise of Prabhu’s piece is not absurd: lots of pundits are struggling to explain Trump’s surge, and it isn’t off-base to surmise, as Prabhu does, that he is “giving voice to the anxieties” of some who are disaffected. But let’s keep in mind that on immigration Trump is giving voice to the anxieties of a rather small minority, and is doing so as a demagogue with a penchant for making shit up to suit the nativist narrative. Parroting inaccurate drivel about “uncontrolled immigration” doesn’t explain the beast; it feeds it.

A version of this post appears on the Nashville Scene‘s Pith in the Wind blog.


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