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?

DemDebate2

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”).

DemDebateMO

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.


Beacon Center v. Reality

In the wake of this morning’s King v. Burwell ruling, in this corner we have those health care denialists at the Beacon Center of Tennessee, quoted by The Tennessean:

“Obamacare has been proven to be unaffordable, unworkable, and unfair. We should not invite further consequences of this already failing law into our state by expanding Medicaid”

And in this corner, courtesy of data aggregated by the Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center, we have reality:

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The winner … you make the call.

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


Is Academic Freedom a License to Provoke Without Consequences?

Does academic freedom entitle university professors to be as provocative as they wish when expressing their views on issues of the day? This question has come alive with three recent cases involving professors making politically charged – some would say incendiary – statements on controversial issues.

The first case involves Steven Salaita, whose offer of a tenured appointment at the University of Illinois was rescinded because of charged comments he made on Twitter last year about Israel and its actions in Gaza.

Second is the case of Saida Grundy, a new professor of sociology and African-American studies at Boston University, who has been called out for contentious tweets about race.

Third is the matter of Jerry Hough, a chaired political science professor at Duke who penned what many saw as a racist diatribe in the comments section of a New York Times editorial about happenings in Baltimore.

The details of these situations differ, but there are common threads.

Each features a professor in hot water for speech delivered outside the confines of academic employment. Each involves expression that, while being objectionable to some, is constitutionally protected speech. Each has aroused the ire of stakeholders, such as students, colleagues, alumni and other interest groups. And as a result, each has forced university leaders to wrestle with a three-way collision involving academic freedom, free expression and institutional reputation.

These professors – like all of us in tenure-track academic appointments – are employees with jobs at universities that pay their salaries. So, one way to view these cases is through the lens of employment.

Within the larger landscape of worker rights in a free society, the tension between our right to speak as citizens and obligation to our employers as job holders is contested terrain – an issue I explore at length in my book on the legal, ethical and managerial dimensions of free speech in and around the American workplace.

The legal aspects of this subject are complex. The employment-at-will system of labor law in the US, which in the absence of a contract lets employers and workers terminate the arrangement at any time for any reason, means that private sector workers have virtually no free speech protections against employer wrath.

If your boss doesn’t like your off-work speech, even if it has nothing to do with your job or your employer’s business, you can be fired for it. For instance, consider the Alabama woman who lost her job in 2004 for having a John Kerry bumper sticker on her car in the factory parking lot.

Workers in public sector jobs have greater protections. In situations involving government rather than a private entity as the employer, Supreme Court rulings over several decades have upheld workers’ rights to speak on matters of public concern without risking their jobs.

A handful of states give workers in the private sector some of the free speech protection that government workers have through what are known as “lifestyle discrimination” statutes. These are laws that bar employers from punishing workers for off-work activity, including speech, that is legal and poses no significant threat to an employer’s business.

But these protections for government workers (and private sector workers in a few states) are enforced only up to a point. When someone fired for his or her speech files a lawsuit, the court weighs the worker’s right to speak against the employer’s right to a functional and efficient workplace. Analyses of case law indicate that courts are inclined to tilt the balance in favor of employers.

The public-private distinction is relevant to our three recent cases of professorial provocation. This is because one of the three – Salaita at Illinois – involves a public university.

After having his job offer rescinded, Salaita filed a federal lawsuit claiming that his rights to free speech and due process had been violated; a judge’s ruling on whether Salaita’s lawsuit can go forward is expected any day.

That kind of constitutionally based lawsuit isn’t available to Grundy at Boston University or to Hough at Duke since their appointments are at private institutions. Although Grundy and Hough cannot claim a constitutional infringement on their rights, they can appeal to the principle of academic freedom.

This is what distinguishes the occupation of professor from other kinds of employment: universities pledge (in the form of an implied contract) to respect professors’ free speech rights beyond what typical private sector job holders can expect, when they make academic freedom a foundational principle. And while happy to ordain and celebrate the lofty ideals of academic freedom, universities are also quick to couple them with cautionary caveats.

At Duke (where Hough is), the faculty handbook cedes to professors the right “to speak in his or her capacity as a citizen without institutional censorship or discipline.” Duke warns, however, that the right to “espouse an unpopular cause” carries with it “a responsibility not to involve the university.”

Making a similar pledge, the handbook at Boston University (where Grundy is) adds that a professor’s right to speak as a citizen carries “special obligations” to be accurate, exercise restraint and respect others’ opinions.

With reasonable-sounding but rather vague conditions like these, universities (both public and private) have reserved the ability to impose boundaries on outrageous expression that the professor might assume is protected by academic freedom.

Having crafted faculty employment policies as manifestos of mutual obligation, universities coping with professors who speak scandalously find themselves in the role of an arbiter of the boundary between freedom and responsibility.
And so it was that in blocking Salaita’s appointment, the University of Illinois Board of Trustees decided that he lacks the requisite “professional fitness to serve on the faculty.”

The trustees probably figure they can fend off Salaita’s lawsuit – a not unreasonable expectation, to judge by a new legal analysis showing that courts tend to side with university claims that a professor’s speech disrupts its academic mission.

Weighing the balance differently, Duke asserted that Hough’s comments are “noxious, offensive and have no place in civil discourse” but saw the remedy as encouraging others in the community to speak out when the university’s “ideals are challenged or undermined.”

Boston University acted similarly, respecting the professor’s “right to hold and express personal opinions” while adding “we’re offended by such statements.”

The question of when a professor’s provocation becomes actionable cause for termination is a hornet’s nest of subjectivity around the meaning of words like “offensive” or “bigoted” or “harmful” or “restraint.” A university that chooses to act against the professor – as Illinois did against Salaita – puts itself in the uncomfortable position of having to explain what these terms mean and where lines are drawn.

Instead of appeasing offended stakeholders by drawing lines in shifting sand, a more enlightened approach prioritizes a free exchange of ideas over the dubious judgment of a free-speaking professor. That’s the path Duke and Boston University are following: condemn the objectionable remarks while preserving the professor’s freedom to make them, leaving a verdict to the court of public opinion.

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.


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