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.


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.


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?


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”).


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.

Baldfaced Lies at the Legislature

I realize I’m becoming a bit of a broken record documenting the shameless lies and propaganda that dominate the Beacon Center of Tennessee’s messaging on “Insure Tennessee.” But since our state lawmakers insist on giving Beacon a platform to spread their nonsense, someone has to call bullshit. Consider it called.

At this morning’s Senate Health and Welfare Committee hearing on Insure Tennessee, committee members were shown this slide by the Beacon Center’s Justin Owen, who was appearing before the committee to describe the various forms of apocalypse that will ensue if the legislature approves Medicaid expansion.


Owen wants to argue that Medicaid expansion puts stresses on the system that end up harming the most vulnerable individuals already covered, and the slide was an attempt to suggest there there is evidence for this alarming prediction in the experiences other states that have expanded Medicaid. There’s just one problem with the slide: Every claim it makes is factually incorrect.

You see five claims in that slide. Let’s take ’em one by one.

Arizona – dropped coverage for transplants? It is true that Arizona made some drastic cuts that included reducing Medicaid coverage for some transplants, but this occurred in 2010, before Obamacare took effect and a full three years before Arizona actually approved Medicaid expansion in 2013. And oh by the way, Beacon doesn’t want you to know that Arizona restored funding for those organ transplants for Medicaid patients in 2011.

Arkansas – denied drugs for cystic fibrosis patients? It is the case that Arkansas’ Medicaid program last year decided to deny access to the drug Kalydeco, which costs around $300,000 per year, triggering a patient lawsuit. What the Beacon Center conveniently omits adding, however, is that a few months later a state review board comprised of doctors and pharmarcists recommended that restrictions on the use of Kalydeco be eliminated, a recommendation that the Arkansas Department of Human Services has said it intends to adopt.

Oregon – stopped coverage for cancer treatments? This claim has its roots in a bogus chain email that made the rounds in 2013. PolitiFact Oregon has thoroughly vetted this and rates it a “pants-on-fire” lie: “Older patients diagnosed with cancer need not worry that treatment will be rationed or denied under the Affordable Care Act. The claim is based on an inaccurate reading of a bill that went nowhere.”

Maine – stopped treating brain injury patients? It is preposterous to attribute any change in coverage in Maine to Medicaid expansion given the basic reality that Maine is not participating in Medicaid expansion. It’s governor Paul LePage has been an unyielding advocate of shrinking Medicaid, not expanding it.

Rhode Island – implemented premium for disabled children? This refers to a proposal floated by Rhode Island’s governor early last year that would charge a $250/month premium to parents with kids in the state’s Katie Beckett program for severely disabled children. What the Beacon Center conveniently neglects to mention is that state lawmakers scoffed, the premium proposal was scrapped, and if you visit the Rhode Island Katie Beckett eligibility page you learn that “There is no cost to families.”

That Beacon slide on display for Tennessee lawmakers this morning had no title. It need one: “Things in other states that didn’t happen but if I can fool you into thinking they did maybe I can scare you into opposing health insurance for the working poor.”

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

What Democracy Looks Like

Republicans around the country have put a lot of effort in recent years into enacting laws that limit voter access to the polls, with the GOP accelerating these vote suppression efforts in swing states in time for year’s midterm elections. So in other words, for the modern Republican Party, making it harder for people to vote (especially those who aren’t likely to vote for you) is what democracy looks like.

I stumbled onto a different view of what democracy looks like as I was ambling through Terminal 3 at Perth Airport in Western Australia last week. I happened upon Gate 22 — which had been temporarily converted into a polling place for early voting in upcoming state elections. Voting at the airport!


It is worth noting that Australia has a system of compulsory voting (if you don’t have an acceptable documented excuse for failing to vote you pay a fine), and that arguably obliges the government to make voting as readily available as possible. Also, Western Australia’s economy with its reliance on mining and energy spread over a large territory has a lot of so-called “fly-in, fly-out” workers who come and go to work by air for lengthy intervals. The opportunity for these workers to meet their voting obligation at the airport makes good sense, as Perth discovered in last fall’s Australian federal election.

It turns out, though, that airport voting isn’t unique to that western side of Australia with its mining economy; in the most recent federal election early voting sites were set up at major airports (Sydney, Melbourne, Brisbane, and others) in every Australian state.

In the U.S. right now, democracy (in the view of one major political party) means rigging public policy to keep people away from the polls. In Australia, democracy means creating opportunities to vote that reach people where and when they are. Making it hard to vote vs. making it easier to vote … hich smells more like real, functioning democracy?

[Plus in Australia you get to choose on the ballot among all these groovy political parties!]


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

Lamar Filibusters Reality

lamarupSeeking to fend off a tea-party primary challenger, Sen. Lamar Alexander has been warming up for 2014 by rebranding himself as hostile to the kind of pragmatic moderation that once framed his centrist political persona. With an op-ed in the Washington Post late last week assailing the move by Senate Democrats to do away with the filbuster on executive and judicial nominations, Alexander demonstrates he is also working hard to rebrand himself as hostile to facts and reality.

The Post piece is a model of intellectual dishonesty. Alexander says Democrats built the change in Senate rules on “filmsy excuses, many of which are untrue.” Let’s look at two of them. Lamar writes:

Excuse No. 1: President Obama’s appointees have been unfairly denied seats by failed cloture votes, or filibusters. According to the Congressional Research Service, no Supreme Court nominee has been defeated by filibuster in the Senate … The number of federal district judge and Cabinet nominees defeated by filibuster? Zero. Regarding sub-Cabinet nominees, there were two for President Obama, three for George W. Bush and two for Bill Clinton. That’s it. … As for appeals court judges, Republican filibusters have blocked five, but that happened only after Democrats first blocked five.

The dishonesty here is in the phrase “denied seats by failed cloture votes, or filibusters.” A cloture vote is a vote to limit debate, which effectively ends a filibuster. But filibusters don’t always (or even usually) end in cloture votes one way or the other. By measuring filibusters as a count of failed cloture votes, Alexander is not only dissembling, he is doing exactly what the very Congressional Research Service report (pdf) he cites tells him not to do. According to the CRS, it is “erroneous” to equate cloture motion outcomes with filibusters:

Filibusters can occur without cloture being attempted, and cloture can be attempted when no filibuster is evident. Often today, moreover, it appears that Senate leaders generally avoid bringing to the floor nominations on which a filibuster seems likely. In such cases there are no means by which to identify the merely threatened filibuster.

Cloture votes don’t tally filibusters, the CRS goes on to say, because “a filibuster is a matter of intent; any proceedings on the floor might constitute part of a filibuster if they are undertaken with the purpose of blocking or delaying a vote.” So a better measure of GOP obstructionism regarding Obama’s nominees is found in delay – the amount of time nominees wait for confirmation.

Alexander takes up this angle … and once again mangles reality:

Excuse No. 2: President Obama’s nominees have waited too long for confirmation. According to the Congressional Research Service, Obama’s second-term Cabinet nominees have been confirmed at about the same pace as those of Presidents Clinton and Bush. This year, the Senate has confirmed 36 of Obama’s second-term nominees to circuit and district courts, compared with 14 for Bush at this point in 2005.

The distortion here is really basic. Exploring whether nominees “have waited too long for confirmation” by comparing the raw number of confirmed second-term Obama appointments with the number for Bush at same point in his term is nonsensical since it fails to account for differences in numbers of vacancies and says nothing about actual time nominees have waited for Senate action. Actual data on confirmation delays tell the story Lamar doesn’t want you to hear:


Reasonable people can disagree about the merits of a filibuster rule that empowers legislative minorities to slow confirmations of executive appointments. Unreasonable people (like Lamar Alexander) can torture the facts to invent a false argument about the effects of such a rule.

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


Get every new post delivered to your Inbox.