Saturday, July 23, 2016

Trump Had A Terrible Convention And It Won't Matter

If you are a Republican hoping the Trump for President campaign would get its shit together, your just-concluded convention must have left you wanting. The week started with Trump’s campaign chairman dissing the Governor of Ohio and ended with the candidate reviving conspiracy theories about Ted Cruz’s father being involved in the JFK assassination. In between, Trump’s wife was accused of plagiarism, Ben Carson suggested Hillary Clinton consulted with Lucifer, and Antonio Sabato, Jr. called the President a Muslim. Through it all, the animating emotion was rage, the favored chant a full-throated “LOCK HER UP” in reference to Hillary Clinton, egged on and abetted by prominent Republicans like Chris Christie and Rudy Giuliani.

Once upon a time, Republicans leavened their fear-mongering with a patina of sunny optimism. Homages to lower taxes, less regulation, and a strong military could be relied upon to make their message go down smoothly. Reagan’s “Morning in America” and George H.W. Bush’s “Thousand Points of Light” have descended into Trump’s paranoid imagery of a country fraying at the seams. 

From the inner cities in the 1960s to the Soviet Union in the 1980s and terrorists in the 2000s, there was always some “other” to fear, but that has curdled into a sense of white grievance that now vilifies immigrants, people protesting police shootings, and of course, the twin evils of maybe-not-born-in-America Barack Obama and she-belongs-in-prison Hillary Clinton. Trump’s ranting acceptance speech - clocking in at 75 minutes, had the feel of a tinpot dictator, not a serious candidate for elective office, much less the highest one in the land. 

So why doesn’t any of this matter? It is really quite simple. Any Republican running for President starts off with 102 electoral votes from states they have won in the past six elections, 56 from states they have won five of the last six elections, and about 40% of the vote. The GOP has suffered four major landslide defeats in the last six elections, yet only George H.W. Bush failed to cross that minimum threshold and that was because Ross Perot, a third-party candidate, got 19% of the vote. Bob Dole (also hindered by Perot’s presence), John McCain, and Mitt Romney were all crushed, but they received 41%, 46%, and 47% respectively, of the popular vote. 

Trump’s problem is that securing the other 10% necessary to win the Presidency is both hard and expensive and he has not shown an inclination to do the work or raise and spend the money necessary to win. He is woefully ill-informed about the basics of governing, has no use for the analytics and get-out-the-vote effort that is needed on Election Day and is late to the game in fundraising. The Republican National Convention exposed the amateur-hour level of his organization and major donors are not opening their wallets as they have in previous years. Instead, he is relying on Twitter and appearing on cable TV to make up for his unwillingness (or inability) to generate the money needed to run a legitimate campaign for President. 

But again, none of this really matters because the race will be close simply because the electorate is not what it was in 1964, 1972, or even 1984 when huge swaths of one party’s voters abandoned ship and voted the other way. In 2008, the conditions for a Democratic landslide were about as favorable as they will ever be: the economy was in free fall, we were involved in two unpopular wars, and George W. Bush’s favorability rating hovered in the 20s. And even with that, McCain still scratched out 173 electoral votes and 46% of the vote. It was not a close race, but it was not the 49 state landslide that both Nixon and Reagan won or LBJ’s 44 state romp. 

What we will get for the next 100 days or so is an odd, mutually beneficial arrangement. Trump will pretend he is running an actual campaign for President even though he has none of the basic building blocks to do so and the press will pretend he has a serious chance of winning because to do otherwise would both expose his fraud, drain the contest of any suspense and destroy ratings. Enjoy!

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Wednesday, July 13, 2016

Hillary & Her Damn Emails

The collective media narrative is that FBI Director James Comey did severe political damage to Hillary Clinton in his public statements explaining why he and his investigators unanimously recommended against pursuing charges against the former Secretary of State. According to the media, his public statement on July 5th contradicted a number of Mrs. Clinton’s claims and he then provided hours of testimony on Capitol Hill two days later which made her look even worse.

The confluence of politics and the law is a tricky one - optics matter more in the former, facts in the latter. But what the media owes the public is accuracy and conflating Comey’s statements with the idea that Mrs. Clinton’s actions reinforce the belief she is untrustworthy is an editorial decision divorced from the facts in this case. Members of the media like to hide behind the idea that they are simply reporting on what polling or interviews with the public tell them, but this excuses their own responsibility for shaping that narrative.

Comey’s most sensational claim was that classified emails – that were classified at the time they were sent of received – were found on Clinton’s email server. This seemed to contradict Mrs. Clinton’s statement that she neither sent nor received classified email. Here is what Comey said:

From the group of 30,000 e-mails returned to the State Department, 110 e-mails in 52 e-mail chains have been determined by the owning agency to contain classified information at the time they were sent or received. Eight of those chains contained information that was Top Secret at the time they were sent; 36 chains contained Secret information at the time; and eight contained Confidential information, which is the lowest level of classification …

Separately, it is important to say something about the marking of classified information. Only a very small number of the e-mails containing classified information bore markings indicating the presence of classified information. But even if information is not marked “classified” in an e-mail, participants who know or should know that the subject matter is classified are still obligated to protect it.

Seems pretty scandalous right? But Comey was being a bit of a slippery lawyer. The “very small number” of email that were marked classified at the time turned out to be three – yes, three. Not three thousand, or three hundred, or even thirty, but three. In other words, one one-hundredth of one percent (.01%) of the roughly 30,000 email the FBI reviewed were marked as classified. It was not until two days later at Comey’s Congressional hearing, that we learned the rest of the story:

In short, contrary to State Department policy, which connotes an email’s classification in the header, here, the markings were buried somewhere in the email strings where they could have easily been missed. More importantly, it turned out these three email were improperly marked – a fact shared by the State Department within hours of Comey’s press conference.

So, none of the three email Comey mentioned in his press conference turned out to be classified. But what about the 110 emails that were classified at the time, of which eight were top secret? Again, the colloquy is helpful. None of those email bore markings showing they were classified. In other words, the State Department did not think these email were classified at the time, it was the FBI’s call after-the-fact. As Comey conceded, absent some notation in the heading of an email that the subject matter is classified, the recipient of the email could reasonably conclude it was not classified.

In any event, those eight email (out of 30,000) that were top secret? Seven had to do with drone strikes in countries where their leaders demand plausible deniability yet everyone knows attacks occur (e.g., Pakistan and Yemen). The other email was a run-of-the-mill description of a conversation with the President of Malawi. Yes, Malawi, a country few people even know exists and even fewer could find on a map.

In sum, the “small number” of email that bore classified markings were all in error and none of the other 110 email had markings. Of the eight (out of 30,000) supposedly “top secret” email, seven were on a subject widely reported on but kept secret solely to protect our allies and the eighth had notes on a conversation with a leader of a country no one has even heard of.

The other Comey statement getting a lot of attention is this one:

Secretary Clinton used several different servers and administrators of those servers during her four years at the State Department, and used numerous mobile devices to view and send e-mail on that personal domain. 

This comment seems to contradict one by Secretary Clinton that she used only one device. But here’s the thing. Comey never explained what he meant by “numerous devices.” Apple now has a program that lets you upgrade your iPhone every year. Are you using “multiple devices” when you go from the iPhone 6 to the iPhone 7? It may be that Comey and Clinton are both telling the truth in that she perceived swapping out her phones as using “one device” and he interprets that same action as using “numerous devices.” Is this really grounds for a perjury investigation?

This was bad enough, but Comey layered his own opinions (a real no no for an investigator and something, as a former U.S. Attorney, he should know better than doing) and speculation. There were two particularly egregious examples:

Given that combination of factors, we assess it is possible that hostile actors gained access to Secretary Clinton’s personal e-mail account.

Here, he engages in rank speculation without any factual support, a cardinal sin that any first-year law student would know not to do.

Although we did not find clear evidence that Secretary Clinton or her colleagues intended to violate laws governing the handling of classified information, there is evidence that they were extremely careless in their handling of very sensitive, highly classified information.

This little nugget ended up being one of Comey’s most quoted lines, but aside from suffering from the same opinion testimony any good prosecutor would know to avoid, taken together with the context of the rest of his statement, it is also untrue. As Comey would later admit, none of the email he considered classified were designated as such at the time and without the markings, a person could infer they were not confidential. So how is it that Secretary Clinton was “extremely careless” when less than 1% of her email were classified (not that she would have known that, as per Comey’s own statement!) and the three (out of 30,000) that had markings turned out not be classified at all. It does not make sense and it also supports Hillary’s statement that she neither received nor sent classified information – the documents Comey said were classified at the time either bore no markings to show that they were or had markings, but turned out not be classified at all.

For Comey, this whole episode is a perfect illustration of why prosecutors typically do not make statements when charges are not filed. We are all entitled to the presumption of innocence and that right is even greater when a criminal investigation concludes without evidence sufficient to charge us with a crime. When a prosecutor decides instead to inject his own opinion it denigrates an innocent person’s reputation for reasons that have nothing to do with a legal determination of their guilt or innocence.

For reporters, this is another in a long litany of examples this campaign season where they went with the sizzle instead of the steak. All of the information I wrote about above was readily available to them if they were doing their jobs and putting this type of context into their stories. Instead, as is more and more common these days, they skipped right past the facts and ran right for the political angle that reinforced their preferred narrative.

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Monday, July 11, 2016

Book Review - Seinfeldia

For a show about nothing, Seinfeld left a huge mark on television and popular culture. Its most memorable lines have been woven into our lexicon, the show’s sarcastic worldview is now omnipresent, and reruns continue airing more than eighteen years since the series finale. The only surprising part of Seinfeldia, Jennifer Keishin Armstrong’s love letter to Jerry, George, Elaine, and Kramer is that it took so long for someone to write a book about what remains one of television’s defining comedies. Armstrong writes with the passion of a super fan and the granularity of a Talmudic scholar. The book is littered with nuggets of trivia and an insider’s description of how television shows are made.

What began as Jerry Seinfeld and Larry David’s meditation on the daily annoyances we experience and the quirks and idiosyncrasies we all share blossomed into a cultural juggernaut. The show’s brilliance goes without saying and any fan will smile inwardly as Armstrong tees up descriptions of beloved characters or episodes. But at the same time, the darker underbelly is also exposed. Writers were mined for personal stories that were turned into plot points only to be jettisoned at the end of each season like discarded pods from The Matrix, the production schedule was grueling and oftentimes chaotic, and, as the show grew in popularity, the coziness it began with gave way to a more corporate feel. 

David’s departure after the show’s seventh season left Seinfeld and a room full of twenty-something graduates of Harvard’s Lampoon to fill out the show’s last two seasons with uneven material. In its waning days, Seinfeld suffered controversy from a ham-handed plot line involving the Puerto Rican Day Parade in New York City and contract disputes that made cast members look rapacious or saintly (depending on your point of view). David returned to pen the show’s finale, but it was widely mocked, even though it hewed closely to the characters’ venality and the show’s mantra of “no hugging, no learning.” 

But in its zeal to cover the forest and the trees, Seinfeldia suffers from editorial drift. While it is interesting to note the cottage industry that has sprung up in the show’s aftermath, be it in the autograph/photo appearances still being made by bit players or the where-are-they-know types like the actress who posed as Rochelle for an eponymous movie poster, that type of ephemera is not what separates Seinfeld from other parts of our culture. After all, from Comic-Con to Lebowski Fest, passionate fan bases blend the fictional worlds of beloved characters with their real-time experiences. Far more could have been said about David’s brilliantly conceived Seinfeld reunion within the context of his own show Curb Your Enthusiasm, but instead, that decision is given about the same amount of book space as a wholly uninteresting anecdote about a beef between the purveyors of dueling Seinfeld parody Twitter accounts.

As befits a show obsessed with comic books, Seinfeldia is at its strongest when telling the show’s origin story. There, a mix of luck, fate, and talent turned an idea hatched in a New York City diner into one of the defining television shows of its era. And while we now think of the iconic “Fab Four,” Seinfeld had its own Pete Best, the drummer before The Beatles hit it big. That would be Lee Garlington, originally cast as the lead female character, but written out in favor of Julia Louis-Dreyfus when the show got a miniscule four-episode order. Actors playing both Jerry and George’s fathers were replaced as well and the real Kramer signed away the rights to use his name for practically nothing. The show also benefitted from being shepherded through the development process in NBC’s late night/specials division, which was free from many of the constraints of the prime-time programming shop. And had NBC canceled the show in its early days (executives fretted it was “too Jewish”), Fox stood ready to swoop in and pick it up. As Armstrong notes, a great what if of TV history – Seinfeld and The Simpsons could have incubated together under the Fox banner.

Armstrong’s passion for her subject is clear and she gives a wonderful behind the velvet rope peek into the show and its stars, but ultimately, Seinfeldia does not know what it wants to be. Is it a straight-forward chronology and history of the show or a meditation on its impact on popular culture? It succeeds as the former, but falls short as the latter. To take one example, Dylanologists is a book Seinfeldia aspires to be – focusing on the passion of Bob Dylan fans. It is a book in full that allows the author to stretch and weave together Dylan’s story with those of his most ardent loyalists. Here, we only get a Cliff Notes version of that phenomenon.

None of this should take away from a person’s enjoyment of this book and reliving the Junior Mint episode, Sue Ellen Mischke (the braless wonder), or the Little Kicks. Of course, if you set your DVR, you can also just watch them for yourself.

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Monday, July 4, 2016

Book Review - Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me

Buried in the final paragraph of the penultimate chapter of his book Your Favorite Band Is Killing Me, Steven Hyden makes an interesting admission. While attempting to argue that the murders of Tupac Shakur and Biggie Smalls had the indirect effect of reducing early deaths among other music superstars of the day, he says “Overanalyzing pop rivalries is enjoyable escapism, because most of them are harmless.” He goes on to distinguish the Pac/Biggie beef because of its tragic consequences, but that observation is true of Hyden’s pithy, but minor tome. I get what Hyden is arguing for. I’m a Deadhead who would not attend a Phish show on a dare, but his attempts to extrapolate larger societal themes from supposed rivalries between the likes of Pearl Jam and Nirvana or Taylor Swift and Kanye mostly fails to launch. 

“Rock rivalries” are often less than the sum of the imagination of the fans who get invested in them. The Beatles vs. The Rolling Stones is a rock nerd’s touchstone, but fire up the Beatles performance of “All You Need Is Love” and you will see Mick Jagger, cross-legged and swaying along with the rest of the hippies grooving out to the soundtrack for the Summer of Love. The uncut version of Pulp Fiction has Mia Wallace asking Vincent Vega whether he’s an Elvis man or a Beatles man (because you cannot be both) but that type of self-identification is facile and often untrue. Hyden makes much of the enmity Kurt Cobain felt toward Eddie Vedder, but stylistically, the differences between Nirvana and Pearl Jam were minor, and I doubt many people would refuse to listen to one band because of their devotion to the other. 

What Hyden describes as rivalries are not Hatfield and McCoy fights; rather, they are just people who make music differently. Toby Keith was not at war with The Dixie Chicks, but the artists’ music reflected differing political agendas after September 11th. That does not make them rivals, it just makes them artists with different points of view. Madonna and Cyndi Lauper were not rivals any more so than Britney Spears and Christina Aguilara were battling to avoid being dubbed the latter or desiring to be crowned the former, yet Hyden spends a chapter trying to make these connections. Madonna’s supposed passing of her torch (with lips, not hands) at the 2003 Video Music Awards is pointed to as some sort of iconic moment - the camera freezes on Spears but misses Aguilara’s lip lock entirely - but the shape shifting that Madonna pioneered and perfected eluded both younger pop stars, who neither reached the heights of Madonna’s career nor the reductive, one-hit wonder dismissiveness many have of Lauper. 

Similarly, a long jag on Neil Young and Lynyrd Skynyrd is predicated solely on what were then perceived to be dueling diss tracks - Young, with “Alabama” and “Southern Man” and Skynyrd’s retort with “Sweet Home Alabama.” But Skynyrd’s relevance as a band died with three of its members in a plane crash in 1977 while Young went on to record dozens of albums of various musical formats (and quality) since then. Ironically, Hyden points out that Skynyrd’s original lead singer and Young were friendly and many have misinterpreted “Sweet Home” as defending Alabama, when in fact, that lyrics suggest otherwise. How this qualifies as a “rivalry” is beyond me. 

Hyden is strongest where the proof is most obvious - in grudges held by former bandmates from Van Halen to Pink Floyd. But squabbling among rock stars can only carry a book so far. David Lee Roth’s enmity toward the Van Halen brothers is as well known as the brothers’ dismissal of Michael Anthony for the high crime of playing gigs with former front man Sammy Hagar. Roger Waters and David Gilmour had a decades-long falling out but, like Roth and Van Halen, they found their way back to one another in the not too distant past (you can add Axl Rose and some of the original Guns N Roses line-up to that list as well). 

What you are then left with is stretching faux beefs, like the one between Sinead O’Connor and Miley Cyrus (seriously, does ANYONE even remember this?) into a larger point about what happens when a musician crosses an unwritten line, alienating their fans and torpedoing their career (O’Connor, by tearing up a photo of the Pope or The Dixie Chicks saying that they were embarrassed to be from the same state as President George W. Bush). But Hyden misses the mark on what could have been a different book. His knowledge of music is both granular and expansive, but instead of trying to elevate the music stylings of Prince and Michael Jackson into some meta theme, he should have just stuck with a more straight forward examination of the catalogues of the performers he writes about, discussing the strengths and weaknesses of each without trying to them into some deeper societal analogy. After all, as the saying goes, opinions are like assholes, everyone has one.

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Monday, June 27, 2016

Game of Thrones - Season Six

The sixth season of Game of Thrones was a Fourth of July fireworks display that began with the resurrection of Jon Snow and culminated with Cersei Lannister executing an “inside job” terrorist attack on the capital that destroyed her enemies and inadvertently elevated her to the Iron Throne. It was a lot to absorb. The show has always been ambitious, but this season embraced its cinematic tendencies and turned the dial up to eleven: Dothraki leaders burned alive, a set piece battle outside Winterfell with bodies piled thirty deep, Dany’s dragons unleashing hell on the Masters seeking to reclaim Meereen and of course, the poignant end for Hodor – one of, if not the most haunting image in a series rich in them.

The show has never shied away from spectacle, whether it was lopping off Ned Stark’s head, the weddings-cum-assassinations in Red and Purple, or the battles in Blackwater Bay or Hardhome, shit is always real in Westeros, but with the show pivoting towards its final bow, the immediacy of each new plot twist has become more acute. And while many of the jaw dropping moments from earlier seasons were known to book readers ahead of time, freed from George R.R. Martin’s text and perhaps nodding to fan criticism, the show runners made female empowerment the dominant theme this season. It was not just the ascendance of Cersei to the Iron Throne or Dany’s voyage to begin her invasion of Westeros, it was 10-year old Lady Lyanna Mormont flashing more swag than Kanye, Ellaria Sand burying a knife in Prince Doran’s heart, Yara Greyjoy refusing to accept the usurpation of her claim to the Salt Throne, Sansa Stark calling in the Knights of the Vale to steal victory from the jaws of defeat, Arya Stark embracing the lessons of cold-blooded assassination but in service of her own vendettas, and Brienne continuing to swing the biggest sword in the Seven Kingdoms. In season six, sisters were truly doing it for themselves.   

For a show that prides itself on spectacle, this season was exemplified by the many great conversations that, to borrow from Tyrion, took place in elegant (and not-so elegant) rooms. From Jorah and Dany’s parting to Brienne and Jamie’s reunion, the emotional high notes abounded. And this is where fans are truly rewarded. Sansa and Jon’s reunion is colored by regret and the deep scars we have seen each suffer. Lady Olenna’s dismissiveness of Cersei as she watches King’s Landing consumed by the High Sparrow’s strict orthodoxy is wrapped around a history that includes the former hatching a plot that resulted in the murder of the latter’s son and would end with the latter annihilating the former’s son and grandchildren in an explosion of wildfire. Having invested so much time into the cultivation of these characters, the small two-person scenes that dotted this season oftentimes packed more wallop than the grandest CGI display.

Of course, any show completing its sixth season will inevitably attract naysayers. Indeed, thought pieces suggested Battle of the Bastards was the show’s “jump the shark” moment for the apostasy of giving fans what they wanted – the brutal death of a vicious character and a victory for the good guys. And there may be something to be said for diminishing returns from constantly upping the ante, but do not tell me for one second you did not stare at the screen blankly as Tommen took a header out his window even as the flames rose from the destroyed Sept of Baelor.  Any TV show closer to its end than its beginning will inevitably find its universe shrinking; it is a simple matter of arithmetic. There is only so much time left to tell the rest of the story and like chess, the sport Game of Thrones is often compared to, there are fewer (but more important) pieces on the board at the end than the beginning.

Those chess pieces are now clearly established. Cersei is the queen of a rapidly sinking ship. She has alienated her house’s allies, all of her children are dead, and judging from Jamie’s look as she is crowned, may have lost him as well. Jon is “King in the North,” but it was Sansa who saved his skin and Littlefinger looms ominously in the background. Lastly, the idea of Dany as some sort of Westerosi Barack Obama bringing together a disparate coalition under a “Yes, We Can” umbrella is contra the show’s history but also contains an interesting piece of irony. The Mother of Dragons has now merged forces of the Dornish and the Dothraki, the Iron Born and the Unsullied, all in the name of taking down the Lannisters, yet her closest advisor is the brother of the current occupant of the Iron Throne. The kingdom has been in an almost perpetual state of war since the series’ inception, which makes Dany’s vision of a world left better upon her death both refreshing and a bit naive. After meeting Tyrion and musing about the various houses jockeying for power, Dany says that she does not want to stop the wheel, she wants to break the wheel; but restoring her family to power will merely reinvent it.

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Tuesday, June 21, 2016

Book Review - We Were Feminists Once

If there is one thing I have learned in my 45 years, it is that I do not understand women very well. So I came to Andi Zeisler’s We Were Feminists Once openly, objectively, and with interest in understanding more about a concept (feminism) with which I am barely familiar. I really enjoyed this book even though I realized how much I take for granted. I grew up around strong, independent women, and was taught, mentored, and supervised by them too. In college and law school, women were well-represented, and I have worked with and for women my entire professional career. I even live in one of the few states that offers paid family leave. I never sat in a Women’s Studies class or considered my role in the patriarchy, so I took for granted much of what Zeisler writes about.

Her thesis is that feminism, a concept that centers around actual equality – in wages, treatment, respect, and representation in business, politics, and culture – has largely been appropriated by consumerism. That flashing shiny objects of female empowerment through the lens of marketing, advertising, and celebrity worship has distracted women (and men, but more on us later) from the harder, less sexy work of securing reproductive rights, health care, equal pay and much more. When the battles being waged in popular culture focus on pubic hair, panty lines, and periods the battle has already been lost.

To those who study or came to this book with foreknowledge, I suppose much of what is contained between its covers is axiomatic. Marketing campaigns by brands like Dove and Cover Girl encourage women to love themselves for who they are while selling them products to hide, mask, or minimize the physical imperfections society tells them to. Listicles on the Internet whittle down “feminism” into lowest common denominator chunks while legislatures across the country restrict access to abortion or refuse to close yawning pay gaps. Celebrities are recruited into campaigns that encourage women to know their value, but the conferences and events held to promote this message are typically warmed over networking opportunities whose cost prices out the very people they want to help. And of course, the ever present existence of social media bombards women with ideas about who and what they should be – invariably, an ideal that all but the most accomplished and self-assured fall short of.  

It is a damning (and depressing) indictment. While it is not unique for movements to be appropriated for commercial gains (surely, sales of flannel shirts spiked in the early 1990s and the hippie movement in Haight-Ashbury was quickly co-opted to sell Volkswagens), Zeisler’s frustration comes through loud and clear because the stakes are so high. It is not just societal norms that feminism struggles against, it is the backlash from other women that invariably crops up as each wave of feminism crests against that stubborn wall of cultural resistance. In this way, feminism gets muddied up in battles between stay-at-home and working mothers, the back-and-forth on Facebook that defends or attacks choices women make where the most heated debate is among women themselves, and right-wing voices that long for a simpler time when women knew their role (servile, subservient, and silent).   

Of course, this does not even take into account the insult to injury suffered by women outside traditional cultural messaging. To be a Latina, African-American, queer, or bisexual woman, is to often suffer a double dose of marginalization. Whether it is being erased out of what society defines as normative or having your race or sexual orientation be treated as a point of derision or hatred, the challenges are even greater for these women.

The one group missing from much of this discussion is men. While we make a few cameo appearances in predictable places like how pornography has warped the male view of intimacy and the disgraceful treatment of Anita Hill, to dismiss the ability of men to be partners and champions for feminism seems like a lost opportunity, particularly if you are interested, as Zeisler appears to be, in making meaningful public policy changes.

Zeisler is remarkably well-read and her book is heavy with references to books, essays, and writers who have shaped feminism for nearly fifty years. She comes to her subject with honesty and a conversational writing style that easily moves the reader along. I would suggest Zeisler have a chat with her fact checker though, because there were two whoppers I noticed (political in nature, naturally). The first identified Bob Dole and not George H.W. Bush as Bill Clinton’s opponent in the 1992 Presidential race (p. 173) and the other lopped off a term of office for Barbara Boxer, who won a fourth term to the U.S. Senate in 2010, not a third (p. 213).  

To be sure, it will be interesting to see how Zeisler’s critique holds up. At the same time popular culture is pressing forward with the type of marketed feminism she disdains (the female-led reboot of the iconic Ghostbusters franchise, the ascendency of female characters on Game of Thrones) we also stand on the brink of electing our first female President. Time will tell whether having a President Hillary Clinton will result in some of the changes Zeisler desires, but it is surely more consequential than whether Danaerys takes over the Seven Kingdoms.

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Friday, June 17, 2016

Bernie Goes Bust

While his colleagues in the Senate were dominating the news cycle with a poignant and powerful filibuster in support of strong gun control measures, Bernie Sanders was holed up in Vermont, polishing remarks he delivered to supporters on Thursday night. The speech itself was familiar. A greatest hits of Bernie’s preferred policy positions and a call to arms for his people to get involved in the political process at every level of government. But for a guy who boasted of his online fundraising prowess and unexpected success during the primaries, his 23-minute speech landed with a thud. Although more than one million people registered for the online stream, at its peak, a mere 218,000 people viewed it and cable news quickly cut away as it became clear he was giving a glorified stump speech lacking a concession to Hillary Clinton.

The past few weeks have been unkind to the 74-year old democratic socialist. After camping out in California for weeks on end in the hope of winning that state’s primary, he got stomped, book ending a day that began with a 30-point blowout in New Jersey and the media’s designation of Clinton as the party’s presumptive nominee. Since then, Sanders has been further marginalized. A meeting with President Obama was quickly overshadowed by the President, Vice President, and Senator Warren’s endorsement of Clinton. As the nation reeled over the mass murder in Orlando, Sanders chose that time to issue his set of demands to the Democrats, including the removal of DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Instead of supporting his “fellow” Democrats during the aforementioned filibuster, Sanders skipped it. And through it all, he has refused to concede even as the few supporters he had in Congress abandoned ship.

All of these events would have been enough to shrink whatever leverage Sanders had before his crushing loss in California, but Donald Trump’s implosion has worsened his situation. As Trump has become unmoored – lashing out at a federal judge, claiming the President was somehow complicit in the Orlando attack, accusing soldiers of theft in Iraq – and polling shows a consolidation of Democratic support for Clinton and a steady erosion of Republican support for Trump, it is becoming clear that Sanders’s blessing is not nearly as important as it looked to be just a few weeks ago. Clinton now has a posse that includes a fired up (and very popular) Barack Obama, working class hero Joe Biden, progressive champion Elizabeth Warren, her husband (and still-popular ex-President) Bill Clinton, and whoever she selects as her running mate to eviscerate Trump and rally Democrats, Independents and sane Republicans. Bernie’s support would be helpful, but no longer appears necessary.

Sanders played a weak hand hoping to maximize his return, but he pushed too hard. Instead of quitting while he was ahead, he went all in and lost. Voting ended in California 10 days ago (no mention of Bernie’s 60 point loss in Washington, D.C. earlier this week is needed) and Sanders has shown no sign of getting with the program. He could have giving a gracious concession speech, pledged his full support to Clinton and called on his voters to do the same, all of which would have enhanced his standing in the party. But he did nothing of the sort.

This is telling. For whatever lip service Sanders pays to being a Democrat, his actions tell a much different story. He has now spoken publicly, and with meaningful media attention, three times without so much as gracious and heartfelt congratulations to Clinton or an acknowledgment that the campaign is over. On the most important topic of the day, when his voice could have added weight to Senator Chris Murphy’s filibuster, Sanders was AWOL. What we have seen instead is a refusal to admit defeat, a self-righteousness bordering on narcissism, and a delusional belief that a guy who registered as a Democrat for political expediency now thinks he can tell his newfound party what to do.

When Sanders does not get all he wants, or is denied things he thinks he is owed, do not be surprised when he takes his toys and goes home, which is fine by me. His allegiance to the party was only as strong as his potential to win the nomination. With that gone, and with his endorsers abandoning him, I fully expect Sanders to revert back to being an independent – which is what he has been in his heart the whole time.

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Saturday, June 11, 2016

Hillary's Veepstakes

Now that Hillary has wrapped up the Democratic nomination for President, all eyes are turning toward who she will pick to run with her. The candidate herself has been circumspect about the kind of person she is looking for with one important caveat - that the person she picks will be qualified to be President if anything happens to her. While this may sound like typical political pablum, this might be called the “Palin Bar” because the erstwhile Alaska Governor failed to clear that basic threshold. So, with that said, let’s look at the contenders: 

The Progressive Wet Dream

The name on everyone’s lips right now is Massachusetts Senator Elizabeth Warren. She is a firebrand who has shown a real zeal for attacking Donald Trump, a hero to the progressive left who was calling out the big banks for years, came up with what would become the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, and would join what would be the first-ever all-female Presidential ticket. These are not small things and, in its way, would emphasize a strength Clinton already has while checking the progressive box the media thinks Hillary needs to mollify the Sanders wing of the party. With that said, I do not think she will get the nod because most Democrats will “come home” to Clinton without her needing to spend political capital on her VP selection and the wonky succession rules if Clinton/Warren did win is a gamble Democrats may not want to take (though I do love the idea of John Kerry going back to the Senate in the special election that would be called within 160 days of Warren’s notice of resignation). 

Vice President White Guy

There is a strain of thought that Hillary should just grab a moderate white guy to stick on the ticket and help cut her deficit with male voters. Both Virginia Senators, Tim Kaine and Mark Warner, hurdle the Palin Bar as former Governors of the Commonwealth and Senators of some standing (Warner is also an independently wealthy former businessman and Kaine was the chair of the Democratic National Committee). They also hail from a swing state that if Hillary can lock down, would make Trump’s already improbable path to victory that much narrower. Either of these guys is a safe option though unlikely to set progressive hearts on fire. 

The Next Generation

If Hillary is looking for sizzle, New Jersey’s junior Senator Cory Booker or former Mayor of San Antonio and current Secretary of the Department of Housing and Urban Development Julian Castro are both tempting options. Either would appeal to a constituency that Hillary will need in November (Booker is African-American, Castro is Hispanic-American), both are incredibly telegenic and charismatic and both are in their 40s, which would give a nice generational boost to the ticket. But here is the thing, Castro will be 42 in November and Booker will be 47 and each has only been on the national stage for less than four years. While I have no doubt both are smarter than Sarah Palin (both went to Stanford, Booker has a law degree from Yale and was a Rhodes Scholar; Castro has a law degree from Harvard) neither has spent enough time under the hot lights. 

Bernie Lite

Anyone who thinks Hillary will pick Bernie Sanders as her running mate has spent too much time sampling legalized weed in Colorado. Instead, attention has focused on Ohio Senator Sherrod Brown. Brown would be a sop to progressives and comes from another swing state that while not essential to Hillary’s electoral college map, would, like Virginia, limit Trump’s paths to victory if she did win it. Brown is also experienced, having served in Congress since 1993 and in the Senate since 2007. One downside? Vice President Brown’s successor would be chosen by Republican Governor John Kasich, who is under no obligation to fill the seat with another Democrat. This may be subtraction by addition when every vote in the Senate will be needed in 2017. 

The Sisterhood

There are two female Senators, Missouri’s Claire McCaskill and Minnesota’s Amy Klobuchar, who have also garnered attention.  Klobuchar in particular has strong progressive credentials but also had a stellar record as the District Attorney of the largest county in Minnesota. McCaskill has won statewide races in a place where Democrats do not do well and each is excellent on the mic. On the other hand, if Clinton wants to put a well-qualified woman on the ticket, why not pick Warren?

The Finalists

For my money, Clinton’s choice will come down to California Congressman Xavier Beccera and former Massachusetts Governor Deval Patrick. Beccera is Chair of the House Democratic Caucus (4th in the leadership structure) and has served in Congress for more than 20 years. He would be very helpful in moving legislation and would be the first Hispanic-American Vice President. He is also a progressive, which would help corral Sanders’s voters. Patrick has deep ties to the Clintons from his time as head of the Department of Justice’s Civil Rights Division in the 1990s and he was a two-term Governor. He also has experience in the corporate world (which might work against him in today’s Democratic Party) and delivered one of the stand-out speeches at the 2012 Democratic National Convention. The national stage would not be too big for either of these men, they both add balance and value, pass the Palin Bar and would energize key Democratic constituencies. While I think a compelling case can be made for either man, Patrick’s history with the Clintons, his great oratorical chops, and governing experience give him the advantage. 

My prediction: Clinton/Patrick 2016. 

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Wednesday, June 8, 2016

Media Fail: California Edition

In a primary season littered with bad journalism, the California primary may take the cake. To recap: Bernie Sanders basically moved to the Golden State, campaigned there non-stop, received his typical fawning coverage based on campaign rallies he held almost exclusively on college campuses, benefitted from hours of TV time where pundits suggested he could win the state, and STILL lost to Hillary Clinton by 13 points. The morning after the election, you would barely know that the media had spent the preceding three weeks hyping his prospects or that he lost in a landslide.

Although awful, the media fail is of a piece with how they have covered the Clinton/Sanders primary race. Clinton fought Sanders with one hand tied behind her back while he swung away with both fists. Other than her (accurate) attacks on Sanders’s position on gun manufacturer liability, the Clinton team spent little time on negative campaigning against him; her Super PAC literally spent no money going after Sanders. Meanwhile, he dug in with gusto against her until the final day of the campaign.

The conventional wisdom was that Clinton supporters were not as enthusiastic as Sanders supporters. Not only was that demonstrably false, but in the place enthusiasm actually matters – the polling booth – her final margin of victory will end up being close to 4 million votes, a massive victory. That Hillary won 8 of the last 11 primaries and caucuses and 14 of the last 20 would suggest she has plenty of momentum and enthusiasm, but most of the coverage leading into California speculated about how damaging a loss there would be. When the media could not find any equivalency in delegates or votes, they tried to lean on “states won” – as if the Utah caucus was the same as prevailing in Pennsylvania, Florida or Texas – but even there, the Sanders team came up woefully short.

The kid gloves Sanders was treated with by Clinton were largely shared by a media horde that consistently drooled over his rallies but did little probing of his actual policies. What little negative press he received was of his own making – an awful editorial board meeting with the New York Daily News and his claim that Clinton was unqualified to be President – stemmed from his own lack of preparedness and tin ear. Meanwhile, in the run up to both the New York and California primaries, his campaign received oceans of positive coverage based on the size of his crowds, but when he lost each, there was little after action reporting on why that excitement did not translate into wins.

Bernie’s appeal was always based more on myth than fact. Of the 10 most populous states in the nation, Sanders only won one, and by less than two percent (Michigan). Clinton beat Sanders by more than 100,000 votes 15 times, while Sanders only bested Clinton by that margin once. Clinton’s domination was so complete there were some counties where she outpolled Sanders by a greater margin than entire states he won. In New Jersey, her margin of victory in Essex County (47,622 votes) was greater than Sanders’s victory margins in all but four states (one of which was Vermont).

But for all of this, Bernie Sanders is still getting the softball treatment. The editorial board of the New York Times thinks Hillary has to convince Bernie’s supporters she did not cheat to win and everyone in the press corps is in agreement that he deserves a wide berth to nurse his wounds even as he stubbornly claims he will soldier on, notwithstanding the clear defeat he suffered. It is fitting that the media is giving him one last parting gift – on a night when he could have shown statesmanship by conceding to Clinton, urging his supporters to vote for her, or even simply acknowledging the historic nature of her being the first woman to clinch a major party’s nomination for President, he was defiant and refused to shush his supporters who booed her name, not that you will hear much about this in the press, they are too busy hand wringing over the additional concessions that must be made to soothe his wounded ego. 

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Monday, June 6, 2016

Trump Has A SINO Problem

I will never be mistaken for President of the Chuck Todd Fan Club, but I will give the host of Meet The Press his due. Politics has a lexicon all its own and Todd recently created a worthy new entrant to that nomenclature: “SINO” – a “Supporter In Name Only” of Donald Trump. The SINO phenomenon has been seen with regularity among Washington’s political class: tepid endorsements, the he-who-must-not-be-named treatment by people like Mitch McConnell, and twisted-into-a-pretzel justifications being used by those who once deemed him a “cancer” or a “con man” for their change of heart.

But the problem with SINOs is that they are sort of like the sell swords on Game of Thrones – they have no loyalty to you and as soon as the worm turns, they run away. As Trump’s attacks on people based on their religion, ethnicity, and gender have intensified, he is in danger of becoming a man without a country. The SINOs who grudgingly siddled up to him are now distancing themselves.  

Consider the reaction to Trump’s inflammatory comments about Judge Gonzalo Curiel. Not only is no one in Trump’s own party rising to his defense, they are stepping over each other to criticize the real estate mogul’s comments. When Hillary Clinton dropped a foreign policy speech that peeled the paint off Trump’s spray tanned fa├žade, no one in the Republican Party rushed to his defense – there was no rapid response, no surrogates parachuting onto cable television to defend him, no point-by-point rebuttal, just Trump and a few lame tweets.  

This should surprise no one. Politicians are, if nothing else, pragmatists. As Trump’s star fades, Republicans will continue distancing themselves from him. After all, why should they lose their cushy jobs and stellar perks for a guy who will not be remembered one second after the polls close on November 8th? More importantly, why should they risk the future of their party by being associated with a man who is single-handedly alienating every voting group critical to its future; they are doing a good enough job of that without Trump’s help.

But political survival is one thing, upholding the tenets you claim to revere is another. If SINOs truly valued country over party, they would do more than issue hyperbolic press releases denouncing their own standard bearer – they would come out and renounce their support of him and confess a dirty little secret many of them have long known: far from being a Rush Limbaugh-tarred-Femi-Nazi, Hillary Clinton is a roll-up-her-sleeves policy wonk who likes to get things done. In the Senate, she helped pass bi-partisan legislation and as Secretary of State, she took an active interest in the smallest of issues, like a gefilte fish company in a Republican Congressman’s district that was having trouble getting its shipment to Israel.

Of course, the problem in admitting this fact is the electoral support that has sustained many members of Congress and the ocean of money that has flowed into political consultants’ coffers for the past 25 years would dry up immediately and the bald-faced lies that sustain the vast right-wing conspiracy against Hillary would be exposed. Instead, SINOs will retreat from the dumpster fire in order to protect themselves and prepare for battle with another President Clinton.

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