Thursday, April 28, 2016

Should We Care What Bernie Wants?

With wins in four of five states that made up the “Acela” (or I-95) Primary on Tuesday night, Hillary Clinton is on the verge of history – the first woman to secure the nomination of a major political party for President of the United States. Of course, this singular achievement is already being poo pooed by the press, who are either mourning the loss of what ratings come from portraying a contest that was never that close as competitive or simply reflecting their decades-long antipathy toward the former First Lady. Either way, attention has quickly shifted to a narrative framed on her need to acquiesce to still-unknown demands that may be made of her by Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders to secure his endorsement and, in theory, the support of his followers. 

It is particularly presumptuous of Sanders to make demands considering he himself has only been a member of the party (sort of) for less than a year and acknowledged running as a Democrat purely for political expediency. But that aside, I am not sure what he could ask for that is not already in the neighborhood of what he seeks. On many of the issues of importance to him - Wall Street reform, taxation, college education, and others – Secretary Clinton has put forth proposals that are broadly in line with his thinking with the added benefit of being substantive and workable, not an idealistic fantasy where Republicans in Congress would somehow kowtow to the whims of a Democratic Socialist in the White House. 

That he would not get Secretary Clinton to adopt his ideas chapter and verse is no sin and should not be a requirement to secure his blessing. He lost, which means his views were considered and rejected; he does not get a second bite at the apple at the threat of taking his toys and going home. And Sanders may want to rethink any requests about the nominating process. The delegate apportionment rules that he bemoans have actually benefitted him, keeping him in the race by granting him delegates in large states he lost badly (see, New York, Pennsylvania, Florida, Texas, Virginia) while providing oceans of positive media coverage for wins in low turnout caucuses in places like Utah, Idaho, Wyoming, and Alaska that did little to move the needle in his delegate deficit. Sanders has gained a lot of mileage out of his victories even though of the ten states with the smallest turn out, he prevailed in all ten and his percentage of pledged delegates slightly outpaces the percentage of the total vote he has received. 

Even if Sanders asked that the number of super delegates be reduced or eliminated altogether, it would not help his cause because Secretary Clinton has also won a majority of the pledged delegates. Naturally, Sanders would like a system tailor-made to benefit him that would allow independents to vote in Democratic primaries (I do not get this – why would non-members of a political party be allowed to have a say in who Democrats (or Republicans for that matter) choose to lead their party?), reduce or eliminate super delegates and maybe increase the prominence of caucuses, but you only get to make the rules if you win the game. The truth is, for all the media sturm und drang, Clinton has held a consistent lead of between 10 and 20 percentage points in the total vote against Sanders since the primary season started in earnest.  

Indeed, if Sanders is truly interested in helping to advance his agenda, he would be best served by helping down-ballot Democrats flip the House and take control of the Senate, but he has been resistant to supporting “the party” until very recently and even then, his efforts on behalf of other Democrats has been limited to some fundraising letters and a passing nod to a handful of candidates. Mobilizing his volunteers and fundraising, helping to recruit progressives at the federal, state, and local level, and working with party leaders to little “d” democratize the way the party raises money will have a far more salutary benefit than arguing over a plank in the party platform that nobody is going to read anyway. 

Of course, this is not to say that Mrs. Clinton should not be gracious, but saying that is superfluous. Her campaign has run almost no negative advertising against Sanders and while the Secretary has thrown some sharp rhetorical elbows, they have been well within the rules for political campaigns. She has taken pains to publicly congratulate Sanders on his wins and extended an olive branch to his supporters in her victories. There are always going to be dead enders, people who, no matter how hard you try to appease, will not go gently into that good night. And so I say that Hillary should waste no time trying to mollify the Susan Sarandons, Rosario Dawsons and Shaun Kings of the world. They are much happier in their ideological purity than the belief that cementing the gains made under Presidents Clinton and Obama is more important than the risk of Donald J. Trump taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. For the overwhelming majority of Democrats and independents who voted for Bernie Sanders, logic and reason will prevail. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, April 17, 2016

New York City - April 16

New York City is larger than life. From Broadway to Times Square, the Empire State Building and the new Freedom Tower, to say “New York” is to capture an attitude, a culture, an energy, a style, and a history that is unique in our country. The city dates to well before the Revolutionary War but its streets, homes, and architecture offer both a glimpse deep into the past and well into the future. 

It is also massive. It is our nation’s largest city, but its more than 8 million inhabitants are wedged into a far smaller space than Los Angeles, the second largest city. For someone like me who has long been fascinated with the idea of New York, the reality was always daunting. Its mass of trains, subway lines, tunnels, and bridges make New York easy to get to and around but seem byzantine without a skilled guide.

As is my want, when I finally committed to learning about NYC, I went to a book - I Never Knew That About New York - an outstanding beginner’s guide to learning about the Big Apple. The first thing the book did to make New York more easily digestible was to focus solely on Manhattan. It is not to disparage the other four boroughs, but by limiting my scope, “the city” suddenly became more understandable.

Manhattan, similar to my hometown of Washington, DC, (mostly) utilizes a grid system - once I understood how the numbered avenues 1-12 traverse the city east to west with Broadway acting as a rough line of demarcation between the two and the numbered streets track north to south, any landmark became much easier to envision spatially as did the distance between two points. If you know that Penn Station is at W. 31st Street between 7th and 8th Avenue you quickly realize the Empire State Building is practically around the corner (at 5th Avenue between W. 33rd and W. 34th) but Columbia University is miles away at 116th Street and Broadway. 

With this back of the envelope knowledge, I was able to easily plot out a trip that took me to three of New York’s most famous areas - the Flatiron Building, Union Square, and the Strand Bookstore. Even better, thanks to Google street view, you can do a “virtual” walk beforehand, just so you know what to expect. That these three are so close to one another while also offering great photographic opportunities along with 18 miles (!) of books, well, talk about a no-brainer. 

Getting to New York is quite easy, though not necessarily cheap. A round trip train ticket from Princeton Junction runs $32.50, but in about 80 minutes you pull into Penn Station, just 3 blocks west of Broadway. 

Flatiron District

From Broadway, the iconic Flatiron Building rises gracefully as you walk south. But the building is just part of what is known as the Flatiron District. Directly across from the Flatiron Building is Worth Square, a tiny patch littered with tulips and a monument to General William Worth, a native-born New Yorker with a distinguished military record that spanned almost 40 years, from the War of 1812 to the Mexican-American War. 

A block to the east is Madison Square Park, another small slice of real estate bounded by skyscrapers and containing a statue of former Secretary of State William Seward, who served in that capacity for Abraham Lincoln and was the driving force behind our country’s purchase of Alaska (once referred to as “Seward’s Folly”). 

But these are mere appetizers for the main course - the impossibly elegant wedge that rises 22 stories in the air at the confluence of Broadway, Fifth Avenue, and 22nd Street. A mere six feet at its apex, this 1902 masterpiece of limestone and architectural vision demands your attention. If you did not know what the building was, you would be compelled to ask someone what it was. Even early in the morning, there were half-a-dozen shutterbugs snapping away. Here are a couple of different angles - front, side, and up close, to give you a sense of the building’s beauty.

Union Square

Just a few short blocks south on Broadway is Union Square, a great place to spend a Saturday both because of the farmer’s market selling everything from wild bison meat to artisanal corn whisky and the statue’s in the square. There are four - President Washington, President Lincoln, the Marquis de Lafayette, and Mahatma Gandhi. I found three of four (sorry, Gandhi!) and sampled some wild plum jam too (delicious!). Check it out:

Strand Bookstore

No photos, but I finished my loop two blocks east and two blocks south of Union Square at the Strand Bookstore - an absolute must visit for book lovers with three floors of new and used books on every manner of subject. A line had formed before the store even opened - there is no coffee shop inside, no new age music, just the sometimes dank smell of used paper, passionate employees eager to help, and a devoted fan base of people like me who will make visiting the Strand a priority when they come into New York City. 

I had a great day in New York and look forward to many more in the future. My next goal will be to master the subway system while plotting my next trips to places like Central Park, the High Line, and Roosevelt Island. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Tuesday, April 12, 2016

The Democrats and Delegate Math

On Saturday, about 5,000 Wyoming Democrats caucused to select their pick for President of the United States. When the votes were tallied, Vermont Senator Bernie Sanders was declared the victor over former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton by a 56-44 margin. Importantly though, based on the way Wyoming apportions its delegates to the Democratic National Convention, each candidate received seven delegates and, when the party’s “super” delegates were included, Mrs. Clinton actually received more delegates (11) than Sanders (7).

Howls were heard in midtown Manhattan the following Monday. It’s a rigged system whined “Morning” Joe Scarborough, why do they bother holding these contests if the person with fewer votes wins more delegates, he complained. Other than the fact that this is the system within which Sanders agreed to run (nothing obligated him, he is not, after all, a registered Democrat), the fact is that the system both Scarborough and, increasingly, Sanders and his campaign rail against is the system that has kept him in this race. 

Right now, the Associated Press shows Clinton ahead by 250 pledged delegates (1,287 - 1,037) and 688 when “super” delegates (party leaders, elected officials, and others who are themselves delegates, including Sanders) are included (1,756 - 1,068). The total needed to clinch the nomination is 2,383. Clinton has also received about 2.4 million more votes than Sanders (a roughly 58-42 split) and bested him by three in the total number of states won. 

But the Sanders camp complains that the super delegates are somehow undemocratic, why should the party elders get to put their thumb on the scale and go against the will of the people of their states when the voters select one candidate but the super delegate chooses the other. Ok, let’s look at the Sanders argument. Reset the “super” delegate total to zero and count the super delegates from states that have already voted. If you do that, you find that Clinton would still maintain her lead if super delegates were required to vote as the people in their state did. Here, Clinton would lead 260 - 138, which would make her total lead versus Sanders 377 (250 pledged plus 122 super) and, if Clinton wins New York, would add another 44 super delegates to her lead (in addition to whatever pledged delegates she nets). 

On the other hand, suppose that the primaries and caucuses were winner take all. That seems to be the lament of the Joe Scarboroughs of the world. Why should the candidates split delegates when the voters choose one over the other? We do not apportion electoral votes in the general election, why should we do it with primary contests? This is not an argument the Sanders forces make and it is obvious why. If the states were winner take all, Hillary would lead 1,659 - 745 and, if you added the super delegates in the manner Sanders wants, her lead would stretch to 1,919 - 883 and put her well within striking range of the nomination. 

You see, for as much mileage as the Sanders team has gotten out of their recent winning streak, the reality is that most of those wins have come in places like Wyoming, Idaho, Utah, Alaska and Hawaii, which, combined, have fewer delegates than Ohio. In fact, you can add in Wisconsin and you still fall short of both Florida and Texas. Clinton’s margins of victory in Florida and Texas were larger than Sanders’s wins in every state he has won combined. 

If anyone has a right to complain about the process, it is Clinton. She has won nearly 60% of the popular vote and won larger states like Texas, Florida, Illinois and Ohio by large margins that would have yielded massive delegate hauls instead of having to split them with Sanders. In fact, the split of pledged delegates to date slightly under reflects the popular vote totals - Clinton has won 58% of the vote but that has “only” yielded 55.3% of the pledged delegates. That number may change after New York, but the Sanders campaign has no room to complain.

What has happened is a candidate and campaign that is scratching out just more than 4 in 10 votes and wins in small, arguably less (small d) democratic caucuses in low turnout locations like Wyoming has spun a weak hand into some suggestion of unfairness when the opposite is actually true. Moreover, Sanders is losing even worse among Democrats. He does much better in states that are “open” to Independents and cross-over Republicans, itself an arguably unfair rule - after all, why should non-Democrats get to choose the nominee of the Democratic Party? With that said, the (big D) Democratic rules have helped Sanders remain competitive in a race that would have been over if different rules applied. He and his campaign should stop complaining about the rules and the media that is helping him spin his story should be ashamed of themselves.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

State delegate totals:,_2016

Saturday, April 9, 2016

The People v. O.J. Simpson

At the end of the first episode of FX’s addictive and hypnotic The People v. O.J. Simpson, a group of prosecutors huddle around a TV set looking on forlornly as what will become known as the “White Bronco Chase” begins to unfold on the screen. Marcia Clark, who will become the target of so much scorn in the months to come, glumly asserts “we are going to look like morons.” 

Like so much of what would occur, Clark’s comment had a dual meaning. Deferring to Simpson’s recently hired attorney Robert Shapiro, who had requested that O.J. be allowed to turn himself in after a warrant was issued for his arrest, Simpson reneged and was spirited away by his friend A.C. Cowlings for what would become not only the most famous slow speed chase in history, but an opener for the endless 24/7 coverage of what was quickly dubbed “the trial of the century.” But if the Los Angeles District Attorney’s Office was made to look foolish by giving their main suspect in a double murder special treatment, it was a mere foreshadow for the embarrassment it would suffer once the trial began.

Instead of going for a remake of the trial itself, Ryan Murphy and the team that produced, directed, and wrote this outstanding miniseries use it as a crucible within which they explore the crushing weight of pressure placed on the prosecutors, defense lawyers, jury, judge, victim’s families, and Simpson himself. While all of the main players are offered a humanizing portrayal, it is Sarah Paulson’s Marcia Clark who forms the emotional core. Her initial swagger at what she views as a slam dunk case quickly erodes as the defense “dream team” hammers at her over and over to the point where she is brought to tears in open court when having to confess her inability to stay after hours because of her kids. It is devastating, in a car-crash-in-slow-motion way to see a strong woman brought low - by an ex-husband eager to cast her in a negative light, a tabloid culture that fixates on her appearance and unlikability, and adversaries who press every advantage while flirting with the ethical boundaries of propriety. 

In Cochran, Courtney B. Vance inhabits the man in all his complexity and flamboyance. What fuels Cochran’s outrage against police misconduct stems from personal experience, of questionable police stops, his own employment in the DA’s office, and years representing people accusing the LAPD of misconduct. But in Simpson, Cochran has an imperfect vessel. Early on, he asks Simpson to look him in the eye and tell him whether he committed the murders and of course Simpson proclaims his innocence, but the inscrutability behind Cochran’s reaction leaves the viewer wondering whether this exercise is a legitimate one or simply to mollify Cochran’s conscience. But he is also vain, a vicious courtroom brawler and silver-tongued, toggling his pitch between righteous indignation and heartfelt passion as he drops rehearsed, quippy one-liners that he makes sound as if they were pulled out of thin air.  

Here, the courtroom battles become small set pieces for the broader narrative. A month-long dissection of criminalist Dennis Fung is reduced to less than 90 seconds and though he was ubiquitous in real life, Kato Kaelin’s appearance is barely a cameo, passing in the blink of the eye. Instead, we are treated to the behind-the-scenes drama, of Cochran wresting control of the defense team from Shapiro, of Chris Darden’s request to have Simpson try on the bloody gloves rebuked, only to watch him go against orders once in the court room, and Judge Lance Ito’s struggles as the trial descends into a referendum on race and Detective Mark Fuhrman’s use of vile language years before. 

Hovering over the entire spectacle is the news media in an age when the intersection between it and the tabloid culture was becoming closer and closer. Characters invariably find themselves gazing at the TV screen, Ito shaking his head in disbelief at the Tonight Show’s “Dancing Itos” sketch, Clark and Darden nursing wounds as their trial presentation is ripped to shreds by pundits, and Shapiro’s rising fear of inciting violence because of the defense’s full-throated use of racial injustice in its presentation. 

And in Robert Kardashian, Murphy finds his object lesson in the perils of celebrity. It may simply be a happy coincidence that Mr. Kardashian’s offspring would become Exhibit A for all that we we find revolting and impossible not to look at in the reality TV era, but David Schwimmer’s pained performance, all hang dog sad looks and disquieting skepticism hits all the right notes. We see his slow evolution from staunch defender of his longtime friend to unwitting accomplice in a possibly guilty man’s escape from justice even as his brood lurks in the background, pint-sized stealth bombs who would detonate in a vacuous culture their father would not live to see.

The macro themes of The People are as subtle as a sledgehammer. It is not just the nascent obsession with televised sensationalism that the trial introduced, but the larger (and more important) question of how race and the criminal justice system intersect that is as powerful and important today as it was in 1994 and 1995. Occurring just a few short years after the LAPD’s taped beating of Rodney King and the riots that ensued after the officers were acquitted of charges against them, it probably would have been impossible for the Simpson trial to not be impacted by race to some degree, but its prominence, abetted by Fuhrman’s clear racism and the broader arguments of both investigative malfeasance and incompetence put it all front and center.

The question begged is whether any of it mattered. The defense focused on racial bias and police misconduct, but guilt or innocence in the courtroom has much more to do with economics than race. Poor people, regardless of color, do not get the same quality of representation as the wealthy - an incidental effect impacting people of color disproportionately. If the same evidence in the Simpson case was used against an indigent defendant, there is no question the result would have been far different. Moreover, the blatant use of race by both sides, whether through jury selection or disqualification, the testimony of Detective Fuhrman, or pleas to the jury’s racial sympathies, ensured that the trial’s outcome fell largely along racial lines - most whites thought Simpson was guilty and (literally) got away with murder while most blacks agreed with the verdict. Indeed, one of the lasting ironies is that Simpson, who before the murders was a post-racial celebrity before that term was even coined, became a symbol for some weird form of racial karma - his acquittal acted as a counter weight to the ills and wrongs suffered by the black community at the hands of a justice system they saw as stacked against them.   

After the trial, in one of the show’s final scenes, Cochran runs into Darden in a nondescript hallway and compliments his adversary on a job well done, while offering to bring the younger man back “into the community.” Darden, eyes ablaze, lights into Cochran, explaining that he (Darden) never left the community and that for all of Cochran’s oration about racial justice, he did nothing to advance their people’s cause, he simply helped a rich man from Brentwood avoid conviction. The trial so soured Darden that he quit and Clark followed him out the door. Simpson was cast out as a pariah from polite society and eventually landed in prison years later for unrelated reasons (perhaps its own form of karma). 

While the show is fantastically paced, and most of the cast is spot on (Sterling K. Brown absolutely crushes it as Chris Darden and Nathan Lane is F. Lee Bailey as both legal gadfly and cold blooded mercenary out for a final taste of glory), it is Cuba Gooding Jr.’s interpretation of O.J. Simpson that left me cold. The O.J. we see is just a ball of petulance and grievance, but the fact that he is in so many ways a bit player in the show’s drama speaks both to the richness of the writing and the fact that as the one person in a static condition throughout the trial, we knew and saw little of what was happening in his life. His one star turn - struggling to slip on the bloody gloves, was critical, but even that “victory” is put in Shapiro’s lap, for it was he who surreptitiously slipped on the gloves during a break in court testimony and advised the team they would not fit O.J. 

Of course, the gloves episode points to the show’s one glaring failure. While Shapiro apparently did try on the gloves at some point, it was not at the time and in the way depicted in the show. Other events are similarly dramatized. Assistant DA Bill Hodgman’s heart attack, which is portrayed as having happened in court, actually happened back in his office. Cochran is shown cross-examining Mark Fuhrman when the detective asserts his Fifth Amendment rights, but it was actually co-defense counsel Gerald Uelmen who led that questioning. Darden is shown flirting with a contempt citation (which actually happened), just not at the point in the trial depicted in the show. While these tweaks added dramatic flair, this was one trial that did not require fictionalized accounting to add to its drama. 

The show does not pick sides in its depictions of events or characters so much as it reflects the weaknesses and humanity of those involved; however, in its post-verdict coda, the writers seem to tip their hand ever so much. After his run-in with Darden, Cochran returns to his office to celebrate with his co-workers. As the champagne flows, the group watches as President Clinton is shown responding to the verdict. As the President expresses his surprise (and regret) that people of different races saw the verdict so differently, he also observed that the case showed the need for people of all races to talk to, and not past, each other. A small tear dribbles down Cochran’s face and he nods with satisfaction, but it is impossible to know if he thinks the victory is one for racial equality or simply his now skyrocketing fame.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy  

Saturday, March 26, 2016

Donald Trump Is The GOP, The GOP Is Donald Trump

It gets exhausting writing about Donald J. Trump. Almost as exhausting as watching “the shows” spout conventional wisdom about why he is doing well and what the Republican party plans on doing to stop him. Were he what the inside the Beltway crowd has convinced themselves he is - some sort of sui generis mash up of Huey Long, George Wallace, and Benito Mussolini, it would be easy to dismiss his popularity as a one-off. A perfect storm of personality and moment, that point at which the dying gasp of (mostly) disaffected white voters railed against a system and party it thinks has abandoned it to free trade and multiculturalism while showing its belly to the world by refusing to lead the fight against capital R, capital I, capital T radical Islamic terrorism.

But such analysis is simply too facile (and false). That thesis ignores Trump’s across-the-board (not to mention geographical) success. While it is true that Trump cleaned up in the deep South, and particularly in areas with fewer college graduates, he also prevailed in places like Illinois, Ohio, New Hampshire, Virginia, and Connecticut - all of which have heterogenous electorates where Trump garnered the votes of CEOs and their workers alike. Indeed, were Trump anyone other than Trump, a candidate whose victories spanned such a diverse segment of age, income, and geography, the chattering class would have deemed this race over long ago.

But the Republicans’ attempt to separate themselves from Trump has been equally foolhardy. House Speaker Paul Ryan gave a speech this week bemoaning the tenor of the political debate in this country, but Ryan’s apologia missed the forest for the trees. The Republicans do not have a messaging problem but rather, a message problem. When you support restricting voting rights, deporting millions of undocumented immigrants, shutting down abortion clinics, and show antipathy toward gays and lesbians, it should be no surprise that your party struggles to elect a President in a national election. Yet, because Republicans have successfully gerrymandered House districts to a point where their incumbents are more threatened in primaries than general elections and have scooped up Governor’s mansions and state legislatures, they have shown little interest in considering why their Presidential results are so poor. 

The Republican “fever” Obama hopefully claimed would break in 2012 has instead deepened. It is not just Trump’s rise, but in the Senate’s refusal to take up his nominee to the Supreme Court, the almost instantaneous condemnations that flow from the mouths of Republicans in the wake of things like terrorist attacks in other countries and the boilerplate rhetoric of almost every Republican nominee for President not named Trump questioning everything from Obama’s loyalty to the country to whether he is subverting the Constitution that is indicative of mainstream  Republican thought - Trump is simply refracting that ugliness back in a coarser, purer way.  

Even as Trump marches inexorably toward the nomination, plans are afoot to insulate down ballot candidates from what party elders fear will be Trump’s landslide defeat in November. Endangered incumbents like Mark Kirk and Kelly Ayotte are already making the pivot to try and show they are bipartisan in an effort to appeal to voters who might otherwise punish them for their obstruction of President Obama. And such a strategy may work. Republicans are far more invested in framing Trump as an invader out of step with its party’s orthodoxy than in seeing him as a representation of it. 

Instead of addressing the cancer inside its own party, Republicans can rely on an incurious media that missed Trump’s appeal entirely and has written his political obituary over and over again to no avail. This should not be surprising. For years, the media poo-pooed the unprecedented tactics deployed by Congressional Republicans; instead using their all too comfortable “both sides do it” frame even as Obama was demeaned in the basest ways, insulted before a joint session of Congress, and his very legitimacy as a U.S. citizen called into question. That off-year elections, which skewed older and white, swelled Republican ranks in both houses of Congress did not hurt either. This toxic brew created the virus that now infects the GOP, but the thing about pathogens is they cannot thrive without a host body. In the Republican Party, Trump found a fertile breeding ground. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Saturday, March 19, 2016

Bernie's Last Gasp

With a five-for-five night on Super Tuesday II, Hillary Clinton attained a practically insurmountable delegate lead against Bernie Sanders. While the Clinton team is itching to start aiming its fire on Donald Trump, the erstwhile Vermont Senator is showing no sign of going quietly into the gentle night. 

I am here to say it is time for Sanders to quit the race. It is not just the nearly 2:1 delegate lead Clinton has amassed, the 2.5 million more votes she has received than him, or the near mathematical impossibility of him catching her, it is also for the good of the party that all Democrats, like minded Independents and concerned Republicans begin the task of forming the coalition that will keep the White House in Democratic hands for another four years. 

But, says the Sanders team, what about 2008? Hillary contested every single primary before bowing out. True, so far as it goes, but this is not 2008 for several reasons:

  • Obama and Clinton were neck-and-neck in the popular vote throughout and practically so in the delegate race. Clinton is millions of votes ahead of Sanders and whether you want to use “pledged” delegates as the benchmark or “pledged delegates plus super delegates,” her lead is far more than Obama’s was against her at any point along the way;
  • The Democrats had a tail wind in 2008 because George W. Bush was incredibly unpopular. Even before the Wall Street collapse in September, Bush’s favorability had taken massive hits because of Hurricane Katrina, the endless fighting in Iraq, and the slowing economy. Republicans were also seeking to hold the White House for a third consecutive term, something not often done.
  • Speaking of that third term, Obama is still incredibly popular with the Democratic Party and has a roughly 50% approval rating overall. While this accrues to the nominee to succeed him, the best way to lock in that support is to hew to policies that build on those already achieved, not calling for a political revolution that people are not clamoring for.

Sanders has achieved an enormous amount and the passion of his supporters cannot be questioned; however, his continued presence saps precious resources that will be needed in the fight against Trump for no particularly good reason. The idea that he will be competitive in places like New York (where Clinton served as Senator for eight years, won two landslide victories and the 2008 primary against Obama) or California (which she also won in 2008) or Pennsylvania (ditto, along with its long history of support for President Clinton) is simply not credible.

The Democrats have a unique opportunity not just to buck the no-party-gets-a-third-term trend, but to win back the Senate and eat into the Republican majority in the House. With Hillary atop the ticket competing against Trump, predictions for House races are already shifting toward “toss up” or “lean Democrat” that had previously been safe and the Senate map, which was already favorable for Democrats, will become more so. A President Clinton coming into office in 2017 with a Senate majority and a Republican House with a 10-12 seat majority may actually be able to get things done.

Conversely, Sanders backers must acknowledge the reality that the “revolution” he claims to be leading has simply not come to pass. He lags with many of the constituencies that make up the Democratic coalition and has lost badly in places like Florida, Ohio, and Virginia that will be critical in November. Down ballot Democrats may run from his support and otherwise vulnerable Republicans may survive. While he should be lauded for his narrow win in Michigan, other state victories in places like Maine and Nebraska were with vote totals that were far less than what Clinton received in a single city like Chicago or Miami. 

Moreover, a Sanders nomination would embolden Republicans to dump Trump and rally the party to a consensus nominee like Paul Ryan because Sanders would be an incredibly weak general election nominee. Polls may show him to be competitive right now, but hundreds of millions of dollars will be spent turning him into the second coming of Karl Marx. Say what you will about Hillary, she is a known commodity and someone who has survived decades of Republican barbs.

Lastly, while it is entirely possible that mainstream Republicans like Colin Powell (who endorsed Obama twice), Bob Dole, or George H.W. Bush might endorse Hillary over Trump, giving tacit permission to Republicans to vote their conscience for fear of turning over the country to him, it is impossible to imagine them doing the same for an avowed democratic socialist. Her ability to attract Republicans who view her as an acceptable alternative to Trump is simply not true of Sanders.

Were Sanders an actual member of the Democratic party and had he spent the last 25 or 30 years of his career doing the rubber chicken circuit helping to elect down ballot Democrats and sitting in state meetings building friendships and alliances with key leaders at the local level, he would understand the concept of “for the good of the party.” Hillary understands this because she has been campaigning for Democrats since George McGovern in 1972. In 2008, she not only put Obama’s name in nomination at the Democratic National Convention, she campaigned vigorously for him, went on to serve as his Secretary of State, and her husband gave a re-nominating speech at the 2012 Democratic National Convention so comprehensive in its defense of Obama’s record that Obama himself said he was going to appoint Bill Clinton Secretary of Explaining Stuff. 

I hold out far less hope that Sanders will give a full throated endorsement of Clinton or campaign for her or encourage his supporters to donate to her campaign. He has been a one-man band for decades and holds no allegiance to the Democratic Party; if he did, he would know it is time to quit.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, March 16, 2016

State of the Race - Super Tuesday II

Now that Super Tuesday II is over and both parties have just about settled on their nominees, let’s take a quick look back at some lessons learned about what has undoubtedly been the strangest election cycle in a long time:

The Hostile Takeover of the Republican Party Was Not Hard or Expensive. Donald Trump has stampeded his way to the GOP nomination largely on TV appearances and a Twitter feed. He has spent less than $25 million, did not even start advertising until January, and eschewed the conventional retail campaign tactics in Iowa and New Hampshire that are supposedly essential to winning those states (he finished a close second in the former and won the latter in a walk). Meanwhile, his opponents raised (and spent) close to $200 million to little effect. In Florida, they threw more than $20 million in negative ads at him and he still won by 18 points. Trump barely broke a sweat while outlasting current and former Governors and Senators that made up the biggest (though not the “deepest”) field of Republicans in history. For as odious as his politics are, his achievement may be the most impressive feat in recent political history.

Horse Race Reporting Has Completely Taken Over Presidential Politics. Did you know Marco Rubio wants to completely eliminate the capital gains tax? Or that Rand Paul called for temporarily stopping Muslims from 32 countries from entering the United States? That Chris Christie wanted a massive overhaul of Social Security? Of course you did not because the media has become completely consumed by polling and “who won the day” analysis popularized by publications like POLITICO and cable shows like With All Due Respect. At the same time, there has been even more emphasis on faux controversies like whether Hillary Clinton tipped properly at a Chipotle instead of a deeper dive into the policies of the candidates. 

The Media Could Not Make Marco Rubio Happen. No candidate benefitted more from favorable media coverage than Marco Rubio and no candidate so successfully manipulated the press for his own gain. He spun a third place finish in Iowa into a “victory,” sold the media on a “3-2-1” strategy in Iowa, New Hampshire, and South Carolina, then ignored it when it turned into “3-5-2,” and finally bought himself another month in the race by selling himself as the consensus candidate even as he was getting rolled in state after state. When he trained his fire on Trump, it backfired spectacularly and then, in a final swing of shamelessness, he bemoaned the tone of a campaign he helped lower by making allegations about hand size and pants peeing. 

The Bern Is Real. Readers of my blog know where my allegiance lies, but I will give the 74-year old democratic socialist his due, his campaign legitimately tapped into left-wing frustration and his fundraising prowess is remarkable. The media coverage of him has been awful throughout. There is no question the media was slow off the mark in seeing his popularity, but they have now overcorrected even as he is at a 60/40 deficit in both delegates and the popular vote against Hillary Clinton while she enjoys a more than 9:1 lead in super delegates that will ultimately push her over the top - which is how Obama won the nomination in 2008 even though he and Mrs. Clinton split the popular vote very close to 50/50. Sanders has been the most effective insurgent since Gene McCarthy in 1968, but he has also benefitted from tissue thin vetting that has given him a wide berth to drum home his message. After losing all five races on Super Tuesday II, he would rise in stature if he dropped out, but instead, he will soldier on, even though he has no chance of winning the nomination. 

The Establishment Is Dead. At varying times, TIME magazine anointed Rand Paul “the most interesting man in politics,” Marco Rubio “the Republican savior,” and Chris Christie simply “THE BOSS.” (caps in original). This was before Jeb Bush brought his family name into the race and immediately vaulted to the top of the polls. Paul dropped out after Iowa, Christie after New Hampshire, and Bush after South Carolina. Rubio limped on with little money but plenty of endorsements and media support (see above) before dropping out after being humiliated in his home state of Florida. Other candidates, like 2012 runner-up Rick Santorum, 2008 runner-up Mike Huckabee, three-term Texas Governor Rick Perry, and South Carolina’s senior Senator Lindsey Graham, barely registered before quitting to no ado. If a year ago you had a reality TV star and the most hated man in Congress as your two most likely victors in the Republican field, bravo.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Saturday, March 12, 2016

Book Review - Too Dumb To Fail

Presaging what will surely be a flood of books about the 2016 campaign is Matt Lewis’s Too Dumb to Fail, equal parts polemic and screed by a card-carrying member of the conservative media establishment (Lewis is an editor of The Daily Caller and regularly appears on “the shows”). Lewis’s thesis is simple - the ideas that undergirded the so-called “Reagan Revolution” have been jettisoned by the Republican Party, which needs to get back to being a party animated by the big, bold ideas that, according to Lewis, led to Reagan’s ascent.

While one cannot question Lewis’s conviction, he cherry picks information to suit his point of view. Perhaps this is simply my own political perspective, but if the first step in solving a problem is admitting its existence, readers will find little comfort here. It is not simply the pot shots Lewis takes at President Obama, Democrats, or the definite article “The Left,” it is the failure of his book to come to terms with some basic facts about Saint Ronnie. 

While the hagiography embraces Reagan’s bumper sticker appeal - low taxes, less government, and a strong national defense - his record was not that simple. Yes, Reagan cut taxes in 1981, but he subsequently raised them - several times - during his time in office. His attempts to rein in the federal government barely moved the needle on the actual number of federal workers (Republicans would have to wait for some guy named Bill Clinton to arrive before a meaningful reduction occurred), and the massive military build-up was done on the government’s credit card, leading to swelling budget deficits that undermined any suggestion of fiscal restraint. And this is without even getting into Reagan’s signing of a bill in 1986 that granted “amnesty” to millions of undocumented individuals, his decision to “cut and run” from Lebanon in 1983, or his sale of sophisticated weapons to the Iranians and the shifting of the proceeds from those sales to Nicaraguan Contras, action that should have gotten him impeached. 

Similarly, Lewis whistles past the graveyard of other recent Republican apostasies. The Second Iraq War barely rates a mention, the Great Recession is an afterthought, and the massive deficits accumulated under recent Republican administrations are barely touched on. Meanwhile, President Obama is dismissed as a paint-by-numbers liberal who has attempted to foist any number of evil government policies on a gullible electorate, not the least of which is of course the Heritage Foundation idea that people be required to purchase health insurance, which forms the core of what we now call Obamacare. 

Lewis also overstates the direness of the state of the Republican Party. The Obama years have been phenomenal for the GOP at the state level, where they control more than half the governorships and legislatures. Indeed, but for a single house of the Kentucky Legislature, the entire Old Confederacy is under Republican rule - a decimation of the Democratic Party that has been as total as the Republicans in the Northeast. In Congress, more Republicans are seated in the House of Representatives than at any time since 1928 and they also hold a majority in the Senate.

On public policy, for all the Republican kvelling about Obama’s overuse of executive authority (itself a pile of Grade A horseshit), after Sandy Hook, states passed more laws expanding gun rights than restricting them, and many states in the South have all but eliminated access to abortion. At the national level, the battle over tax policy has been won by Republicans with the assent of Democratic Presidents who have defined up the “middle class” from $250,000 under President Clinton to $400,000 under President Obama, who, incidentally, signed the law that permanently codified 99% of the George W. Bush-era tax rates. Reductions in capital gains and carried interest rates have shifted wealth upward, with many millionaires paying lower marginal rates than middle class wage earners while the amount of federal spending going toward so-called “discretionary” parts of the federal budget are at Eisenhower-era lows. 

And therein lies the limitation in Lewis’s argument. On the one hand, there is little interest in seriously examining the Reagan Revolution and its distortion by Republicans to suit their facile arguments about things like taxes, the military, and domestic policy and on the other, they have suffered no political consequences for it - indeed, but for the Presidency, Republicans have not held so many offices at the federal and state level in eight decades. 

What Lewis is left with is a lot of Poli Sci 101 ruminations on political philosophy and a few well-placed critiques. For example, Lewis rightly criticizes the anti-intellectualism of his party and its failure to adjust with the shifting winds of social change. He points to the weakening of the party structure and the rise of outside groups as one symptom of why there is less party unity and fidelity. Instead of having extremism rooted out, the party has been overtaken by its most intransigent members. In an alternate universe, Senate Republicans would be willing to give an Obama nominee to fill Justice Scalia’s seat a fair shake, would have negotiated (and voted for) the stimulus bill, and provided suggestions that could have incorporated more conservative policies into the Affordable Care Act - but Lewis cannot bring himself to suggest even these modest concessions.  

When it comes to solutions, Lewis goes for some unusual options - promoting “New Urbanism” - and more conventional choices - hello, outreach to Hispanics. But even here, he cannot mask his disdain for “the Left.” After a pages-long screed over how “the Left” politicizes climate change, the best Lewis can muster is the idea that it is okay to question the science but not demonize it (never mind that the Republican Party literally stands alone among all political parties in the Western Hemisphere as questioning man’s role in climate change). Similarly, instead of questioning (and offering answers to) the near total rejection of Republicans by African-American voters, Lewis glides right past this problem to focus on attracting other minority groups. In doing so, he misses the opportunity to mine what is a deep vein of skepticism toward his party by people of color based on the policies they advocate and the message they send. Finally, he encourages young conservatives to be well-read, but fails to identify anything other than standard conservative reading material as a starting point for their education. 

Any reckoning for why the Republican Party is so monochromatic and why the demographics that are making it harder and harder for them to compete for the White House will be lost so long as there are no electoral consequences in off year elections and at the state level. In the meantime, while the chances for winning in November become more remote with every batshit crazy Donald Trump incident, the reality is the GOP is that one election away from complete control of the federal government - hardly a political party in decline.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Wednesday, March 2, 2016

State of the Race: Super Tuesday

Super Tuesday is in the books. What happened and where do the two parties stand on the way to the White House? Republicans handed Donald Trump wins in blood red states like Alabama and Arkansas and deep blue states like Vermont and Massachusetts. He also won Virginia, which is a swing state in the general election, along with several other contests. Ted Cruz triumphed in his home state of Texas, next door neighbor Oklahoma, and the lightly contested Alaska caucus. Marco Rubio finally got on the board with a win in Minnesota, but had a string of third-place finishes except a strong showing in Virginia, where he placed second. No one is dropping out and there are winner-take-all primaries in Ohio and Florida in two weeks. 

In the last week or so, the full weight of whatever is left of the Republican establishment has coalesced around the idea that Donald Trump must be stopped at all costs. The only problem is that the party itself - the actual voters who are going out and casting ballots - disagree. It is not a small thing that Trump is winning contests across the board. He is not, like Ted Cruz, a seemingly regional candidate nor is he someone who is only garnering support from a small segment of the electorate, like Marco Rubio. Any other front-runner who was getting the votes of conservatives and moderates, the rich and poor, in regions throughout the country, would be spoken of as the presumptive nominee, but Trump is no ordinary candidate. His comments and statements are considered poison by Republican elites and they fear he will lead them to electoral disaster. 

If there is a silver lining, albeit a slim one, for those in the Dump Trump orbit, it is that Trump did not sweep Super Tuesday, as some predicted. There may be just enough of a gap in his support to deny him the nomination outright, but the idea that his supporters will accept having the nomination go to someone else is as unlikely as Trump himself accepting such a result. Then again, the next two weeks will be critical - every resource remaining will be deployed to beat Trump in Ohio, Florida, or both. At the same time, Trump will need to put real time, energy (and money) into combating this strategy. If he is successful, he wins the nomination. If he is not, get ready for every political reporters wet dream - a contested part convention.

For the Democrats, Hillary Clinton swept the south by huge margins and narrowly won in Massachusetts. Bernie Sanders won in his home state of Vermont and took caucus wins in Colorado, Minnesota and a primary win in Oklahoma. Mrs. Clinton won the majority of delegates awarded, but Sanders collected a nice haul as well. He has the money and desire to continue the race even as his path to ultimate victory appears to be nearly shut. Hillary Clinton has amassed an insurmountable lead over Bernie Sanders when her pledged super delegates are factored in, but because the states apportion delegates to the convention proportionally, it is unlikely she can win the nomination based on the primaries and caucuses alone but Sanders cannot catch her either. He can stay in the race and continue accumulating delegates but will fall well short of victory. He is in the same position Secretary Clinton was in back in 2008 and while he has every right to continue his campaign until the end (as she did), he has lost. Were Sanders a member in good standing of the Democratic party, he might be open to a discussion with party elders about bowing out gracefully, content with the knowledge that his presence in the race has brought the issues he cares about to the fore, but he is not and has no stake in the party, which he has simply rented for the purpose of running for President. 

Of course, this did not hurt the Democrats in 2008. While Hillary and President Obama competed until the end, she pivoted quickly and gave the then-Senator a full-throated endorsement and campaigned aggressively for him throughout the general election. Will the same be true of Sanders? Again, were he a card-carrying member of the party, I would feel more sanguine, but the reality is that he is not and he owes no loyalty to the Democrats to advance his career. At best, he has one more election in 2018 for another six-year term in the Senate which he should win easily regardless of how he handles his loss for the nomination. If anything, he could become a nuisance and not an ally if a hypothetical President Clinton is not sufficiently progressive on the issues that matter most to him. 

For Republicans, their options are a Trump nomination or using party rules to deny him that honor. Either way, the party will be deeply split and weak going into the general election. For Democrats, it is simply a question of how Sanders wants to lose - with dignity and class, or swinging, bleeding Clinton of money and resources she will need to win in November. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy 

Sunday, February 28, 2016

Previewing the 2016 Washington Nationals

As a born-and-bred Washingtonian, I have often remarked that the Redskins are like a first marriage that ends in divorce and the Nationals are a happy, second marriage. The former is wrapped up in a lot of conflicting emotions while the latter offers a purer, but mellower affection.

This has been true whether Livo was tossing out the first pitch at RFK in 2005 or the franchise was circling the drain in 2009 and 2010. Who cared? If you grew up without a baseball team, just being able to wear the “Curly W” cap with live human beings hitting and fielding at RFK was enough. By 2012, a new stadium had been broken in and a swarm of young talent resulted in a 98-win season and a National League East pennant. But is it possible that the franchise’s high water mark was reached over two nights in October of that year when Jayson Werth hit a walk-off home run to win Game 4 of the National League Divisional Series with the St. Louis Cardinals and the team ran out to a quick 6-0 lead at the end of the 3rd inning of Game 5 before melting down spectacularly in the top of the 9th inning?

At the time, losing to the Cardinals was brutal but did not seem history-changing. After all, the Nats went into 2013 with the same stacked line-up and their deep reserve of young talent appeared to have a several-year “window” of opportunity ahead of it. But even as the team has accumulated the fourth-most regular season wins in all of baseball over the past four seasons, success has been elusive. The 2013 team had major injuries and failed to make the playoffs. The 2014 team bounced back with 96 wins but lost a heartbreaking 18-inning playoff game to the San Francisco Giants (a questionable decision by then-skipper Matt Williams to pull Jordan Zimmermann in the top of the 9th will be endlessly debated) before being ousted in four games, and the 2015 squad was overtaken by the upstart Mets and their arsenal of flamethrowing young arms.

Entering the 2016 season, the Nats are at best a second-tier contender and a number of personnel decisions have eroded my once blissful feeling about the team. It was easy to root for the Nats when they sucked and it was exciting to watch the team blossom as young, homegrown talent like Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Ryan Zimmerman, Drew Storen, and Danny Espinosa blended with strategic pick-ups like Wilson Ramos and Gio Gonzalez and hotshot draft picks like Stephen Strasburg and Bryce Harper to become a contender.

But the Nats got too cute by half and began toying with clubhouse chemistry and fan loyalty, making splashy signings (Rafael Soriano, 2 years, $28 million, Max Scherzer, 7 years, $210 million) and questionable trades (hi, Jonathan Papelbon!) while seeming not to value the importance of taking care of their own or investing in less costly, but important middle relievers and bench players. The huge contract handed to Scherzer could have been used to resign Zimmermann AND Desmond (and have some money to spare) and Papelbon literally strangled Bryce Harper in the clubhouse. Oddly, while Papelbon was not released, the shrapnel hit poor Drew Storen, who got dealt in the offseason after twice being demoted from his closer’s spot even though he had notched more than 40 saves in 2011 and was on pace for at least 40 in 2015 before the inexplicable acquisition of Papelbon at the trade deadline. That move only happened because the team had a lights out (and beloved fan favorite) setup man in Tyler Clippard, but dealt him before the 2015 season because they did not want to pay him $8 million (we’re on the hook for $11 million with Papelbon this season.)

This offseason, instead of resigning Zimmermann (who took a relatively modest $110 million from the Tigers), the Nats tried to throw money around wildly, at Ben Zobrist, Jason Heyward, Yeonis Cespedes and anyone else (hi, Daniel Murphy!) who would take it. It is all of a piece with the seeming schizophrenic nature of team management. On the one hand, they will hand out a nine-figure contract to a free agent like Scherzer but refuse to eat the modest cost of releasing a clubhouse cancer like Papelbon or reward a team-drafted and cultivated pitcher like Zimmermann. While we may not miss shorter term pick-ups like Denard Span or Doug Fister, they too had ingratiated themselves with the fan base and those losses, coupled with the departures of Zimmermann and Desmond, will result in a much different team taking the field in April.

And the changes are not over. Looming at the end of this season are the potential departures of Stephen Strasburg and Wilson Ramos and two seasons later, reigning MVP Bryce Harper. Missing is the definition of the “Nationals Way.” Is it to cultivate a strong farm system that consistently stocks the team with young talent and is enhanced by strategic free agent signings and trades or is it a team that will dump that home grown talent when it gets too expensive while at the same time handing out enormous contracts to players with no ties to the organization whose contracts will weigh down the team’s future flexibility? 

Lastly, what message is the team sending when it fires a skipper a year removed from winning Manager of the Year but will keep a player who physically assaulted the team’s best player in the dugout?  The Nationals are now on their third manager in four seasons, reduced a lights-out starting pitching rotation into a mediocrity, and has been left scrambling to fill middle relief and infield positions that were either neglected or the team opted against resolving for years. Meanwhile, the Cubs are the new Nats, stockpiled top to bottom with young talent, the Mets have a starting rotation for the ages, and the Giants and Cardinals loom as perennial contenders because of enormously effective general and field management.

Perhaps this would matter less if the team had not tasted success or if the players we have bonded with were not so unceremoniously dumped. But the truth is the Nats are not nearly as likable as they once were and have become both underachieving and unwise in their decision making. I am not quite ready for another DC-sports team divorce, but then again, second marriages dissolve at even greater rates than first ones do. Stay tuned.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy