Wednesday, February 25, 2015

The Village

Today’s Politico Playbook nicely summarized the Beltway media’s disdain for the electoral process while neatly encapsulating the conventional wisdom of DC elites. You see, there is no need to hold Presidential primaries next year, because Mike Allen has advised us, in something he dubbed his “facts of life:"

What should be the presidential race of a lifetime (open nomination in both parties) is starting to look like a slog and maybe even a snore. Barring a major disruption in the force field, it's looking like Hillary vs. Jeb, and the same might still be true a year from now. The new dynamic of the GOP race, once totally up for grabs, is that someone has to knock out Jeb. It could be Walker, it could be Rubio, it could be Rand - but it'll be hard. The D.C. chatter is that for all Bush's advantages in the invisible primary, he has yet to encounter random voters, or perform strongly in an unscripted (or even scripted!) setting. Bush skeptics wonder over drinks if he's Phil Gramm from '96 - huge war chest, but a paper tiger.

But here's the rub: There's no post-Reagan instance of a Republican candidate who locks up the center right slot, plus big donors and the clear establishment blessing, then loses the nomination - Bush 41, Dole, Bush 43, McCain, Romney. Obviously, this trend could break. But based on what we know about modern campaigns, Bush 45 looks very strong for the nomination at this point.

Why is Jeb Bush looking “very strong” for the GOP nomination in 2016? Because the Village said so. Because the people who cover Presidential politics genuflected before Jeb Bush at his first batted eyelash toward running for President. Because DC elites fawn over things like lists of former high-ranking government officials who will be advising the former Florida Governor, never mind the fact that some of these nefarious characters were responsible for the calamity that was the Iraq War. Because it is easy to dismiss polls showing that Bush is trailing his competition in Iowa and New Hampshire because his last name is “Bush,” ergo, he is presumptive even if he has already stepped on his dick with the hiring of a social media guru who quit because of racist tweets and during his one foreign policy speech, he confused Iraq and Iran and misstated, by an order of magnitude, the number of fighters in ISIS. Because the Village gave his brother a similar pass in 2000, never calling him out on his “fuzzy math” or vague policy ideas because he seemed like a decent guy to hang out with. Because the Village hasn’t questioned Jeb’s role in the 2000 election, Terry Schiavo, stand your ground laws, or his business dealings (much less some intemperate remarks he made about women and African-Americans during his 1994 run for Florida Governor).

In other words, the Village has spoken. The American people be damned.

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Wednesday, February 18, 2015

There's Something About Hillary

For a politician who has not even announced whether she is running for President, Hillary Clinton is already suffering the slings and arrows of unfavorable media coverage. There does not seem to be any particular reason for this and much of it is nonsensical, but as Al Gore can remind the former First Lady, when it come to the press corps, perception can quickly solidify into reality. Consider:

·        Hillary Isn’t Liberal Enough: Journalists itching for a big, splashy primary fight use this trope to suggest that Hillary is too closely tied to Wall Street or that the base of the party actually wants Elizabeth Warren as its nominee. But the idea that a woman who cut her teeth politically for George McGovern, spent decades advocating for women and children’s rights (go read her Beijing 1995 speech), greater access to health care, even a two-state solution that formally used the word “Palestine” (which she was predictably criticized for) is in Wall Street’s pocket is laughable. Further, the idea that the base craves a full-throated liberal did not result in Tom Harkin being nominated in 1992 or Bill Bradley getting the nod in 2000 or Howard Dean prevailing in 2004. Indeed, polling shows the “liberal base” is perfectly content with Hillary, even if the Washington Post found 13 Iowa Democrats who are not;

·        If Hillary Doesn’t Have A Competitive Primary, She Won’t Be “Battle Tested”: I guess this would make sense if the person in question had not spent the last 22 years in the national spotlight, most of them on the business end of some of the slimiest, dirtiest, and coordinated political attacks in recent memory. Long before the Tea Party was doing the bone-in-the-nose-Obama-is-not-American routine, the vast right wing conspiracy was claiming the Clintons allowed drug running in Arkansas and murdered Vince Foster.

People forget Hillary Clinton was called before a federal grand jury when she was First Lady and her husband was impeached. The chattering class in DC, from Maureen Dowd (whose perma-hate boner for the Clintons is well-known) to the “dean” of Washington reporters, David Broder, who said the Clintons “broke” Washington, have gone to lunch writing hit pieces about Bill and Hillary Clinton since the new generation of reporters were still drinking out of sippy cups. One thing I do not think we have to worry about is whether Hillary Clinton can handle personal or political attacks against her;

·        The American People Don’t Want A Bush Or Clinton Dynasty: Jeb Bush represents the third generation of Bush family members seeking national office that stretches back to Senator Prescott Bush in 1952. Indeed, a fourth generation Bush family member, George P., was just elected Texas Land Commissioner. That is a dynasty. Bill and Hillary Clinton are self-made people who came from lower and middle class (respectively) backgrounds, earned their way into college and law school, and then made their political bones. There were no Clinton or Rodham pères to grease the wheels for them.  

·        Hillary Doesn’t Stand For Anything: Aside from the fact that she is not, you know, a candidate for President yet, and therefore is not under any obligation, no matter what the media thinks, to stake out positions, there are few politicians with a lengthier public profile than Hillary Clinton. Her core positions on domestic and foreign policy are available to anyone with a computer and link to the Internet.

·        Hillary Needs To Learn From 2008: People forget that Hillary received more votes during the 2008 primaries than Barack Obama, but his campaign’s strategy of focusing on caucuses and the party’s proportional allocation of delegates in larger states accrued to his benefit. In large states like New Jersey, New York, California, Pennsylvania and Ohio, Hillary swamped Obama (though both went for him in the general election) but did not reap the benefit of large delegate hauls because of the party’s primary rules.

So while Jeb Bush is getting a free pass for being his “own man” even as he relies on more than twenty of his brother’s appointees and advisors, most notably failed Iraq War architect Paul Wolfowitz, former CIA Directors Porter Goss and Michael Hayden, former National Security Advisor Stephen Hadley, and former Secretaries of Homeland Security Tom Ridge and Michael Chertoff, Hillary is saddled with media types like Chuck Todd openly admitting to “Hillary Fatigue” and a general distaste for her, not her policies, but her. Make of that what you will.

Monday, February 16, 2015

In Rizzo We Trust?

As the Washington Nationals prepare for their 10th spring training, expectations for this year could not be higher. Unlike 2013, when the team was undone by then-manager Davey Johnson's "World Series or Bust" mentality, this year's squad has no choice but to embrace that expectation after spending more than $200 million to sign former AL Cy Young winner Max Scherzer; adding him to what is already the deepest starting rotation in baseball and a team that won 96 games last year. Many returning players, like Ian Desmond, Jordan Zimmermann, Stephen Strasburg, and Bryce Harper are all in, or nearing, their prime playing years and the team has the taste of last October's bitter defeat to the San Francisco Giants in the NLDS in their collective mouths. 

But here is the thing, having the best regular season record in baseball, as the Nationals did in 2012 and in the National League in 2014, is no guarantee of post-season success. Moreover, the intangible chemistry that exists in a clubhouse is a fragile and tenuous thing, and there, the Nationals have tinkered with things in ways that may affect this year's squad. Consider the trading of Tyler Clippard, a stalwart 8th inning set-up man and beloved figure for his "fear the goggles" mentality and quirky delivery. That he also doubled as a closer (when needed) is no small thing considering Drew Storen's post-season performance (about which more in a moment). Or look at the looming free agency of Desmond, a player who started with the Expos organization before it moved to Washington and Zimmermann, a homegrown product drafted out of obscure Wisconsin-Stevens Point who has turned into one of the best pitchers in baseball. Neither player has been re-signed and most observers assume one or both will not be returning after this year because it will be cost prohibitive. 

These decisions might be defensible if the team was a "small market" club like Kansas City or Oakland or if these players were past their prime, but neither is the case. Clippard was owed a mere $9 million for 2015 (a bargain by today's standards) and Zimmermann is two years younger than Scherzer. Desmond is a unique talent at shortstop who hits for power and average but also possesses a strong throwing arm (though he does make a lot of errors) and is also only 29 years old. Signing Scherzer for $210 million when the starting rotation was already among the best in the business while failing to use that money to take care of home grown talent does not speak well of the organization and sends a message to players who are drafted and come up through the system that they can (and will) be jettisoned for a high profile free agent. And oh yeah, the Lerners are the wealthiest owners in the league, so money really should not be a problem.

Clippard was essentially flipped for a mediocre shortstop (Yunel Escobar) and replaced by Casey Janssen, a former Blue Jays closer coming off an injury-plagued season. Meanwhile, the team has a question mark at first base because they let Adam LaRoche leave via free agency, there is no guarantee Escobar will work at second (the team could have re-signed mid-season pick-up Asdrubal Cabrera but opted not to) and there is still a huge question mark in the bullpen. Drew Storen has now blown two critical saves in the post-season and no matter how many regular season wins the team piles up, none of it will matter if the guy they call on to finish games is incapable of doing so. Last year, Storen was put in a tough spot by manager Matt Williams who, in my view, made an awful decision to lift Zimmermann in the bottom of the ninth inning of game two of the NLDS, but it happened, and Storen blew the game. 

No GM bats 1.000 and Rizzo's long-term record speaks for itself; however, in the quest for winning that elusive World Series, the team may be setting itself up for failure. In addition to Zimmermann, Doug Fister, who Rizzo swiped from the Detroit Tigers and was arguably the team's most consistent starter last year, is also unsigned after this year and Strasburg can walk in 2016. The team can't simultaneously discuss a long-term window that requires fiscal prudence while spending lavishly on a shiny toy like Scherzer, who is signed until age 37, well past when he is expected to pitch at a high level. 

Instead of making some small changes and focusing on locking down players who have contributed to that success, I fear the team is following a path of teams like the Yankees, Red Sox and Phillies, all of whom lost sight of building their farm systems and adding strategic parts in favor of splashy free agent signings. And while the Red Sox won it all two years ago, neither New York or Philadelphia has won a title in more than five years and each is now mediocre at best. Meanwhile, the Giants have won three of the last five World Series without getting drawn into the types of bidding wars that result in contracts that can cripple teams in the long run.  Of course, if the Nationals do win it all this year, this will all be moot, but if they do not, the window on future contention may slam shut. 

Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy

Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Brian Williams and the Future of News Broadcasting

Now that NBC has dropped a six-month suspension on NBC Nightly News host Brian Williams for fabricating a story about his experiences in Iraq, the Monday-morning quarterbacking has begun both about Williams’s apparent penchant for embellishment (which was supposedly well known, but never discussed) and whether he will ever be able to regain the trust of his viewers.

While these are natural questions to ask, they are small bore compared to the far more serious ones the media should be asking itself about its role in contemporary society. You see, while Williams’s offense was largely one of self-aggrandizement, the bigger, and more troubling issue is about how “the media” has largely sacrificed its role as neutral arbiter of fact-based reporting and become a small step removed from gossip and tabloid journalism.

In today’s culture, the coin of the realm is sniffing out hypocrisy and double standards. It did not take long for the Twitterverse to observe that Brian Williams’s suspension was a more severe punishment for anything having to do with the Iraq War than any suffered by a member of the Bush Administration that bent the truth over and over to convince America of the correctness of that war. Of course, the lies and cherry-picked intelligence spewed by the Bush Administration would have been blunted by a more skeptical media horde, but instead, a compliant press corps largely acted as stenographers for these falsehoods without questioning the veracity of their claims, to devastating results.

That no one was held to account for these lies is a far more egregious crime than any tall tale woven by a hairdo who sits behind a desk and reads off a TelePrompTer. And not only are people not held to account, but they appear on our TV screens over and over again. The ones who claimed Iraqis would great us as liberators or that WMD existed, that the fundamentals of our economy were strong (even as we were melting down), that Obamacare would destroy the economy, or that bailing out GM and Chrysler was a bad idea. There is literally no end to the willingness of “news” outlets to continue having people on TV who have been so wrong about so many things.

As for the politicians, they no longer need fear that anyone will seriously question them. Not when the moderator of Meet the Press concedes that he does not push his guests for fear they will no longer appear on his show or that guests can simply regurgitate pre-fabricated talking points without fear they will be fact checked by their hosts. Instead, they risk being turned into cable news fodder to fill out a news cycle if an aide’s odious tweets are exposed or they make an ill-advised comment about vaccinating your children.

On the other hand, crises of the day are elevated into the latest “-gate” while the solution is rarely reported with anywhere near the same level of attention or focus. The glitches that attended the roll-out of dominated the news for a week or more and then disappeared. That the website has been used by millions to get health coverage barely merits a mention, whereas the initial “rocky roll-out” caused Chuck Todd to demand an apology from the President of the United States. The list goes on and on, from Ebola to the Veterans Administration, relations between Mayor de Blasio and the NYPD, children crossing the border from Mexico and many other stories in between hoover up precious airtime right up until the moment that the problem is solved or a new scandal erupts, at which point, you never hear about it again.  

This is not to say that a website should be glitchy or that relations between the Mayor of the country’s largest city and his police force do not matter, but the proportionality of the reporting is completely out of whack. Whether it’s a failure to acknowledge the numerous reports on how the Affordable Care Act is changing the delivery of health care in our country or how the economy has rebounded in a meaningful way, by giving “good news” such short shrift, the populace is harmed because they are left with an incomplete and inaccurate view of the world around them. On the other hand, taking 13 Iowa Democrats who do not like Hillary Clinton and turning that into a news story about her failure to connect with the base was actually a thing that was reported in The Washington Post.

So instead of hoisting Brian Williams on his own petard for being a smug prick who thought he could get away with making himself the hero in his very own war story, the media should spend a little more time looking at itself in the mirror and asking whether it is doing its job.
Follow me on Twitter - @scarylawyerguy


Tuesday, February 10, 2015

A Voice of A Generation, 4

A voice of a generation died on Sunday night in Iowa City, Iowa. The voice, which began as a clarion call about the pitfalls and life lessons learned by a very specific slice of upper-middle class, white Brooklynites finally collapsed under its own weight when Hannah Horvath quit the Iowa Writer’s Workshop because her classmates Mean-Girl’d her and thought her work unserious or worthy of their accolades.

Of course, she did little to ingratiate herself with her fellow graduate students, but having taken the next step in a series of random steps (to paraphrase Adam) and failed spectacularly, to pull up stakes is just the sort of who-gives-a-shit kind of decision that I guess you can make when it does not appear that you need to earn money to live or be concerned about consequences other than the fact your boyfriend got himself a new girlfriend while you were away, which should not surprise you since you randomly told him you were going to Iowa the night of his Broadway premiere. But hey, <shrug>  

For all its acclaim and the avalanche of thought pieces, show recaps, and Internet buzz it generated, Hannah’s return to Brooklyn, only to discover that Adam has shacked up (in her apartment no less!) with a new lover is the jump-the-shark moment when Girls has officially run out of things to say. It is not just that Jessa continues to have a cosmic get-out-of-jail free card (even when she pees on the sidewalk) or that Marnie can make from-behind-ass-eating oddly untittilating, or that Shosh seems to be a Tourette’s robot incapable of speaking in anything other than an odd staccato that one can only hope does not actually exist in real life, it is that one can only roll one’s eyes so many times at this crew before finally saying, WHO CARES.

When it began, Girls seemed revelatory and fresh, its protagonist famously advising her parents that she thought she could be “a voice of a generation.” But that wobbly combination of self-confidence and insecurity that is stereotypically millennial wears thin after a while when the people start looking like hamsters on a wheel and no progress is made. While it is true that the Seinfeld gang went to lunch on the “no lessons learned” mantra for nine seasons, it took itself far less seriously and was elevated by the vox populi to its exalted state from meager ratings to be a show that tens of millions watched each week. On the other hand, and as others have observed, shows like Broad City have cropped up to show a more realistic (and bawdy) version of life in New York City for random 20somethings.

My own feelings about Girls are well-documented and there is something to be said about the idea that anything in culture only loses its relevance if people stop paying attention to it. Clearly, Girls still matters to some in the media, just not in the way it once did. Recaps and analysis seem perfunctory and the show is no longer appointment television, which highlights the difficulty any show has in sustaining the sweet spot of cultural zeitgeist and critical accolades and underscores the difference between the very good and truly great.

Follow me on Twitter: @scarylawyerguy

Season 2:

Season 1: