Author Archives: weeklysift

Doug Muder is a former mathematician who now writes about politics and religion. He is a frequent contributor to UU World.

Inexpensive Indulgences

Sometimes I wonder whether these various forms of giving back have become to our era what the papal indulgence was to the Middle Ages: a relatively inexpensive way of getting oneself seemingly on the right side of justice, without having to alter the fundamentals of one’s life.

Anand Giridharadas, quoted by David Brooks

This week’s featured post is “If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany“.

This week everybody was talking about another policeman killing a black man

Once again, an unarmed black person pulled over for a traffic stop winds up dead. This one is Sam DuBose in Cincinnati. The video here is maybe the worst I’ve seen. DuBose is sitting in his car, cringing backwards and holding an arm in front of his face, when the officer shoots him in the head.

The officer has been indicted for murder and has pleaded not guilty. The two officers who initially backed his made-up story (of being dragged and fearing for his life) have not been charged, apparently because they testified more accurately to the grand jury and did not directly contradict the video.

The more such cases we have on video, the more you have to wonder about the cases where there wasn’t video, and prosecutors or juries believed what the police told them.

and Cecil the Lion

An American dentist and big-game hunter killed a tagged lion who had been a major attraction in a national park in Zimbabwe. Apparently Cecil was lured out of the park to a place where he could be killed. Zimbabwe claims the killing was illegal anyway, and is asking the U.S. to extradite Dr. Walter Palmer of Minnesota.


Black activists on Twitter made very clever use of the incident with the hastag #AllLionsMatter. They have imitated all the things usually posted about victims of police shootings:

why talk about lions being killed by humans when lion on lion crime is at an all time HIGH? they’re killing their own kind!

was a thug. If he hadn’t been so intimidating, he’d still be alive today.

Here is a picture of Cecil the Lion being violent against his own that the media won’t show you. They want to always point fingers at dentists that kill lions, but never talk about the rampant lion on lion crime that takes place everyday in the wild. In addition, Cecil The Lion was found to have traces of tall yellow grass in his system, which has never been known to correlate with violence, but we will just mention it just because. If he had showed the dentist his ID and not have been outside of the Safari, this would have never happened

and Iran

The featured post lists most of the craziest things critics of the Iran deal have been saying. Slate‘s William Saletan watched the committee hearings and came away with this:

Republican senators and representatives offered no serious alternative. They misrepresented testimony, dismissed contrary evidence, and substituted vitriol for analysis. They seemed baffled by the idea of having to work and negotiate with other countries. I came away from the hearings dismayed by what the GOP has become in the Obama era. It seems utterly unprepared to govern.

This is why the GOP deserves what Trump is doing to its presidential process. In a democracy, responsible political leadership is an interface between Reality and the public will. So it combines two roles: representing the public and educating it.

As you know if you’ve ever been elected to the leadership of your church or club or neighborhood group, half of your job is to do the research the members don’t all have the time to do, and then to explain Reality to them, particularly if it doesn’t work the way they think it should.

During the Obama years, Republican politicians have abandoned that educating role. They have brought out the worst in their followers, and whenever possible have taken advantage of any counter-factual notions the base might have. Why not encourage conspiracy theories like Birtherism or Jade Helm? Why not claim that cutting taxes will lower the deficit? Why make people face up to the bad news about climate change?

Trump is the logical outcome of that trend. When he says he’s going to build a wall at the border and make Mexico pay for it, or order Ford to move its factories back to the United States — well, that sounds pretty good, doesn’t it? At this late date, no other candidate is in the position to say, “Wait a minute. Reality doesn’t work that way.” Because none of them speak for Reality any more. It’s been a long time since anyone has told the base that Reality matters.

and Thursday’s Republican debate

The latest polls mostly just confirm what we’ve been seeing: Trump in the lead, with Walker, Bush, and Carson in the next tier. The rest of the debate stage looks like Paul, Rubio, Cruz, Huckabee, Christie, and Kasich. Rick Perry is the first man out (though he’s not that far behind Kasich). Santorum, Jindal, Fiorina, Pataki, Graham, and Gilmore won’t be there.

The need to rise in the national polls so that you’ll be on that stage has been driving the wild rhetoric we’ve been hearing. (Christie has even been advertising, which usually nobody does this early.) Once you get onto the stage, though, you need to do something to get yourself in the next morning’s headlines. I can’t wait to see what they’ll come up with.

but I was thinking about religion

Changing U.S. Religious LandscapeAn updated Religious Landscape Study by Pew Research came out in May. According to a summary on the Pew web site, the big news is the continued growth of “Nones” (people who don’t identify themselves with any particular religion) and the decline of Christians.

The report is based on 2014 data and is compared with the previous 2007 data. (See table.) The percentage of the American adult population describing themselves as either atheist, agnostic, or unaffiliated rose from 16.1% to 22.8%, while the number identifying as Christian fell from 78.4% to 70.6%. Non-Christian religions grew from 4.7% to 5.9%, with Muslims (0.4% to 0.9%) and Hindus (0.4% to 0.7%) responsible for most of that increase.

That’s the kind of change I’d expect to see in a generation, not in seven years.

All major Christian groups declined (see graph to the right), but mainline Protestants and Catholics took the worst of it, with evangelical Protestants growing in number but still shrinking as a percentage of the population.

The composition of the Nones changed as well, as they shifted in a more radical direction. The percentage of atheists nearly doubled (1.6% to 3.1%), and agnostics were also up sharply (2.4% to 4%). Most of the Nones continue to describe themselves as “nothing in particular”, but within that group there was a shift towards those who said religion wasn’t important to them (as opposed to what I think of as the “spiritual but not religious” people).

As a group, the Nones are young and getting younger. Their median age declined from 38 to 36, compared to the median American adult age of 46. Among adults age 18-29, 36% are Nones compared to 56% Christian.

This is a political blog, so think about the politics of these numbers. Howard Dean took a lot of heat back in 2005 when he described Republicans as “pretty much a white Christian party“. But if you listen to the current crop of Republican presidential candidates, a lot of them really aren’t even talking to you if you’re not a white Christian. (Watch Ted Cruz’ announcement speech at Liberty University.) A lot has been made of the steady decline of whites as a percentage of the electorate, and what that means for the Republican strategy, but Christians are declining even faster.

Given that, what to make of this poll of Republicans from February? The headline was about their presidential preferences, but Question 17 was: “Would you support or oppose establishing Christianity as the national religion?” Support: 57%. Oppose: 30%. Not sure: 13%.

and white denial

David Brooks took a lot of heat two weeks ago when he wrote his response to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ new book Between the World and Me. Like here and here and here. And I had a prior opinion: Coates is a valuable voice I frequently quote on this blog, while Brooks’ NYT column is usually a waste of one of the most valuable pieces of real estate in all of Journalism. But I decided not to pile on, because I hadn’t read Between the World and Me. For all I knew, Coates had overstepped and Brooks had a valid point.

OK, I’ve read it now. BtW&M is a beautiful piece of writing. It’s hard to read at times, particularly if you’re white, but it communicates a view that whites are not going to find in a lot of other places.

Also, it’s rare that a writer this talented just lets it rip. Coates’ pieces for The Atlantic have a measured, let-me-lay-out-the-facts tone (similar to what I aspire to here). But BtW&M is written as a letter to his 15-year-old son, and Coates just doesn’t worry about whether he sounds too sentimental or too angry or too anything. He’ll throw an ambiguous image or metaphor out there and let you figure it out. He’s on a roll, and he’s not slowing down for you.

One of the not-fully-explained terms in the book is “the Dream”. The Dream starts out as the idealized white suburban world Coates sees on TV as he’s growing up. It’s a place where people are secure and the institutions of society work almost all the time. Fears are isolated and often irrational; they get resolved before the credits run. It contrasted with the black urban Baltimore Coates was living in, where you had to choose your path to school carefully, and always be aware of who you’re walking with and whether there are enough of you. In Coates’ world, you didn’t solve problems by appealing to the proper authorities, because the authorities were a source of danger in themselves. So you lived in constant fear — everybody did. Whether you hid in your room or joined a gang and bullied others or escaped into drugs or escaped into books, you were responding to that pervasive fear.

As the book goes on, “the Dream” grows to include the self-serving, self-reinforcing, reality-denying worldview of the people who believe that the white suburban world is the whole world, people who don’t understand why everybody doesn’t just solve their problems in the easy ways they would. In the Dream, nothing is fundamentally wrong with America, it’s just that some people don’t know how to take advantage of the opportunities it offers.

In other words, the Dream is where David Brooks lives. And he responds in the way that has become typical for the privileged classes: He acts as if Coates had claimed universality for his experience, and he denies that claim. It’s like the not-all-men response to the Isla Vista murders. Brooks writes:

I think you distort American history. This country, like each person in it, is a mixture of glory and shame. There’s a Lincoln for every Jefferson Davis and a Harlem Children’s Zone for every K.K.K. — and usually vastly more than one. Violence is embedded in America, but it is not close to the totality of America.

But why even stop there? The abject lives of the slaves was not the totality of the plantation, which also included the cultured, genteel lives of the masters. I’m sure many in the KKK lynch mobs were (at other times) good decent family men. For that matter, why do we focus just on the monstrous side of historic figures like Hitler or Stalin? No doubt there were moments in their lives where they were kind and generous and fun to hang out with. Why don’t we ever tell those stories?

The point is: You don’t have a complete picture of America if you don’t include the experiences of its underclasses. You don’t even have a complete picture of white suburban America if you don’t see how it sits next to and interacts with and (yes) oppresses those underclasses. If your knee-jerk reaction to any confrontation with underclass experience is to start waxing eloquent about Abe Lincoln and cute puppies, then you’re living in a dream world.

and seeing candidates for myself

The day after posting the Hillary Clinton edition of my 2016 series, I got to see her do a town hall meeting in a school gym in Nashua (a moderate walk from where I live).

Clinton does a really good town hall. She seemed knowledgeable about everything that came up. She’s personable, and I think the Grandma-in-Chief image is working for her. Somehow, she managed not to sweat while wearing a jacket in a hot room. She answered a lot of questions, but no one seemed to care about the email controversy.

It’s always fascinating to be at a news event and then see how the media covers it. This meeting made it to CNN (once again, I was on the wrong side of the room to be on camera), but only for the question Clinton didn’t answer: Whether or not she would approve the Keystone XL Pipeline. I will give her credit for dodging it directly: She said she wasn’t going to answer, and gave an explanation that was maybe-sorta plausible, rather than bamboozling us for a while and then claiming she had answered. (She says she started the State Department’s decision process and then handed it off to Kerry, so she won’t undercut him by saying what he should do.)

Here’s what you miss about the context: The crowd (maybe 600 people, I estimated) accepted her refusal to answer. There were no boos or protests or follow-up questions on that topic. If you just watch CNN, you’d get the impression that she’s really being dogged by this issue; if you were there, it came and went quickly.


Something I’ve noticed about townhall meetings is that certain candidates cast a kind of spell: Even if I don’t support all their policies, I start making up excuses that could allow me to vote for them. In the past I’ve noticed that effect from seeing John McCain and Wesley Clark, so I thought it was my weakness for military types. But since Tuesday I’ve been noticing the same thing with regard to Clinton. I have no explanation.


While we’re talking about Hillary, Vox‘s Jonathan Allen dissected the NYT’s botched scandal story:

This episode is a particularly illustrative example of how an unspoken set of “Clinton rules” govern the media’s treatment of Clinton and how that ends up distorting the public view of her.

The Clinton campaign wrote a scathing letter to the Times, which it refused to print. Josh Marshall writes:

The Times has a problem covering the Clintons. There’s no getting around that conclusion. It’s a longstanding problem. It’s institutional. I am really baffled as to why they can’t simply come clean on this one.


At this stage in the campaign, candidates are mostly rallying their supporters or likely supporters, so it’s a little tricky to figure out where they’re going to be. (I found Tuesday’s meeting by walking into Clinton headquarters on Main Street in Nashua and asking.) This week I bit the bullet and signed up for the Trump campaign’s email updates. I’m waiting to see if I start getting junk mail about buying gold or joining the NRA.

and you may also be interested in …

Steve Hogarty tweeted:

Another embarrassing u-turn for climate “scientists”. First they said June was the hottest month ever recorded. Now they’re saying it’s July.

I believe this is satire, but it’s so hard to tell these days.


I don’t know if you’ve seen the Facebook meme claiming that Congress made Confederate veterans into U.S. veterans in 1958. But surprise! The notion comes from the Sons of Confederate Veterans, and they were lying, just like they lie about most history relating to the Civil War.


Kayaking Greenpeace protestors in Portland delayed a Shell Oil ship headed to the arctic.  Others rappelled off a bridge to get in the way.

 

and let’s close with a view from an alternate universe

Key and Peele show us a world where teachers are followed like sports stars.

If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany

The public debate is framing the Iran nuclear deal exactly backwards.


As Congress prepares to vote on the recent agreement with Iran, the deal’s Republican opponents have been competing to see who can describe it in the most horrifying terms. Mike Huckabee claimed President Obama would “take the Israelis and march them to the door of the oven”. Senator Ted Cruz said “it will make the Obama administration the world’s leading financier of radical Islamic terrorism.” In a committee hearing, Senator Lindsey Graham scolded the Secretaries of State, Defense, and Energy, implying that the administration had been too eager to avoid war.

Could we win a war with Iran? Who wins the war between us and Iran? Who wins? Do you have any doubt who wins? … We win!

In a speech whose video has been watched more than half a million times on YouTube, former congressman Alan West denounced the “weakling in the White House” saying:

How dare Barack Obama, how dare John Kerry, how dare Valerie Jarrett, or any of these other charlatans that occupy Washington D.C., surrender this great constitutional republic to the Republic of Iran!

Senator Marco Rubio also sees “weakness”:

President Obama has consistently negotiated from a position of weakness, giving concession after concession to a regime that has American blood on its hands, holds Americans hostage, and has consistently violated every agreement it ever signed.

Chris Christie said that President Obama was “giving Iran a nuclear weapon”. And he implied that they will bully more “gifts” out of us, now that the realize how weak our president is:

You give them your belt, they’ll want your pants next. That’s the way it goes

Defenses of the deal, by contrast, have been measured. The New Yorker‘s Steven Coll‘s positive analysis, for example, concludes:

The deal is imperfect but good enough, and it offers a tentative promise of a less dangerous Middle East.

Or, as the Chairman of the Joint Chiefs, General Martin Dempsey, put it:

Relieving the risk of a nuclear conflict with Iran diplomatically is superior than trying to do that militarily.

Listening to this discussion, particularly the portion that penetrates the conservative bubble and bounces around its echo chamber, you might reasonably imagine that whatever small concessions we got from Iran, we gave up far too much in return. Those hard-headed and hard-fisted mullahs bullied that hapless jellyfish that we call a president, who was so eager to get any kind of deal that he gave away the store.

If that’s what you believe, you have the story exactly backwards: There is a bully in the story, but it’s the United States. We got Iran’s lunch money, and we gave up nothing.

How can that be? And if it is that way, why doesn’t President Obama beat his chest and say so?

Who? Us? The central myth of the era of American dominance (i.e., since World War II) is that our power is benign. No matter how many countries we invade or bomb, or how many governments we overthrow (as we overthrew Iran’s fledgling democracy in 1953 and reinstalled the brutal Shah), we always act on the side of right and justice. Sure, we police the world, but we’re Officer Friendly. We’re never the kind of cops who throw their weight around.

In acceptable American political debate, neither Republican nor Democratic leaders are allowed to challenge that myth. And that puts the Obama administration at a significant disadvantage as it tries to claim credit for its diplomatic victory over Iran. Because this time we did throw our weight around, and we got something.

Retelling the story. So let’s put aside the myth of benign American power and retell the story of the current agreement, beginning with the basic issue: Will Iran construct a nuclear weapon? In other words, will Iran do something that we did 70 years ago, that Israel did 50 years ago, and that Pakistan (Iran’s rival in the looming Sunni/Shia conflict) did almost 20 years ago?

I grant that in many parts of the Middle East, Iran funds and supplies groups that fight against our allies (though we find ourselves on the same side against ISIS). I grant that we (and Israel and Saudi Arabia) have good reasons to want to keep Iran from building a bomb. But let’s not pretend that Iran was doing something monstrous and unheard of when they built a secret complex capable of producing (eventually) a weaponizable quantity of fissionable material.

Iran is a moderately large country (with a population larger than traditional nuclear powers like United Kingdom or France) with oil wealth and a heritage of civilization going back to Cyrus the Great (who freed the Jews from the Babylonian Captivity). It sees a club of great nations (plus a few lesser nations) and believes it deserves to join. The fact that we have reasons to want to keep them out does not imply that their desire to join is illegitimate.

Threats of war. OK, so what have we done to stop them? During the Bush years, we negotiated a few sanctions, but mainly we rattled our sabers. (The Bush U.N. ambassador, John Bolton, is still rattling. And Republican presidential candidate Scott Walker has said “the next president could be called to take aggressive actions, including military action, on the first day in office”.) Every few months, the press would publish rumors that we (or Israel with or without our approval) were planning an attack on Iran’s nuclear laboratories and reactors, as Israel attacked Iraq’s Osirak reactor in 1981.  Presumably, at least some of that buzz came from intentional leaks meant to intimidate the Iranians. When the Obama administration came in, it continued to insist that “all options are on the table“. In other words, if we don’t get what we want, we might launch an attack.

If you look for any corresponding Iranian saber-rattling at us, what you mainly find are threats to counter-attack if we attack them. (These threats usually get covered in the American press as if hitting back were barbarous.)

So if there’s a Munich analogy here — I wouldn’t go there, but Jeb Bush, Ted Cruz, John Bolton, and many other Obama critics did (including The Drudge Report photoshopping Obama’s face onto Neville Chamberlain in the photo above)  — the only way it can make any sense is if we are in the Hitler role. We’re the ones who have been threatening war unless another nation agrees to our demands.

Economic warfare. But the saber-rattling wasn’t working, so the Obama administration opened a second front: Through diplomacy, it got the UN Security Council to impose far harsher sanctions on Iran than the Bush administration had managed. We had to convince Russia and China to go along with us on that, which wasn’t easy. (Russia’s desire to oppose the West in Iran goes back the Great Game between the Czars and the British Empire.) But President Obama and Secretary Clinton got it done.

The sanctions took a serious bite out of the Iranian economy, which pushed them to the negotiating table. In the negotiations that just concluded, they agreed to restrictions on their nuclear program that should prevent them from having nuclear weapons for the near-to-medium term. (Whoever is president when the agreement expires will still have all of his or her options on the table.)

Who’s the bully? In exchange for those very real concessions, we agreed to a gradual relaxing of the sanctions that we created. What we’re “giving” the Iranians are their own frozen assets. And we’re going to allow them to participate in the world economy, like any other country would.

In what sense is any of that a “concession” on our part? Imagine you’re in school, and you get a smaller kid in a headlock. He gives you his lunch money and you let him go. Have you “conceded” anything to him, really?

Your fellow bullies might claim that you let him off too easy, that if you’d squeezed a little harder he might have given you his sneakers too. And maybe they’re right: By walking away unscathed, the kid gained much more than you did, compared to the scenario where you beat the crap out of him and took his lunch money anyway. (As Senator Graham says, if it comes to war, “We win!”)

But in a larger sense, all you’ve done is let him out of a situation that you created. You have his lunch money and he has nothing of yours.

That’s the Iran deal: We have an agreement to keep them from building a bomb any time soon, and an inspection regime to make sure they keep that agreement. They got nothing from us.

The Monday Morning Teaser

This week Congress has been discussing the deal to keep Iran from getting nuclear weapons, and rhetoric has been high, both inside the Capitol and on the campaign trail. Mike Huckabee invoked the image of Obama sending Jews “to the oven”. Ted Cruz accused Obama of sponsoring terrorism. And so on.

But the one meme that Republicans keep coming back to is Munich, where British Prime Minister Neville Chamberlain conceded part of Czechoslovakia to Hitler in 1938 and announced that he had achieved “peace for our time”.  Chamberlain’s “appeasement” at Munich has become the universal symbol of weak negotiators and people willing to give up too much to avoid war, who just guarantee that war will come on worse terms.

This morning I’m going to take that meme on directly with an article I call “If This Is Munich, We Must Be Germany”. Because Obama’s critics are applying the metaphor backwards: The United States has been the country threatening war if it didn’t get what it wanted, and Iran gave up something to avoid that war. They got nothing of ours.

That should be out fairly soon, maybe 8 or 8:30 EDT.

In the weekly summary we have yet another police killing caught on video, Cecil the Lion and #AllLionsMatter, David Brooks vs. Ta-Nehisi Coates, new numbers from Pew showing the decline of American Christianity, and a Key & Peele video about a world where teachers are treated like sports stars. I’ve got a lot of work to do on that, so it may not show up until nearly noon.

Stretching the Possible

For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.

— Hillary Rodham, Wellesley commencement speech (1969)

This week’s featured post is: “The 2016 Stump Speeches: Hillary Clinton“.

This week everybody was talking about Sandra Bland

Unsurprisingly, Larry Wilmore has it right: We don’t know why Bland wound up dead — so far the evidence seems to back the original story of suicide, which raises the next question of what happened to her in jail — but we have the dashcam video of the arrest, and it’s messed up.

The video validates a lot of what the black community has believed about the recent series of high-profile black deaths at-the-hands-of or in-the-custody-of police: While Sandra isn’t as meek and mild as she might be, it is the officer who consistently escalates the situation, until he is waving a taser in the face of a woman who is doing nothing more threatening than sitting in her car, smoking a cigarette, and asking why she’s being detained. As Wilmore points out: It is the officer who is supposed to be the professional. He is the one who sees this situation every day, and whose behavior should be judged by a higher standard.

The question everyone ought to be asking is: How typical is this behavior among police in general, and particularly among police dealing with black people?

Salon‘s Brittney Cooper writes:

On three occasions I have given “attitude” to police, asked questions about unfair harassment and citations, and let the officers know that I didn’t agree with how they were doing their jobs. I have never threatened an officer or refused an order. But I have vigorously exercised my right to ask questions and to challenge improper shows of force.

I have had the police threaten to billyclub me, write unfair tickets, and otherwise make public spaces less safe, rather than more safe, for me to inhabit, all out of a clear lust for power. On the wrong day, I could have been Sandra Bland.

… Black people, of every station, live everyday just one police encounter from the grave. Looking back over my encounters with police, it’s truly a wonder that I’m still in the land of the living.

Am I supposed to be grateful for that? Are we supposed to be grateful each and every time the police don’t kill us?

There is a way that white people in particular treat Black people, as though we should be grateful to them — grateful for jobs in their institutions, grateful to live in their neighborhoods, grateful that they aren’t as racist as their parents and grandparents, grateful that they pay us any attention, grateful that they acknowledge our humanity (on the rare occasions when they do), grateful that they don’t use their formidable power to take our lives.

Everyone melted at the quick forgiveness that relatives of his victims offered to Dylan Roof. But Sandra’s mom reacted with the kind of anger I think most of us would feel: “Once I put this baby in the ground, I’m ready. This means war.”

When violence broke out in Ferguson and Baltimore, many whites were mystified. They could get a clue from the season opener of AMC’s Hell on Wheels, particularly the scene where ex-slave-owner Cullen Bohannon warns his bosses on the railroad that the abuse of the Chinese workers will lead to trouble. “Sooner or later,” he says, “a beat dog’s gonna bite.”

and Clinton’s emails

What initially looked like a smoking gun now looks gross journalistic incompetence on the part of The New York Times. This is kind of typical. For decades, opposition research has generated a continual haze of mistrust around Hillary, but when you look back at the accusations after they’ve been investigated, there’s nothing there.

a Louisiana shooting and new details in the Chattanooga shooting

These days you can’t tell the mass shootings without a scorecard. The Chattanooga shooting is confusing the media, because the shooter is a Muslim, but he fits the disturbed-young-man frame more than the ISIS-inspired-terrorist frame.

Thursday we had another theater shooting, this one in Lafayette, Louisiana. Governor Jindal said that “now is not the time” to discuss gun control, and Donald Trump assured the public that “this has nothing to do with guns”.

and Medicare

Jeb Bush has his brother’s knack for mis-turning a phrase, so he drew a lot of attention when he called for “phasing out” Medicare. He walked that back a little, but Paul Waldman pulls the context together on WaPo’s Plum Line blog.

Bush’s choice of words made headlines, but his likely position is in the Republican mainstream: Medicare’s costs are going out of control, so it will eventually be bankrupt. So it needs to be replaced with a cost-controlled voucher plan like the one Paul Ryan proposed a few years ago.

Waldman makes two important points: First, that while Republicans use cost as an argument to do away with Medicare as we know it, they oppose any attempt to control costs within Medicare.

For instance, they’re adamantly opposed to comparative effectiveness research, which involves looking at competing treatments and seeing which ones actually work better.

Also, private insurance has far higher overhead costs than Medicare, so privatization would push costs up, not down. Government could save money for itself by limiting the size of the voucher, but that would just shift the higher costs to the individual.

Kevin Drum points out that under the most recent projections, it wouldn’t really be that hard to maintain both Social Security and Medicare as they currently exist.

So this is what Jeb is saying: Right now the federal government spends about 20 percent of GDP. We can’t afford to increase that to 23 percent of GDP over the next 30 years. That would—what? I don’t even know what the story is here. Turn us into Greece? Require us to tax millionaires so highly they all give up and go Galt? Deprive Wall Street of lots of pension income they can use to blow up the world again?

Beats me. This whole thing is ridiculous. Over the next 30 years, we need to increase spending by 1 percent of GDP per decade. That’s it.

Jeb is absolutely right that liberals won’t “join the conversation” about gutting Medicare. Because it’s just not necessary.

and Planned Parenthood

You may have missed this if you restrict your attention to legitimate news sources, but it’s been echoing all over Fox News and the rest of the conservative bubble: Not just one, but two (!) highly-edited hidden-camera videos supposedly show Planned Parenthood officials haggling to sell organs from aborted fetuses. In response, Republicans in Congress and on the campaign trail are calling for investigations and cutting off any federal funds that go to Planned Parenthood. (It’s already true that none of those funds pay for abortions. Vox details where the money goes.)

In short, it’s the James O’Keefe ACORN sting all over again. In those more innocent days, O’Keefe’s video steamrolled Congress into defunding the community-organizing group ACORN, effectively destroying it. Only later did anybody ask “What are we really seeing here?”, examine the unedited footage, and figure out that it was all a con. (O’Keefe wound up paying a $100K settlement to an ACORN employee he smeared.)

Observing the effectiveness of the tactic, Rachel Maddow wondered: “Who do you think is next on their list?” Well, now we know: Planned Parenthood.

Background: A woman who has an abortion can decide to donate the fetus to science, and the scientific groups that study those fetuses can reimburse the costs involved in preserving and delivering the fetuses to their labs. That’s all legal and well understood in the medical research community.

So anti-choice activists created a front group, the Center for Medical Progress, which registered with the IRS as something they aren’t: a “biomedicine charity”. In that guise, they talked to Planned Parenthood about obtaining tissue from aborted fetuses. The conversations were secretly video-taped — which also appears to be illegal — and the CMP actor manipulated the conversation into areas that could be re-edited to look like the Planned Parenthood officials were trying to make a profit by selling body parts. (One part that got edited out was the Planned Parenthood official saying, “nobody should be ‘selling’ tissue. That’s just not the goal here.”)

Meanwhile, the reason Republicans in Congress were able to jump on the video so quickly is that some of them had seen it weeks in advance. But none of them alerted the appropriate authorities or called for an investigation until the first video was made public. In other words, their behavior was consistent with people participating in a propaganda exercise, not an investigation of any actual law-breaking. When questioned, Rep. Tim Murphy responded like this:

Asked afterward why he and others waited until this week to take action, Murphy struggled for an answer before abruptly ending the interview with CQ Roll Call, saying he should not be quoted and remarking, “This interview didn’t happen.”

and Trump vs. McCain

It’s very tacky to disparage somebody’s military service, particularly when it involved physical suffering and loss. But let’s put this in context.

The NYT’s Timothy Egan has the GOP’s overall hypocrisy nailed:

Trump is a byproduct of all the toxic elements Republicans have thrown into their brew over the last decade or so — from birtherism to race-based hatred of immigrants, from nihilists who shut down government to elected officials who shout “You lie!” at their commander in chief. It was fine when all this crossing-of-the-line was directed at President Obama or other Democrats. But now that the ugliness is intramural, Trump has forced party leaders to decry something they have not only tolerated, but encouraged.

Trump is not some aberration, he represents the current moral state of the Republican Party. They have no cause for complaint.

and you also might be interested in …

You’ll never guess what’s happening as the EPA’s new rules to reduce the carbon emissions of power plants get closer to implementation: The disaster predicted by Republicans is nowhere on the horizon, not even in Mitch McConnell’s Kentucky. The WaPo reports:

But despite dire warnings and harsh political rhetoric, many states are already on track to meet their targets, even before the EPA formally announces them, interviews and independent studies show.

And Kevin Drum draws the lesson:

Whenever a new environmental regulation gets proposed, there’s one thing you can count on: the affected industry will start cranking out research showing that the cost of compliance is so astronomical that it will put them out of business. It happens every time. Then, when the new regs take effect anyway, guess what? It turns out they aren’t really all that expensive after all. The country gets cleaner and the economy keeps humming along normally. Hard to believe, no?

The point of regulation is to reduce what economists call externalities: real costs that the market economy ignores because they aren’t borne by either the buyer or the seller. Carbon emissions are a classic example: If burning coal in Kentucky causes a hurricane in New Jersey, the market doesn’t care. So the apparent “cheapness” of that coal-fired electricity doesn’t reflect reality; it’s an illusion of the market economy.

That’s why talk about the “cost” of regulation is usually off-base. When you look at the whole picture, good regulations don’t cost money, they save money.


It turns out there’s a downside to the computerization of cars. In Wired, Andy Greenberg reports on an experiment “Hackers Remotely Kill a Jeep on the Highway — With Me in It“.


John Kasich and Jeb Bush represent the “moderate” Republican view of climate change: It’s happening, but we shouldn’t do anything about it. The rhetoric softens, but the plan remains the same.

and let’s close with something I wish I’d thought of

Under the right circumstances, even a little white ball can play classical music.

The 2016 Stump Speeches: Hillary Clinton

We all know who she is. But who is she really?


[This is part of my series: The 2016 Stump Speeches.] Hillary Clinton’s candidacy presents a unique challenge. As a presidential campaign begins, the question in voters’ minds is usually “Who is this person?”, and a responsible journalist tries to answer it by presenting information. But the question I keep hearing about Clinton is “Who is she really?”

We are drowning in information about Hillary, but so much of it — positive and negative alike — is false. For decades her critics have been lying about her, and she has countered by presenting a series of images that aren’t completely consistent. So what should we believe about her? If we elect her, what kind of president can we reasonably expect her to be?

The speeches she’s been giving since she started campaigning are meatier, in terms of detailed policies, than just about any other candidate in the race. And I’ll get to those speeches and policies below. But it’s hard to know how to listen to her proposals until you come terms with that over-arching question: Who is she really? Those policies she’s putting forward — which ones come from the heart, and which are driven by expediency?

My Hillary reading project. To answer those questions, I decided to try to clear my mind of prior conceptions and read her books in order: It Takes a Village (1996, a book about policies related to children and families, which she illustrates with stories about her own childhood and her experiences with Bill and Chelsea, as well as stories from women she’s met all over the world), Living History (2003, about her two terms as First Lady), and Hard Choices (2014, covering her Secretary of State years).

Along the way, I found myself drawn to read two books by the reformed right-wing hack David Brock: The Seduction of Hillary Rodham (1996; this was originally intended to be a hit job prior to Bill’s re-election campaign, but it went oddly astray and became an interesting biography) and Blinded by the Right (2002, giving an insider’s view of the Arkansas Project, the “vast right-wing conspiracy” that billionaire Richard Mellon Scaife funded to dig up and publicize dirt about the Clintons).

What I was looking for in Hillary’s books was a consistent author’s voice. I believe writers always reveal more about themselves than they intend. (I worry about that sometimes.) It’s in their word choices, the tone of the stories they tell, the metaphors they use, and what topics they think flow naturally from other topics. If Hillary really wrote those books — and after reading them, I strongly believe she did — then her character must be in there somewhere, no matter what image she may have wanted to project.

Personal impressions. The simplest thing I can report after my reading project is that I like Hillary a lot more than I did when I started. When she appears on TV, she is so often either responding to an attack or anticipating one, so she seems guarded. But I think she feels much more secure when she is alone with a text (which already tells you something about her), and that’s when her self-effacing charm comes out.

She tells one story I love: Hillary knows she doesn’t sing well, so she mostly just doesn’t do it. (In her announcement speech, after she made fun of her Republican rivals by quoting lyrics from the Beatles’ “Yesterday”, she quipped: “You’re lucky I didn’t try singing that.”) But years ago she made one exception: After Chelsea was born, she sang lullabies. That stopped one day when Chelsea became old enough to put rudimentary sentences together. The toddler held up one finger and said, “No sing, Mommy.”

I also now have my own impression of her mysterious and unique relationship with Bill. Critics sometimes portray their marriage as a sham of political convenience, but I don’t think so. Bill Clinton is quite simply the most interesting person Hillary has ever met. She describes their relationship as one long conversation that started back at Yale in the 1970s and is still going. No matter what he might do, the world would be a dull place without him to talk to. For his part, I don’t think Bill would know who he was if he couldn’t see himself through her eyes. In all those infidelities, he’s never been looking for someone to replace Hillary, and if she dies first he will be devastated.

The establishment radical. As for understanding Hillary’s politics, a simple formula will take you a long way: progressive ends through pragmatic means. One of David Brock’s more interesting insights is the formative effect of her student-government years at Wellesley. Like most American colleges and universities, Wellesley changed a lot between 1965 and 1969. But unlike many other educational institutions, Wellesley stayed surprisingly peaceful through it all. Brock attributes that to Hillary’s cadre of student activists:

Hillary was able to co-opt the campus administration by calibrating student demands and winning change through the system.

He sees that experience as imprinting a paradigm of change on her: Hillary is not a revolutionary. She does not seek to overthrow the power structure, but is constantly probing to see how much the powers-that-be are willing to give up to keep the peace and stay in power. Brock labels this “establishment radicalism”.

[At Yale] Hillary took her moral bearings from the radicals, while favoring establishment tactics – precisely the formulation she had told Saul Alinsky would be most effective [when she turned down his job offer and went to law school]. This enabled her to work within the mainstream and to retain the respect and admiration of those in power.

You can hear this in her voting rights speech (see video below): “Progress is based on common ground, not scorched earth.” That’s why she won’t offer liberals red-meat rhetoric about “the bankers” or “the billionaire class”. They represent a power center she hopes to negotiate concessions from, not battle to the death.

The establishment-radical paradigm got reinforced by her biggest failure: healthcare reform. Not only did HillaryCare not become law, she was blamed for the 1994 Democratic rout that made Newt Gingrich the Speaker of the House. She learned her lesson: Push the powers that be too far, or get too far out in front of the country, and you’ll be slapped down.

You can see that cautious vision at work in her account of the Arab Spring uprisings: She presents herself (in Hard Choices) as the hesitant voice in the administration (compared to Obama’s idealism; this is one of the rare instances where she portrays herself out of harmony with Obama). Pushing tyrants like Mubarak to liberalize was right up her alley, but seeing them overthrown by young activists who offered no political program or organization to replace them made her very uneasy. (You can tell she feels vindicated by how things have played out.)

Half a loaf. That pragmatism often causes her to champion half-a-loaf policies when in her heart she still wants the whole loaf, or even to accept a step backwards to prevent a longer slide. You can see that in the Clinton administration’s gay-rights record. Bill came into office wanting gays to serve openly in the military and not thinking about marriage equality at all. He ended up with don’t-ask-don’t-tell and the Defense of Marriage Act — two policies both he and Hillary supported repealing in more recent years. But by supporting those compromises he avoided measures that would have been harder to reverse, like a federal marriage amendment. Through DADT and DOMA, the door to progress stayed ajar until the political climate changed.

It is both a strength and a weakness that Hillary never floats a pie-in-the-sky vision. Behind every Clinton proposal is the judgment: I think we could really do this.

Ironically, one of the best criticisms of that approach comes from the young Hillary Rodham, in the commencement speech she gave to her graduating class at Wellesley in 1969:

For too long our leaders have used politics as the art of the possible. And the challenge now is to practice politics as the art of making what appears to be impossible, possible.

If I could fix one thing about Hillary’s current rhetorical style, I would add a dash of dream-the-impossible-dream.

Hillary as Wellesley’s first student commencement speaker. Is that young woman still in there somewhere?

The wonk-in-chief. The other big thing to understand about Hillary is that she’s a wonk, a technocrat. She believes that smart people can figure things out, and that simple ideological solutions are often wrong. The most from-the-heart line in her economic policy speech was:

And, please, let’s get back to making decisions that rely on evidence more than ideology.

I don’t think she believes in ideology. Here’s what I mean by that: What’s real to her are people and the situations of their lives. (That comes through most clearly in It Takes a Village.) Ideologies are abstractions, and while abstractions can be handy tools for thinking things through, they aren’t real in the same way that people are real.

Worse, ideologies exaggerate conflict and hide agreement. My ideology may directly contradict yours, but when we get down to cases and start looking at individuals, very often we might want the same things for them. That’s how she can negotiate with the Iranians and make deals with insurance companies: If we can get down to cases and then create new abstractions from them, maybe we agree on principles that weren’t part of our prior ideologies.

But that approach demands a respect for facts and the real world. Her own respect for such expertise runs deep and traces all the way back to being a girl of the Mad Men era (just a few years older than Sally Draper) hoping to go places women had never been. Being smart and working hard to master the details of a subject was young Hillary’s claim to a place in the Man’s World. She knows that when expertise is disregarded, that’s when prejudice and old-boys’ networks and all the other defensive mechanisms of the status quo have free rein.

She has a wonkish sense of integrity that is easy to overlook: In the three speeches discussed below, every idea comes with either a proposal to implement it, or a promise that such proposals will come later. That discipline won’t let her indulge in the sweeping rhetoric that you’ll hear from other candidates to her left and right. Bernie Sanders can promise to break up the big banks. But in Clinton’s economic speech, you can almost hear her unspoken thoughts on that: What we really ought to be doing is getting the irresponsible risk out of the banking system, and while the too-big-to-fail banks are part of that, there are sometimes bigger risks in “the shadow-banking system, including hedge funds, high-frequency traders, non-bank finance companies; so many new kinds of entities, which receive little oversight at all.” She anticipates her future proposal, where she may have to give a little on the big banks in order to get the risk-reduction she wants.

That wonkish integrity may have cost her the presidency in 2008. She and Obama had very similar half-a-loaf healthcare plans, because neither dared to come out for the single-payer system that I suspect both would prefer. But once committed to her plan, she refused to misrepresent it: Obama pretended he could implement his plan without the unpopular individual mandate, but Clinton would not say that.

She’ll compromise in constructing her proposals, but once she has a plan she takes pride in it and won’t distort it.

But can I trust her? Just this week, we saw another example of what I’m coming to see as the standard pattern: The NYT had a BIG story: Two State Department inspectors general had asked the Justice Department to open a criminal investigation into possible misuse of classified information in Clinton’s emails as Secretary of State. After dodging the bullets of countless scandals in the past, maybe this one would finally nail her.

Except … well, it wasn’t actually a criminal investigation. They had to issue a correction about that. And it wasn’t specifically targeted at Secretary Clinton. Another correction. And a Newsweek journalist who got hold of the same documents says even the corrected NYT story misinterpreted the whole thing. He concluded: “the piece is wrong in all of its implications and in almost every particular related to the inspector generals’ conclusions.”

In short, the big story has evaporated, leaving behind no specific accusation, but a general impression that Clinton must have done something wrong. That’s the pattern. The only atypical thing about this “scandal” is that it fell apart so quickly. If you take a post-investigation look at everything from Whitewater to Benghazi, there’s nothing there. But the overall effect is to shroud Hillary’s public image in a general haze of distrust.

Compare this to the residual cloud of pseudo-scandals that hangs over President Obama: his birth certificate, death panels, Fast & Furious, using the IRS to target the Tea Party, stealing our guns, plotting to invade Texas, and so on. By the Obama administration, most liberals had caught on to the right-wing attack machine, and the way it can sometimes co-opt “liberal” media like the NYT. So we shrug off those Obama stories. But your conservative friends and relatives are sure there must be a fire somewhere under all that smoke. But the attacks on Hillary started in a more trusting era, so her cloud seems more real.

Sometimes I hear this question: Given that Hillary carries this baggage, can’t Democrats nominate a ticket doesn’t have such a cloud hanging over it? Sure. It’s simple: Find candidates so perfect that the opposition can’t even lie about them. Good luck with that.

Now let’s look at the campaign speeches.

The Announcement Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

Announcement speeches are always sited in symbolic places. The choice of Roosevelt Island outside of New York City sends several messages: First, Hillary is running as herself, the former Senator from New York. If she had wanted to run as Bill’s wife, she’d have announced at the Clinton Library in Little Rock.

Second, as she points out in the speech, you can see the new World Trade Center from there. She’s acknowledging that we’re in a post-9-11 world, and she’s identifying with the collective heroism of New York City. But she’s also sending the message that New York isn’t stuck in 2001; it remembers, but it’s getting on with its life. America should do the same.

But finally, and most important, Roosevelt Island indicates that she’s running as a Democrat and claiming the heritage of the Democratic Party as it was remade by Franklin Roosevelt. The Republican nominee will have to run away from both the obstructionist Republican Congress and the disastrous legacy of George W. Bush. (That’s why Jeb Bush’s logo just says “Jeb!”.) But Hillary is confidently invoking the legacies of both President Obama and President Clinton. In the Economics speech she says:

Twice now in the past 20 years, a Democratic president has had to come in and clean up the mess left behind. I think the results speak for themselves.

In this speech, she ties the failure of those two Bush presidencies to ideas Republicans are still pushing.

We’re still working our way back from a crisis that happened because time-tested values were replaced by false promises. Instead of an economy built by every American for every American, we were told that if we let those at the top pay lower taxes and bend the rules, their success would trickle down to everyone else.

She recalls FDR’s historic “Four Freedoms” speech, and organizes her own speech around another set of four:

If you give me the chance, I’ll wage and win four fights for you.

Those fights are:

  • To make the economy work for everyday Americans, not just those at the top. More about this in the economic speech. But the key point is: “Growth and fairness go together. For lasting prosperity, you can’t have one without the other.”
  • To strengthen America’s families. Here you can see my point about ideology. When Republicans talk about “strengthening the family”, they mean an archetype of family: heterosexual Mom and Dad married once-and-for-all-time, raising their biological children in a house down the street from their Christian church. But Hillary is talking about the actual families that live in America: households of people related in all sorts of ways, who are struggling to get by and to achieve their full potential.
  • To maintain America’s leadership for peace, security, and prosperity. This part would fit in most Republican speeches, minus the endorsement of diplomacy. Most of my disagreements with Clinton are in defense and anti-terrorism, but I have to admit she is probably more in tune with the country than I am.
  • To reform our government and democracy so that it works for everyday Americans. More on this in the voting-rights speech, where she goes into detail about fighting the Republican efforts to suppress voting. But there’s also campaign finance reform: “We have to stop the endless flow of secret, unaccountable money that is distorting our elections, corrupting our political process, and drowning out the voices of our people. We need justices on the Supreme Court who will protect every citizen’s right to vote rather than every corporations right to buy elections. If necessary I will support a constitutional amendment to undo the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United.”

The Economics Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

The basic principle is unchanged since Bill’s presidency: “If you work hard and do your part, you should be able to get ahead.” Hillary describes this as the “basic bargain” of our society.

The most fundamental liberal/conservative battle of frames revolves around who the poor are. Republicans push a Makers vs. Takers frame, in which the poor are moochers. A government safety net should keep them from dying in the streets, but leave them miserable enough that they will get off their asses and work. As Paul Ryan put it: “We don’t want to turn the safety net into a hammock that lulls able-bodied people to lives of dependency and complacency.”

When that frame takes hold, Democrats lose: We become the people who want to tax away your hard-earned money and give it to the moochers, who could succeed if they tried, but don’t bother because life in the government hammock is too pleasant.

In the Democratic frame, the poor do work hard, but life at the bottom of society is so arduous that it’s difficult to do more than survive day-to-day. If we want poor people to invest effort in building a future for themselves and their children, we need to make their lives a little easier, and check that the uphill roads we expect them to travel are still open.

The Clintons have specialized in co-opting Republican rhetoric, as in the “work hard” above. Here’s another example:

I firmly believe that the best anti-poverty program is a job. But that’s hard to say if there aren’t enough jobs for people that we’re trying to help lift themselves out of poverty.

She steals Republican rhetoric around “growth” and organizes her own economic proposals around three themes: strong growth, fair growth, and long-term growth.

Hillary critiques the Republican growth prescription like this:

For 35 years, Republicans have argued that if we give more wealth to those at top by cutting their taxes and letting big corporations write their own rules, it will trickle down, it will trickle down to everyone else. Yet every time they have a chance to try that approach, it explodes the national debt, concentrates wealth even more, and does practically nothing to help hard-working Americans.

Her view is that strong growth depends on a large and vibrant middle class. “Inequality is a drag on our economy.” So anything that blocks people’s rise into the middle class is a growth problem. So her growth agenda involves equal pay for women, legal status for immigrants, and child care for working parents. It also requires investment in productivity by both the private and public sectors. The tax code should encourage private investment (and discourage moving jobs overseas), and government should finance an “infrastructure bank” to build and maintain airports, roads, a better electrical grid, and world-class internet (which we don’t have now). And it requires encouragement of the clean energy sources we’ll need in the future.

These investments will create millions of jobs, save us money in the long run and help us meet the threats of climate change.

Making “strong” and “fair” separate points is really more rhetoric than substance, because she believes they go together:

You can’t have one without the other. We can’t create enough jobs and new businesses without more growth, and we can’t build strong families and support our consumer economy without more fairness. We need both.

The fairness part of the speech covers increasing the minimum wage. (She hasn’t committed to a national $15 rate, which I see as a combination of her wonkishness and commitment to political possibility. As a wonk, she knows that the minimum wage should vary according to the local cost of living. A $15 rate probably won’t hurt employment in big cities, but in rural Iowa it might. So politically, $15 is not the hill she wants to die on.) Also: encouraging unions and profit sharing, defending and “enhancing” Social Security, shifting more of the tax burden back onto the rich, setting “a high bar on trade agreements” (though she still hasn’t taken a clear position on the Trans-Pacific Partnership), and “seeing every 4-year-old in America have access to high quality pre-school in the next 10 years.” She promises more specific proposals on student debt and K-12 education in a later speech.

The long-term growth portion of the speech focuses on Wall Street, whose focus on quick profits through financial manipulation is largely responsible for the collapse of 2007-2008.

To the extent that such behavior was criminal, she wants to prosecute it:

There can be no justification or tolerance for this kind of criminal behavior. And while institutions have paid large fines and in some cases admitted guilt, too often it has seemed that the human beings responsible get off with limited consequences or none at all, even when they’ve already pocketed the gains. This is wrong, and on my watch it will change. … Too big to fail is still too big a problem … and we will prosecute individuals as well as firms when they commit fraud or other criminal wrong-doing.

She wants to defend the Dodd-Frank reforms, get more of a regulatory handle on “the shadow banking system”, provide tax credits for businesses that invest in their workers, and reform the capital gains tax to encourage more long-term investment. (The details of that came out later.)

The Voting Rights Speech. [Transcript. Video.]

We have a responsibility to say clearly and directly what’s really going on in our country. Because what is happening is a sweeping effort to disempower and disenfranchise people of color, poor people, and young people from one end of our country to the other. … I call on Republicans at all levels of government, with all manner of ambition, to stop fear-mongering about a phantom epidemic of election fraud and start explaining why they’re so scared of letting citizens have their say.

… We need a Supreme Court that cares more about protecting the right to vote of a person than the right to buy an election of a corporation.

Proposals:

  • Repair the Voting Rights Act to restore the pre-clearance procedures thrown out by the Supreme Court.
  • Expand absentee voting and vote-by-mail.
  • Ensure that no one should ever have to wait more than 30 minutes to cast a vote.
  • At least 20 days of in-person early voting, including weekend and evening hours.
  • Universal, automatic voter registration when people turn 18, unless they opt out.

What Clinton has going for her. In resume terms, Hillary Clinton is one of the best qualified candidates ever. She had an unofficial-but-central role in her husband’s governorship and presidency. She served eight years in the Senate, and four as Secretary of State. (I recommend Hard Choices as a world tour of American policy. It’s organized by region, so you get a country-by-country review of America’s foreign relations during Obama’s first term. By the time you’re finished, you’ll probably know more about America’s challenges abroad than most Republican presidential candidates do.)

But experience is only a face-card in politics if you know how to play it. John McCain could never make it work against Obama, primarily because McCain always seemed like the one more likely to make some rash, spur-of-the-moment decision. I think Hillary will know how to use it, particularly against a national neophyte like Bush or Walker. In debates, she’ll spring the proper I-was-there story about Putin or Bin Laden at just the right moment, and it will be effective.

Where I wish for more. The progressive case against Hillary is that the current crisis doesn’t call for making the best deal possible with the powers that be, it calls for revolutionary change. Wall Street, the fossil fuel companies, the billionaires buying our elections — that whole power structure has to go. Just changing course from center-right to center-left won’t save our economy, our society, or the planet.

In foreign policy and defense, she is too identified with what Glenn Greenwald calls the National Security State. I don’t think she’ll start another Iraq War, but the drone wars in Yemen, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, and other countries would continue. And I don’t see her reining in the surveillance of the NSA.

The trick that I don’t think either Bill or Hillary (or Obama) ever mastered was how to take the half-loaf while continuing to raise energy behind the full-loaf vision we really need. Bill Clinton showed how to minimize the damage of the conservative consensus that formed during the Reagan years, but he never reversed it or inspired a new liberal consensus. Neither has Obama, and I’m skeptical that Hillary will either.

At the same time, I think the progressive ire and distrust towards Hillary that I see on my Facebook feed is overblown. She negotiates and constructs compromises — with Iran, with Wall Street, whoever — that’s who she is. It’s a trait, not a flaw.

We could do a lot worse in our next president, and if we don’t elect her I suspect we probably will. But is that a good enough reason to support policies — like drones — that I think are huge mistakes?

So the question boomerangs back to me: Can I take half a loaf in a president? And if I do, can I keep reaching for more later?

The Monday Morning Teaser

As some of you have noticed, the 2016 Stump Speeches series has stalled. The reason is simple: Next up was Hillary Clinton, and that article turned into a bigger project than any of the others.

Here’s why: For most candidates, what needs to get covered is “Who is this person?” and “What is he (or she) saying?” But for Clinton, the problem isn’t that we don’t know enough about her, it’s that we know too much and don’t know how to sort it out. The questions I keep hearing about Hillary amount to: “Who is she really?” and “Can I trust the things she’s saying? How much of it is her heart really in?”

Those are tougher questions, and required more work than just fact-checking a speech. I decided to attack them by reading all her books — well, I skipped the one about the White House pets — plus a couple of others that seemed relevant. I was hoping to find themes that stayed constant through the years. And more than that, I was hoping I could start hearing her author’s voice in my head. I realize that sounds more like channeling than journalistic analysis, but that’s what the questions seemed to require.

The project took some time, but I think it worked. You can judge for yourself later this morning. The article is unusually long, even for me, but it’s got five books and three speeches to cover. And it concerns the candidate who currently has the best chance to wind up as President of the United States. Who is she really?

I’ve still got a lot of editing to do, but I’m hoping to have that out by 9 EDT, or maybe 10. The weekly summary should follow a couple of hours later.

Short Supply

By easing tensions with Cuba and now Iran, President Obama is “recklessly squandering America’s precious supply of enemies,” the leader of a conservative think tank said on Tuesday.

— Andy Borowitz “Obama Squandering America’s Precious Supply of Enemies

This week’s featured articles are “Trump is the New Palin” and “So What About Polygamy Anyway?“. The previous featured post “You Don’t Have Hate Anybody to be a Bigot” has sprinted out to become the third most popular post in Sift history, with over 90K views in its first two weeks. It’s been creeping up on 100K in a Zeno-like fashion.

This week everybody was talking about the deal to limit Iran’s nuclear program

The criticisms of the deal are all basically of the form: “I would have dictated harsher terms to Iran.” The problem is that sovereign nations don’t let you dictate terms to them. If you want that kind of power, you’ll have to win it in war. Unless and until you do that, you’ll have to accept outcomes less appealing than the ones you would have dictated.

So the right question isn’t: “Does this agreement give us everything we want?” but “Is there any better alternative?” The Atlantic‘s Jeffrey Goldberg — in a roundtable with David Frum and Peter Beinart — summarizes:

I put great stock—sorry, David—in the argument that opponents of this deal should be forced to come up with a better alternative. I haven’t come up with anything. I do think, in the absence of a deal, we would be looking at an Iran soon at the threshold, or at a military operation to delay the moment when Iran could cross the threshold. (Delay, not defeat, because three things would happen in the event of an American military strike: Sanctions would crumble; Russia would become Iran’s partner; and the ayatollahs would have their predicate to justify a rush to the bomb. Only more bombing could stop them, and then, of course, we would be talking about a never-ending regional war.)

To me, it looks like the Obama administration has threaded a very difficult needle: The only reason we were able to get any concessions at all from Iran was that the administration — thanks, Secretary Clinton — assembled a global coalition around a tough set of economic sanctions. Russia and China were not excited about joining that coalition, and even our NATO allies are not as gung-ho against Iran as we are. But the sanctions held long enough to get Iran to the negotiating table, where they have agreed to hamstring their own nuclear program for 10-20 years.

Critics of the deal (like David Frum) effortlessly project those sanctions (or possibly harsher ones) indefinitely into the future, and argue that Iran should have paid a higher price to end them. But support for the sanctions could have lapsed in any number of ways, and then we’d be nowhere.


The NYT had a good explanation of which issues the negotiations hung on, and how they were resolved.

and the Greek crisis

Greek banks are open again, sort of. But it’s not over.

and another shooting

This one in Chattanooga.

and (believe it or not) still the Confederate flag

The KKK rallied in front of the South Carolina Capitol Saturday to make the point that “the Confederate flag does not represent hate”. At least that’s what I think the guy making gorilla noises at the black protesters was trying to say. (Don’t ask me; I don’t speak Gorilla.)


The flag issue showed up in a different way in the House of Representatives. Democrats had attached an amendment to the bill funding the Interior Department next year, saying that the Confederate flag would not be flown over federal cemeteries. Republicans were going to try to reverse that amendment, and then John Boehner — realizing that the Confederate flag is not the hill he wants his party to die on —  decided to pull the bill off the floor instead.

This may not sound like a big deal, but it throws a monkey wrench in Republican plans for another government shutdown come October. Now that they control both houses of Congress, they were able to pass a budget that Democrats hate. The plan was to follow with the 10-12 appropriation bills that fund the government, daring President Obama to veto them. They believe this will put them in a stronger position for a shutdown than they were in 2013, when the House and Senate couldn’t agree.

But the Interior bill was one of those appropriations, and if they can’t pass it, the plan starts to come  apart. In particular, it shows a weakness that will probably undo other appropriation bills: Trying to pass bills with no Democratic support only works if the Republicans are united, and so small numbers of Republican congressmen can hold out for concessions like defending the Confederate flag.


Historian Douglas Blackmon explodes all the “heritage” myths about the Confederate flag:

No, the seeming immovability of that symbol over the past half century has been about something very different from an appreciation of actual history.  The modern resurrection and defense of the flag was wholly a product of the civil rights struggles since the 1950s, and the need for a rallying point for defenders of segregation and apologists for white discrimination and white privilege.  The flag wasn’t even flying in most southern states until the 1960s, and then it was hoisted with the explicit intention of telling the rest of the country, finally emerging from its own racial dark ages, to go to hell. And wherever that flag was invoked, it was accompanied in those days by explicit defenses of the most virulent racism and ethnic hate.

but I was thinking about the revolving door

The “revolving door” refers to people who work in industries regulated by the government, leave to take a job as a regulator, then return to the industry at a high pay rate. It’s a time-honored tradition in this country, and it sucks, whether it’s practiced by Republicans or Democrats.

The latest high-profile example of the revolving door is former Attorney General Eric Holder, who returned to his partnership at the law firm Covington and Burling. Matt Taibbi sums up in a Rolling Stone article brilliantly titled “Eric Holder, Wall Street Double Agent, Comes in from the Cold

Here’s a man who just spent six years handing out soft-touch settlements to practically every Too Big to Fail bank in the world. Now he returns to a firm that represents many of those same companies: Morgan Stanley, Wells Fargo, Chase, Bank of America and Citigroup, to name a few.

Collectively, the decisions he made while in office saved those firms a sum that is impossible to calculate with exactitude. But even going by the massive rises in share price observed after he handed out these deals, his service was certainly worth many billions of dollars to Wall Street.

Even if you give Holder the benefit of the doubt and assume that all of his decisions as Attorney General were made in good faith, by going back to work for Wall Street he has undermined the public’s confidence in the government, and shown all future prosecutors which side their bread is buttered on.

and Bernie Sanders

Here’s the worrisome thing about Sanders as a presidential candidate: When he faces hostility, he gets preachy. He talks louder and talks down to the audience. As quickly as he can, he goes back to his talking points. For example, look at his presentation at the Netroots Nation conference this week.

Read Eclectablog’s account:

At times he plunged on, talking over the protesters as if they weren’t there. While he is largely a supporter of civil rights and is, in general, right on the issues of the Black Lives Matter movement, he came across as a self-important know-it-all who has better things to do than to listen to uppity black kids who are disrupting HIS speech. In the end, he took off his microphone and left the stage without as much as a wave to the audience.

For the record, I disagree with the tactic of trying to shout speakers down, so I don’t support the audience interruptions. I also agree with the talking points Sanders is trying to get back to.

But recall how skillful politicians like Bill Clinton or Barack Obama have handled situations like this. You’re never going to satisfy the kind of people who come prepared to shout you down, but at the same time you want the people who agree with the shouters to feel like you at least heard their concern and want to respond to it.

Sanders doesn’t communicate that. And that lack of skill is especially going to hurt him when he reaches out to the black and Hispanic communities, as he must if he’s going to mount a serious threat to Hillary Clinton. (It will also hurt him in debates, if an opponent can taunt him into exposing his preachy side.) Blacks in particular will be watching how he interacts, not just listening to what he says. It’s not going to be enough to quote proposals from his platform, no matter how good they might be. He’ll need to get across that he respects the non-white communities and is listening to what they say, even when he disagrees.

When I saw him in Portsmouth in May, the room was enthusiastically on Sanders’ side, so his argumentative side didn’t show. But look at this clip from a townhall meeting that went off the rails last summer.

Here’s an issue (Israel/Palestine) where I disagree with Sanders, and I come away feeling that he didn’t hear the audience concerns at all. Their rudeness made him mad, so he talked louder and talked down. (“As some of you may have noticed, there’s a group called ISIS.” Really, Bernie? That had completely gotten past me. Thanks for pointing that out.)

A skillful politician understands that he’s not just arguing with the people who are shouting at him; he’s talking to the whole world, including people who agree with the shouters even if they deplore the rudeness. Sanders doesn’t seem to get that.

So while I agree with Sanders on most issues, and I want somebody to put progressive economics on the 2016 agenda, I question whether he has the skills to run a successful presidential campaign. I’m leaning towards voting for him in the New Hampshire primary, because the early primaries are the time to be idealistic and issue-oriented. But if I were a delegate to the Democratic Convention next summer, I think I’d prefer Clinton, because she’ll run a better general-election campaign. I’m not willing to go down to defeat just to maintain ideological purity. The damage that a Republican president could do in four years — to ObamaCare, to the Iran deal, to immigration reform, to the Supreme Court — is too great.

you also might be interested in …

The real news: Bloom County is back.


Don’t miss John Metta’s essay “I, Racist“.

White people and Black people are not having a discussion about race. Black people, thinking as a group, are talking about living in a racist system. White people, thinking as individuals, refuse to talk about “I, racist” and instead protect their own individual and personal goodness. In doing so, they reject the existence of racism.

But arguing about personal non-racism is missing the point.

Despite what the Charleston Massacre makes things look like, people are dying not because individuals are racist, but because individuals are helping support a racist system by wanting to protect their own non-racist self beliefs.


Is this the year when ObamaCare rates sky-rocket? A lot of people want to convince you that it is, but probably not. By and large, rates will increase, but by modest amounts.


By a 4-2 vote, the Wisconsin Supreme Court has ended an investigation into Scott Walker breaking election laws during his 2012 recall election. TPM explains why this is such a disturbing precedent.

Collectively, those four justices have thus far received just under $6 million from Wisconsin Manufacturers and Commerce, and about $2 million from Wisconsin Club for Growth – the two groups being investigated for wrongdoing and who, along with the Walker campaign, launched the case against their prosecution.

The groups helped pick the judges. Then one of the groups was allowed to rewrite the state’s rules so those judges could sit on cases where they are a party. Then the groups persuaded those judges to shut down an investigation into whether they broke campaign finance laws by declaring those laws unconstitutional.

and let’s close with a prank

What’s in a single letter, anyway?

So What About Polygamy Anyway?

After same-sex marriage, is polygamy a further slide down the slippery slope, the next step of progress, or a separate issue entirely?


For the last 10-15 years, people who brought polygamy into a discussion were usually talking about something else. Polygamy was supposedly the next stop on the slippery slope we would step onto if we legalized same-sex marriage: Once you start fiddling with the definition of marriage, the doomsayers prophesied, there is no clear place to stop. In the Supreme Court’s recent marriage decision, Chief Justice Roberts brought that argument into his dissent:

One immediate question invited by the majority’s position is whether States may retain the definition of marriage as a union of two people.

Slippery-slope arguments are often a way to create flashy distractions from the issues that are actually present: If you have no coherent case to make about why a loving, committed same-sex couple shouldn’t be married, you talk instead about legalized polygamy, incest, pedophilia, and bestiality. Maybe no one is actually making those proposals yet, but they could at some point down the road.

On the other hand, some slippery-slope arguments actually are prophetic. In his Lawrence dissent in 2003, Justice Scalia warned:

This reasoning leaves on pretty shaky grounds state laws limiting marriage to opposite-sex couples.

Twelve years later, here we are.

And sometimes, when we look back on prophets of doom, our modern eyes see them as unintentional prophets of progress. The downward slide they feared, we recall proudly. For example, shortly after the Civil War, Rev. R. L. Dabny published a retrospective justification of slavery and secession: A Defence of Virginia. In it he warned the North of the horrors its abolitionist notions would ultimate bring to pass:

But other consequences follow from the abolitionist dogma. “All involuntary restraint is a sin against natural rights,” therefore laws which give to husbands more power over the persons and property of wives, than to wives over husbands, are iniquitous, and should be abolished. The same decision must be made upon the exclusion of women, whether married or single, from suffrage, office, and the full franchises of men. … But when God’s ordinance of the family is thus uprooted, and all the appointed influences of education thus inverted; when America has had a generation of women who were politicians, instead of mothers, how fundamental must be the destruction of society, and how distant and difficult must be the remedy!

Wives owning property! Women voting and running for office! Surely society must collapse from the unnatural strain of such abominations. Why didn’t we listen when Dabny warned us? If only we’d kept blacks in slavery, we could have avoided all this.

[You knew that was sarcasm, right?]

So OK: But for a few dead-enders, same-sex marriage is a done deal now. So polygamy’s usefulness as a slippery-slope horror is over. But are the predictions correct? Is that where we’re heading next? And if we get there, will it be a downward slide or an upward climb?

In Politico Magazine, Fredrik deBoer got right to work with “It’s Time to Legalize Polygamy“. Jonathan Rauch then answered with “No, Polygamy Isn’t the Next Gay Marriage“. And deBoer responded on his blog with “every bad argument against polygamy, debunked“. Another worthwhile piece promoting polygamy (with a better collection of links) is William E. Smith’s “Who’s Scared of Polygamy?” on Religion Dispatches.

I’m not going to take a pro or con position, but I would like to shape the discussion a little.

If you’re worrying (or hoping) that some judge will legalize polygamy next week, stop. Think about how hard it would have been to implement same-sex marriage during the Washington administration: At the dawn of the American Republic, men and women had different legal rights, and husband and wife were unequal legal roles. Same-sex marriage would have been absurd then, because women were legally incapable of playing the husband role, and before they could become wives, men would have to give up inalienable constitutional rights. To make same-sex marriage legal then, the whole legal relationship of men and women — which was embedded in countless laws — would have had to change.

But everything was different by 2003, when the Massachusetts Supreme Court considered the question. Massachusetts had passed an Equal Rights Amendment into its Constitution in 1976, so men and women were equal under the law. The U.S. Supreme Court had thrown out Louisiana’s Head and Master law in 1981, so husband and wife were legal equals. All that really had to happen to make same-sex marriage a reality was to change the forms from Husband and Wife to Spouse and Spouse.

(You can accurately describe American marriage after 1981 in a lot of ways, but “traditional marriage” is not one of them. I don’t know of any traditional society where husbands and wives have been equal under the law.)

Polygamy today resembles same-sex marriage in the Washington administration. Changing the forms to allow an indefinite number of spouses wouldn’t come close to defining it. Are we talking about Biblical (or Mormon) polygamy, where one man marries several women? Jacob and Leah and Rachel, say, or Solomon with his “seven hundred wives of royal birth and three hundred concubines“? Or a group marriage where everybody listed is married to everybody else? Or maybe a chain marriage, where Bob marries Carol marries Ted marries Alice, but Bob and Alice are just friends? Or is some central couple the prime relationship, with other spouses secondary? The possibilities are endless, and the law would have to account for them.*

However you picture it, giving polygamy legal recognition would mean establishing legal infrastructure to answer questions that don’t come up in binary marriages. In a group marriage, can one spouse divorce the others, or does the whole relationship dissolve and need to be reformed? What’s the property settlement look like? Do all spouses have equal rights and responsibilities regarding the children, or do biological parents have a stronger legal bond? In a Biblical polygamous marriage, are all the wives equal, or does the first wife have a special role?

In any of the polygamy models, it doesn’t take much imagination to spin out questions that may not be unanswerable, but aren’t answered in any obvious way by current law. Such questions go all the way down to the most trivial level: What fee should a clerk charge for a plural marriage license? Are current fees based on per-person or per-marriage logic? That question never comes up as long as all marriages are between two people, but someone would need to decide God-knows-how-many minor issues like that.

Consequently, a court can’t simply order to a county clerk to issue a three-person marriage license. The judge would have to rewrite big chunks of the legal code, which a judge is not equipped to do, even if one thought he or she could get away with asserting that kind of power.

Is polygamy a legal right? A somewhat more realistic fantasy/nightmare goes like this: A judge might find that three or more people have a right to the legal advantages marriage offers, even if the judge can’t say exactly how that right should be implemented. That would have to go through a legislature, which is equipped and empowered to rewrite large chunks of the legal code.

So a judge could order the legislature to rectify the situation within a specified time. The legislature would probably refuse, and then the judge could assess damages against the state, which the governor could refuse to pay, and from there who knows where it all goes.

A key part of that scenario, though, is that the legal argument for a right to polygamy is sitting there inside the same-sex-marriage jurisprudence, waiting for some bold judge to notice it. In spite of John Roberts’ dissent, I don’t think that’s true.

In order to have this discussion, though, we need to set aside the particular opinion Justice Kennedy wrote, which really is as bad as the dissents claim. (I covered that when it came out.) It’s not at all typical of marriage-equality opinions, and it contains little in the way of a legal framework that could be extended to polygamy or anything else. I suspect it will have the same kind of influence that Kennedy’s similarly mushy DOMA opinion had: In subsequent lower-court decisions, judges made their rulings consistent with the outcome of the DOMA case, but didn’t attempt to apply Kennedy’s reasoning, such as it was.

The way pro-marriage-equality judges other than Kennedy have approached the issue is through the equal protection of the laws, a position I summarized in May: The opposite-sex marriage laws create an advantageous institution (marriage) and extend its benefits only to opposite-sex couples, when same-sex couples could be included by simply editing the license form, and no credible evidence suggested that negative consequences relevant to the mission of the government would ensue. (The possible offense to God claimed by anti-gay activists is not something the Constitution instructs the government to take notice of. Read the Preamble.) Under those circumstances, there’s really no way to claim that gays and lesbians are being granted the equal protection of the laws promised by the 14th Amendment.

What lies in the background of that argument is that the separation between gays/lesbians and the benefits of marriage is not something the affected individuals can easily fix on their own. Sexual orientation may or may not be innate, but it is not generally changeable in adulthood. And while legally, a gay or lesbian person could enter into a marriage with someone of the opposite sex, it’s hard to see that as a satisfactory solution. Consequently, because of who you are, you might be unable to take advantage of the marriage laws.

That argument is much harder to make for polygamy, which feels more like a lifestyle choice than an innate orientation. The government set up an advantageous path hoping to induce you to live one way, but you decided to live another way. I would defend your right to make that choice, but I don’t see how it gives you a right to the advantages of the other lifestyle.

Maybe some other legal argument for a right-to-polygamy is possible, but I don’t know what it is. I think you’d need to show that favoring binary relationships is an irrational thing for the government to do, and can’t conceivably lead to any social benefit the government might reasonably want to achieve. Constructing such an argument would be much harder than just cutting and pasting from the same-sex marriage arguments.

If polygamy isn’t a right. If polygamy isn’t a right inherent in the laws currently on the books, then if people want it, they need to convince legislatures to pass new laws. And that means convincing a large chunk of the electorate (who may or may not have polygamous fantasies) that a society that openly includes polygamous households is better — or at least no worse — than the society we have now.

If we’re debating in a legislature rather than before a judge, then I think the burden of proof shifts a little on both sides. To win in court, a polygamy supporter would need to show that banning it is completely irrational. To win in a legislature, they’d just need to argue that allowing it makes more sense than banning it. deBoer sums up:

my argument for polygamy is that there are people in the world who want it, and I recognize the inherent and total equality of the dignity and value of their relationships in comparison to two-person relationships.

As in same-sex marriage, we’re talking about real people doing real things. What’s our basis for telling them not to? I’m not saying there is no basis, I just can’t explain what it is off the top of my head.

On the other side, a legislature would have to debate a real proposal, not just an idea. Exactly what relationships are we giving legal form? How do all the details work? In particular, a law shouldn’t create holes in the system, which would be easy to do. (If my health insurance plan covers my spouse, maybe I could establish universal health care by marrying everybody. Or maybe I could solve the immigration problem by marrying all of the undocumented immigrants. Yes, those examples are ridiculous. But it’s not hard to imagine more realistic unintended scenarios, where groups might redefine themselves as marriages to take advantage of a poorly phrased law.) deBoer argues that the difficult logistics of polygamy isn’t a reason not to do it. But a real proposal would have to deal with those logistics.

In short, I would tell both deBoer and Rauch the same thing: I’m convincible, but I’m not convinced. The anti-polygamy argument isn’t sharp enough, and the pro-polygamy argument isn’t detailed enough. But however the issue eventually comes out, it will do so on its own merits, and will not follow automatically just because gay couples or lesbian couples are getting married.


* I’ve questioned whether I should even use the word polygamy to cover all these possibilities, since it often refers specifically to Biblical polygamy, with polyandry referring to a woman with many husbands. But the articles I’ve referenced are comfortable with that usage, so I have reluctantly followed it.

Trump is the New Palin

Whether you love him or hate him, it doesn’t matter. He’s bluffing.


After John McCain showed the bad judgment to make Sarah Palin a national figure in 2008, every few months a flurry of excitement/panic about Palin’s political future would erupt in the media. She was anointed the early Republican front-runner in the 2012 presidential cycle, to the point that Ross Douthat devoted a whole column to denying her front-runner status. When that speculation faded (because by the spring of 2011 she’d made no moves to build an organization in Iowa or New Hampshire), she went on a national bus tour to fan the flames again. She didn’t officially bow out until October, 2011.

Then she was going to run for the Senate in 2014, but that didn’t pan out either. This January she said she was “seriously interested” in a 2016 run, and proclaimed herself “ready for Hillary” at the Iowa Freedom Summit. But in a year when it seems that every Republican with a pulse is running for president, Palin isn’t.

I’ll take some credit for seeing through the Palin hype. After the 2010 mid-terms, I looked ahead to 2012:

Unlike New York Magazine, I don’t expect Palin to run. I expect her to keep people guessing for as long as she can, but to find an excuse to back out.

Sarah wants to be famous and make a lot of money and not work very hard. (If that’s a vice, a lot of us have it.) Teasing about running for office served those goals well, but actually running would require effort, not to mention answering the lamestream media’s gotcha questions, like “What newspaper do you read?

And that brings me to Donald Trump.

Trump is not exactly Palin — he loves hostile questions, for example — but the same phenomenon is at work. He really has no interest in being president, and when the campaign gets serious he won’t be there. So if his candidacy is getting you either excited or riled, don’t waste your energy.

Like Sarah Palin, Donald Trump lives off his image. That image is all about leadership, so of course he wants to be seen in terms of the ultimate leadership job, President of the United States. If you buy Trump’s image, you think he’d be a great president: making the tough decisions, banging heads together until everybody gets in line, cutting through the BS of the vested interests, and doing the common-sense things we all know need to get done. Who wouldn’t want to call up ISIS leader Abu Bakr al-Baghdadi and say, “You’re fired”?

It’s a great fantasy. But actually being President? What a headache that would be. Even the Donald’s hairpiece would go grey.

In previous cycles, bluffing about running for president has served him well. But Trump understands something that seems to have escaped Palin: To keep people interested, you have to keep raising the bar. Except for a small group of rabid fans, the public has lost interest in Palin, because we’ve seen it all before. So she can hint about running, but until she starts acting like a serious candidate — building an organization, appearing in debates, pushing some signature issues beyond the buzzword stage, and so on — nobody is going to pay much attention.

If Trump hinted about a 2016 race and then backed away from it, nobody would pay attention to any future bluffs. So he raised the bar: This time he actually declared his candidacy, and he’s giving speeches and interviews. He’s still not building an organization in primary states or raising money for a serious campaign, but he’s on top of the recent polls (with 18% of Republicans in a very divided field), and he’ll probably be on the stage in August when the first debate happens. Chances are good he’ll get a lot of attention during that debate and be in the headlines the next morning.

A big piece of the current bluff is that he doesn’t need to raise money: He’s very, very rich — as he keeps telling us — and so he can self-finance.

And that’s where the bluff is going to break down. The kind of campaign he’s run so far — flying around and giving speeches — isn’t very expensive. The big money in primary campaigns goes two places: Early, it goes into hiring staff and opening campaign offices in early-primary states, and then later it goes into TV advertising. He’s not doing either.

The kind of money Trump has spent so far — and foregone as business partners run away from him — is a recoverable investment. He’s building the Trump brand, which will net him future earnings in book sales and TV ratings. The campaign — at least the way he’s run it so far — will keep his act fresh for years to come.

By November, though, a serious candidate will have to start putting serious money into Iowa and New Hampshire. Not thousands, millions. TV time on the Boston stations that cover southern New Hampshire is not cheap. The idiosyncratic process of the Iowa caucuses requires a ground game. And if you survive the Iowa/NH/South Carolina winnowing in January and February, you just need more money to compete nationwide in March.

That’s not an investment any more. It would take maybe $100-200 million to win the Republican nomination, and even more to run a serious third-party campaign in the fall if he isn’t nominated. That’s money he can never get back.

And I don’t even believe he has it. Trump’s empire has always been a precarious structure built on debt. (That’s why he’s been involved in four bankruptcies.) Whatever he might be worth on paper, he doesn’t have hundreds of millions of ready cash available to blow on a whim.

So this campaign is a more elaborate bluff than he’s run in previous years, but it’s still a bluff. Look for him to find an exit sometime in December.

The Monday Morning Teaser

I’m back after my week on Star Island off the coast of New Hampshire. (Give yourself credit if you knew that New Hampshire had  a coast.)

There will be two featured posts this week. The first, “Trump is the New Palin”, makes a bold prediction: Donald Trump will leave the race for president before he has to spend more money than the publicity is worth. I’ll guess that to be sometime in December, when candidates need to buy ads on Boston TV stations to stay competitive in New Hampshire. I expect to post that article soon, probably before 8 EDT.

The second, “So What About Polygamy, Anyway?” picks up on an argument between Fredrik deBoer and Jonathan Rauch. All through the same-sex marriage debate, we kept hearing that we were on a slippery slope and legalized polygamy would be next. Well, is it? Should it be? Along the way I’ll take a look at some slippery-slope predictions of the past, including some that in retrospect look more like the march of progress than a slide to perdition. Expect that by 10.

The weekly summary has two weeks to cover, which includes the Iran deal, the Greek bailout, the Chattanooga shooting, and a bunch of other stuff. (Honestly, I didn’t believe the Iran deal was going to happen.) And I’ll close with a picture of a good prank.

 

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