Diatribes of Jay

This is a blog of essays on public policy. It shuns ideology and applies facts, logic and math to economic, social and political problems. It has a subject-matter index, a list of recent posts, and permalinks at the ends of posts. Comments are moderated and may take time to appear. Note: Profile updated 4/7/12

30 November 2015

Black Lives Matter: The White Pledge


    “All politics is local.” — Thomas P. (“Tip”) O’Neil, former Speaker of the House (1935)
Let me confess. I’m not a trained political operative, far less a pollster. But one sad political fact has stuck in my mind for almost a decade now.

While still teaching law, I had an intelligent, experienced colleague. This colleague is smart, practical and generally progressive. This colleague had had a distinguished career in a major federal regulatory agency. This colleague is African-American.

Yet this person had voted for George W. Bush—Dubya!—for president not once, but twice. Why? Because of the issue of abortion, which presidents in fact have little direct power to influence. It took me—a white guy—to direct this colleague’s attention to Barack Obama and his stellar intelligence and empathy.

Now I have a tendency to obsess. I have mulled over this sad history in my mind many, many times. And here’s what I think now:

Most of the important issues in politics today are really, really complicated. Global warming certainly is: you have to know and credit climate science even to understand the issues and how pressing and threatening they are. Then you have to combine the complexity of climate science with the complexity of energy economics, macroeconomics and the “art of the possible” to get anything done. That’s what’s going on in Paris this week.

The rise of the Islamic state is also complicated. Its causes are as diverse as the millennial Sunni-Shiite split, the general failure of Arab states, the Syrian Civil War, the regional drought that may have helped drive that war, and the complex tribal evolution of places like Iraq, Syria and Libya, among others.

And economics—what really affects people’s day-to-day lives—is complicated, too. Like Einstein’s special theory of relativity, it’s often counterintuitive. Who would guess that Keynsian economics actually works: that it’s not just OK, but beneficial, for government to run up a big deficit putting people to work when broken private markets can’t?

But that’s true nevertheless. As Nobel laureate Paul Krugman never tires of reminding us, Keynesian pump-priming worked in the Great Depression and most recessions since. It almost didn’t work in the Great Recession now finally resolving, simply because we did too little of it, in large measure due to GOP and Fox propaganda.

So if you want to move the average voter, who has no training in or knowledge of climate science, Middle-Eastern political-military history or economics, what do you do? You KISS. You “keep it simple, stupid.” You focus obsessively on issues that require no training in math, science, history or abstract thinking to understand. If that approach worked so well with my sophisticated colleague, think how well it works with the average voter.

That’s what the GOP has done with abortion for over thirty years, ever since Roe v. Wade.

There’s no complexity about protecting babies. Spiders and some lizards eat their young. Alpha-male bears and lions will kill cubs that are not their own. But there’s no complexity with us humans. Protecting our young is a universal evolutionary imperative. So when you define abortion as killing babies—never mind the complexity of the mother’s and society’s issues—you are making as clear and simple an appeal to human morality and emotion as can possibly be made.

That’s why the GOP has beaten the abortion drum for over thirty years and why it probably never will stop. It’s an issue that any voter can understand. And the more you oversimplify it by ignoring issues of the mother’s health and economic circumstances and the disadvantages of unwanted children, the simpler it gets.

For the GOP, the abortion issue is the gift that keeps on giving. It will continue to do so until GOP thinkers find other “policies” to promote besides letting their rich and powerful backers do what they please.

So what has all this to do with the Black Lives Matter movement? As strange as it may seem, a lot.

Unlike climate change, Middle-Eastern politics, and macroeconomics, assaultive, over-militarized police are a simple issue. They are undesirable. Period.

At the moment, the GOP has kept the simplicity of this issue at bay by exploiting the myth of the “thin blue line,” the folks who keep “them” from “us.” But there are two problems with that tack. First, the more we Yanks move toward majority-minority demographics—an inevitable progression—the more “them” become “us.”

Second, even before “them” become “us,” it’s not hard to see how what happens to “them” could also happen to “us.” Remember the 90-year-old (East) Indian guy who got slammed to the ground in Houston for failing to understand English perfectly and respond to orders like a disciplined soldier? It doesn’t take much deep thought to understand that, if it could happen to him, it could happen to me, absent police reform.

To be sure, there are perceptions to overcome. Ever-present racism and the notion that police (even if bent) keep us from the abyss are deeply engrained. But “justifying” racism and patent police misbehavior requires some fancy footwork and complexity. It’s the analogy of justifying abortion by citing the mother’s health and circumstances or the social burden of unwanted and possibly defective children.

I’m not arguing for moral or intellectual equivalence here. I’m simply noting that just as the “pro-choice” side of the abortion issue requires more complex reasoning than the contrary, so does the pro-police side in cases of clear police abuse. Those cases include such things as the 90-year-old guy getting body slammed, a woman (Sandra Bland) dying in jail for allegedly failing to signal a lane change, and a fat, out-of-shape middle-aged guy (Eric Garner) getting choked to death by multiple policemen for allegedly selling cigarettes without a license. It’s not too hard to see that there, but for the grace of God, go I, or someone I care about.

Just as the pro-choice side has the burden of complexity in abortion, the pro-police side bears the burden of complexity in Black Lives Matter cases. If simplicity (whether or not morally right) gives the advantage to the GOP on abortion, it gives the advantage to us Dems on police misconduct and militarization. No one wants to think that police, who are supposed to protect us when we can’t protect ourselves, might turn against us or morph into a force of lawless Brown Shirts.

So the Black Lives Matter movement is not a problem for progressives. It’s not even a difficult response to a problem. Instead, it’s an opportunity. It’s an opportunity to build a simple, morally right position on a key local issue.

It’s also an opportunity in another respect: intensity and enthusiasm. At the moment, American progressives personify Yeats’ immortal lines, “The best lack all conviction, while the worst are full of passionate intensity.” Most of us are pallid and lackluster. Few of us are out on the streets marching for reducing carbon emissions, fighting IS, admitting more hapless, persecuted Syrians, or stimulating our economy. But there are plenty of people out marching for equality in policing and police reform.

As many commentators have noted recently, Dems are probably going to capture the White House in 2016. But we are badly losing the battles at the state and local levels, in part because we have a weak “bench.” Making the Black Lives Matter movement a centerpiece of local Democratic politics can bring enthusiastic young people into the party and into local elective office, where they can insure the party’s future. Already the BLM movement has started to do that in places like Ferguson, Missouri and neighboring communities.

The BLM movement is not something to be handled, managed and/or swept under the rug. It’s something to be celebrated, promoted and fostered. Just like our country, the Democratic party cannot bet its future on old white men. It has to expand and foster the youth, strength and enthusiasm that the BLM movement offers. And it should never forget that other minorities, as well as thoughtful old white men like me, have a stake in the BLM movement, too.

So here’s my pledge. As and old white guy, I don’t care whether my leaders are black, brown, yellow, red, white or green, as long as they are thoughtful and progressive. If police abuse drives smart, dedicated young people into the Democratic party and local politics, I’ll support and vote for them. As long as police abuse is not their only issue, I’ll look to them to give our party the enthusiasm and dynamism that it has lacked for far too long. And I’ll look to the BLM movement to give us Dems an issue with the simplicity of protecting babies, which our party also has lacked for far too long.

Erratum: In an earlier version of this post, the sixth-to-last paragraph erroneously began as follows: “Just as the pro-life side has the burden of complexity in abortion . . . .” (Emphasis added.) As the rest of this essay makes clear, the pro-life side enjoys the benefits of simplicity. Yet the issue of abortion remains a complex one, in which oversimplification and often outright lies aid the “criminalize-it” demagogues.

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25 November 2015

Thanksgiving 2015

    [For brief comment on Trump’s blood libel, click here.]

    “ The best lack all conviction, while the worst
    Are full of passionate intensity.”
    William Butler Yeats, “The Second Coming” (1919)
This may be the most dismal Thanksgiving since my “tradition” of Thanksgiving messages began eight years ago. Yeats’ chilling but accurate words again ring true, almost a century after he wrote them.

Again the worst are strong amongst us. The mindlessly brutal Islamic State waxes strong and wealthy, despite near-universal condemnation and thousands of air strikes. Here at home, an over-the-top self-promoter who has no conception of consistency or cause and effect leads the pack of presidential hopefuls in a once-great American political party.

Among his vanishingly small clot of specific policies, Trump wants to deport 11.5 million peaceful, hard-working people. Wasn’t that the kind of thing Hitler and Stalin used to do?

And isn’t Trump’s incessant, capricious, loose-cannon approach to life and policy a dead ringer (pun intended) for Adolf’s? Isn’t his utter dependence on raw anger as the driving force of his campaign?

Should he ever come close to the nomination, let alone the presidency, video comparison of his rants and “policies” with Adolf’s will probably finish Trump off. But his mere presence on our big stage is a deep and enduring national embarrassment.

More dismal still is the outlook for international peace. The circumstances of the so-called “Great War” that Yeats’ immortal poem lamented seem to be repeating themselves. Again nations are massing in a gigantic free-for-all, without much reason or sense. Only the locus is changed: a bit more to the south and east.

Ask the average educated person what the First World War was all about, and he or she will mumble something about Archduke Ferdinand’s assassination. Then ask what the murdered Archduke stood for, and why his assassination triggered a continent-wide war. You will get a blank stare.

No one but historians recalls why so many fought so catastrophically, even using crude chemical weapons. All that remains is lonely cemeteries, with countless graves in endless straight rows, and the still-searing memory of tens of millions of unnecessary, violent, premature deaths. Every November, otherwise advanced nations celebrate this senseless catastrophe without really knowing why.

The flower of a generation of youth in Britain, France, Germany (and elsewhere) perished in innumerable gruesome ways. And for what? Virtually no one today knows or cares.

And so it will be with this century’s “Great War,” now brewing in Syria and Iraq. A century from now, if our species survives, all anyone will remember will be the death and destruction. The gravestones and monuments will stand as dismal reminders of our species’ inability to learn from our mistakes.

There are differences, to be sure. The major powers have kept their ordinary ground troops out, at least so far. And no major power even has hinted at using nuclear weapons for anything other than their sole rational purpose: deterrence. So our new Great War, which already has begun, need not be a veritable “Second Coming” of Satan.

Yet minor but well-armed regional powers are circling like vultures over a weakened rat: Iran, Turkey, Saudi Arabia, even Egypt. After losing a civilian airliner to Egyptian terrorists and a military jet to Turkish forces, Russia may be falling into the trap of yet another war with remnants of the Ottoman Empire. How many recall today that that struggle was also part of the Great War—a part in which the Ottoman Empire mostly prevailed?

First they stop the tourism. Then they withdraw ambassadors. Then, after a “suitable” interval, the fighting begins. Isn’t that our species’ dismal history to date? Dare we hope that, this time, things will be different?

Yet, said the bard, hope springs eternal in the human breast. And so it must be on Thanksgiving, the happiest and most American of holidays. Even this dismal fall, there are things to be thankful for.

First and foremost, we Yanks have (apart from Chancellor Angela Merkel), the wisest and most moral leader of any major power today. He dispatched the mass-murderer bin Laden with ninjas. He also has devoted eight years of his presidency to winding down the two unnecessary wars he inherited from his predecessor, each of which is a contributing cause of the dismal Second Coming.

So many leaders today combine primitive tribalism with idle daydreams of imperial glory. In contrast, President Obama uses his keen mind to predict and avoid undesirable consequences.

Let us recall his late-2002 prediction of what our Yankee invasion and occupation of Iraq would bring:
“[I know that] Saddam poses no imminent and direct threat to the United States or to his neighbors, that the Iraqi economy is in shambles, that the Iraqi military [has] a fraction of its former strength, and that in concert with the international community he can be contained until, in the way of all petty dictators, he falls away into the dustbin of history. I know that even a successful war against Iraq will require a U.S. occupation of undetermined length, at undetermined cost, with undetermined consequences. I know that an invasion of Iraq without a clear rationale and without strong international support will only fan the flames of the Middle East, and encourage the worst, rather than best, impulses of the Arab world, and strengthen the recruitment arm of al-Qaida. I am not opposed to all wars. I'm opposed to dumb wars.”
Our President made those remarks in October 2002, as a state senator in Illinois, six years before running for the presidency and almost two years before the keynote speech that thrust him into the national spotlight. Now, thirteen years later, we know how right he was.

His insight into consequences could not have been more accurate if he had been a biblical prophet. We Yanks should be thankful, every day, that our White Holds a leader who can see around corners and above the tribalism and idle dreams of glory that consume lesser men. Given our status at the world’s chief superpower, every human being on our planet also should give thanks.

While our structurally defective politics are not as promising as the remaining fourteen months of Barack Obama’s presidency, we Yanks are still a mostly practical and resilient people. Despite the abysses of ignorance, stupidity and pride that our media delight in, we still have our common sense.

After all, our blond-coiffed would-be führer commands the support of only about a quarter of likely GOP primary voters—at best an eighth of all likely voters. In a nation like ours, even 12.5% is far too much support for such a man; but it’s still a tiny minority. The chances of Donald Trump ever sitting in the White House, even as an honored guest, are minuscule.

Most Americans understand that deporting millions of peaceful, productive people is not something democracies do. It’s something vile dictators do.

Since our Founding, we Yanks have had a simple, powerful credo: live and let live; thrive and let thrive. The vast majority of us ken that once-despised groups eventually become vital parts of us, making our melting-pot stew tastier. It happened to the Irish, the Germans, the French, and the Italians. It happened to refugees from the Balkans and points east. It happened to the Jews, including my ancestors. It’s still happening to blacks (far too slowly) and to gays and Lesbians, and soon (we can hope) to peaceful Muslims.

Where would we Yanks be without salsa (both the audible and edible kind), piñatas, Latin dances, and Latin spirit? Where would we be without Apple—the world’s most valuable company, which made high technology accessible to the average Joe, Mary and teenager? How many recall that Steve Jobs’ grandparents were Syrian immigrants?

Immigration turns the social and economic dynamo that energizes our nation. Turn off the tap, and we Yanks dry up, culturally, spiritually and morally. Our melting pot will go flat. Then selfishness and self-righteousness will supplant generosity, greatness of spirit and willingness to learn and grow. Most of us Yanks understand these things, and we can be thankful for that.

So as the dogs of war gather near the birthplace of three great Western religions, and as a temporary (we hope) insanity grips our national politics, let us recall our national heritage. Let us recapture the realistic, pragmatic and wise approach of our Founders, who dedicated their “Lives, Fortunes and sacred Honor” to a new kind of nation. The nation they founded eventually became a beacon of robust immigration, clear thinking, equality of all men and women, and distrust of “foreign entanglements.” Let us respect and admire our current leader who, although his ancestors could have been slaves here, represents the best of us and our traditions.

Most of all, on this most American of national holidays, let us remember what this day stands for. Four centuries ago, there was a feast of plenty involving native peoples and white refugees from foreign religious persecution. Friendly cooperation between the two very different groups made the feast possible, not to mention the white man’s survival in New England. (Our dismal near-genocide of native peoples came later.)

Let us give thanks that we can still recall why we have this holiday. Let us give thanks that we still have our brains, our pragmatism and our hearts, and that we now have a President who bears them in his genes.

Let us give thanks for the chance of progress and survival, which is all evolution ever promised. Let us Yanks give thanks for the quirks of fate and history, and for the wisdom of our forbears, which put us in our species’ vanguard.

Let us give thanks for our collective determination there to remain, not by force, but by generosity, persuasion, and example. And let us give thanks that Germany, which once experienced a temporary insanity of its own, is now helping lead the way.

Donald Trump’s Blood Libel

One of the more dismal phenomena of this Thanksgiving season is our press’ wimpery in the face of rampant political lies and distortions. And one of the more outrageous lies is Donald Trump’s blood libel.

I use the term “blood libel” because it’s familiar to Jews like me.

I’m a well-assimilated, non-religious American Jew, whose family had Christmas trees when I was growing up. Yet I am conscious of—and proud of—my ethnic Jewish heritage. So I know the dismal history of Jews in nineteenth-century Eastern Europe, from which my ancestors wisely fled.

The blood libels against us Jews were crude and fantastic lies. We Jews killed Christ, they said. We also killed Christian babies in our allegedly cabalistic, secret ceremonies. Sometimes we even ate them.

Of course those blood libels were and are absurd. The Romans, not Jews, killed Christ. Ever heard of Herod? Judaism is a non-violent religion. It took the Nazis and their Holocaust, plus genocide in the Warsaw ghetto, to turn us into fighters. And most Jews, especially in the nineteenth century, kept kosher—a series of strictly observed dietary laws. Whether babies or not, Christians were simply not on the menu.

But blood libels don’t have to be true. They can be absurd—sometimes the more absurd the “better.” Their purpose is not to educate, edify or enlighten. Their purpose is to drive hate, feed bitterness, incite pogroms, and score cheap points for rancid politicians.

And so it was with Trump’s vile blood libel: that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the Twin Towers’ downfall on 9/11.

There is, of course, no evidence for this alleged phenomenon other than Trump’s own lie. The lie was so stark as to cause our usually mincing media to use harsh words like “false” and “untrue.”

But even those words are wimpy compared to the level of calumny and its vile intent. The notion that American Muslims—99.9% of whom are peaceful and just as glad to be Americans as any other immigrants—celebrated 9/11 is a blood libel no less than Jews allegedly killing Christ.

Not only that. It’s un-American. Virtually every major American ethnic group—from the Pilgrims who gave us Thanksgiving to Syrians and Central Americans today—came to this country to get away from some sort of persecution. Upon arriving, their universal feeling was and is vast relief, coupled with a desire to become Americans (and accepted as such) as quickly and completely as possible. Muslims are no different.

So in creating a new blood libel on our own soil, Donald Trump is smuggling into our homeland the very horrors that most of us or our ancestors fled. He is attacking the essence of this country: refuge from mindless enmity and evil.

Accordingly, every one of us—and especially we Jews—should call Trump out for what he is: a profoundly un-American and profoundly dangerous demagogue, and a national shame and disgrace.

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12 November 2015

Can the Dems “Pull a Reagan” in 2016?


[For comment on the Dems’ Saturday-night debate, click here . I’m keeping this post up because it’s relevant to the debate; in fact the debate in part confirms it.]

Whoever wins the GOP nomination, it’s almost impossible to imagine him or her actually winning the White House. Once known for its order and discipline, the Grand Old Party is in greater disarray than ever in my lifetime, and I’m now over 70. It’s leaders—if there are any—apparently think voters will forget the circular firing squad come next November. But it’s hard to believe they will.

So whoever wins the Democratic nomination will likely be our next president. The Dem will win if only because, in this digital “gotcha!” age, the GOP will be fighting itself. There will just be too many GOP-adverse viral videos floating around the Internet and in Dem campaign ads. Lots of them will come from the farcical GOP debates.

Yet winning the White House is not the problem. The problem is that a minority party has virtually taken over an utterly broken and bitterly divided government. The next president can’t do much more than make another unnecessary war unless these circumstances change.

At the moment, the GOP pretty much owns Congress and the Supreme Court. The Court will change only if and as its troglodytes retire or die in the saddle. So that leaves Congress as an objective.

Somehow, some way, the Dem who next wins the White House must have what they used to call “long coattails.” She or he has to bring Congress along in something of a landslide, at least enough to make a visible change in national proclivities. The Dems must forge a brand-new electoral coalition and make it long-lived.

That sort of thing has been done, but not often. FDR did it, but it took the impetus of the Great Depression. Although another massive, global recession will remain possible until we rein the big banks in, it’s not a consummation devoutly to be wished. Dems don’t want to destroy the economy in order to save it.

The only pol (besides maybe Teddy) to forge a new coalition without a massive depression or an impending war was Ronald Reagan. He somehow managed to pull a lot of Dems into his fold and keep them there. A lot of them are still there, under the name “Reagan Democrats.”

How did he do it? Mostly with charm, I think.

Ronald Reagan had an extraordinary personality. A wag once described FDR as having a second-rate intellect but a first-rate temperament. Reagan had a third-rate intellect but a temperament that could see and raise FDR’s. His economic policies, besides raw selfishness, were and are nonsense, but “supply side economics” and “trickle down” are still with us today. The nonsense stuck just because Reagan promoted it.

He was a big man with a smooth and beguiling, almost hypnotic, voice. He was invariably calm and good-natured. He had magnificent charm and a wonderful sense of humor. In the operating room after the attempt on his life, he doffed his oxygen mask and joked, “I hope you are all Republicans.” Many, many voters probably wished their fathers had been like him.

Today no candidate in either party has anything like that kind of charm. Perhaps the closest is John Kasich. But he was standing at the far left in the last debate—the place where The Hook next strikes. Anyway, he has a major disadvantage: he’s a Republican.

So if the Dems are going to assemble a new coalition by stripping voters away from the GOP, they’re going to have to do it the old-fashioned way: by policy or subconscious affiliation.

Policy is the hard way. When you think about it, the mood today seems absolutely extraordinary. The GOP—even its “Tea Party”—has millions of voters who work for a living and who are struggling or just getting by. They know the banks caused the Great Recession, and they hate the bailouts and the ever-growing concentration of power in finance. They hate being pushed around by big companies and rich people. They hate the fact that their kids can’t afford college. They hate to see the “American Dream” disappearing, at least for them. They hate working harder for less. They hate having jobs they can’t count on continuing. They think the country’s going to the dogs, and not slowly.

But they blame it all on Obama and the Dems. They don’t even think to blame the people who somehow keep getting richer and richer while their own lives slide down a slippery slope.

This may be the greatest mass con job in human history. But it’s real. It’s part distraction (so-called “social issues”), part prevarication (aka outright lies), and part the dark side of human nature. It’s hard to admit you saw or see things wrong, let alone blame your own sorry circumstances on yourself. So it’s hard for the average Joe or Mary to switch parties, let alone long-held views.

Whoever figures out how to untie this knot could build a new coalition, FDR-style. Like FDR, she or he might fix our national fate for decades to come.

But it’s hard, really hard, to overcome decades of successful distraction and propaganda. If it were easy, it would have been done already. Fox and the GOP “operatives” are among most skilled propagandists and demagogues in human history. They know their business well. It’s hard for a party addicted to truth, reality and workable policy to match them.

So no, policy is probably not the easy way to do it. Dems should try to get working folk to realize they’re on their side, but succeeding is not going to be easy or quick.

So what have the Dems got? They sure haven’t got Reagan’s charm. Hillary is still learning how to appear human, and Bernie, although seeming more human than Hillary, is too earnest and too much of a wonk. And the Dems don’t have anything like Fox and probably never will. They prefer reality.

So that leaves subconscious affiliation, the emotional stuff. This is Hillary’s strong suit.

To see what I mean, think about Barack Obama. He’s an African-American, part of a 12% minority. As the last eight years have taught us so well, at least twice that many voters hate him for it. They hate him so much that they confuse their racial hatred with alleged “policy differences” that make no sense. They rant and rave, for example, against improving their own health care.

Sure, there are a lot of other voters for whom Obama’s racial background is a plus. Maybe the number is as high as 30% of voters. But you have to adjust for intensity. Even those, like me, who feel Obama is incredibly skilled and has been given a bum rap ever since a microsecond after his inauguration, don’t (evidently) feel as strongly as the ones who hate him. At least we haven’t formed a crazy, left-wing counterpart to the Tea Party. And we don’t rant and vote against our own interests just to spite our opponents.

So if you take the 12% who subconsciously favor Obama, subtract the 24% who hate him, and add two-thirds (intensity adjusted) of the 30% of voters who like him just for being what he is, you get 12% - 24% + 20% = 8%. So Obama’s identity provides a positive subconscious affiliation bias of about 8%.

If this is the limit, his being elected president twice, with an unquestionable national popular majority each time, shows one of three things: (1) extraordinary circumstances, (2) supernaturally superior policies, or (3) supernatural political skill. Since Congress and voters don’t seem to think much of his policies, despite their unquestionable positive effects, the answer has to be a combination of (1) and (3): the Great Recession and its origins in GOP theology, plus the extraordinary skill of the President and his campaign team.

Now consider Hillary. Her subconscious affiliation quotient comes from her gender—a 51% majority of voters. Some men may never vote for a woman president; let’s say they amount to 20% of men, or 10% of all voters. Some men and women won’t vote for Hillary because of her marital difficulties and her association with socially liberal policies, such as abortion and gun control. Let’s say they amount to 15% of voters. Do the subtraction and you still get a 26% subconscious affiliation boost—over three times Obama’s. And that’s not even counting for the intensity of women, who have waited during almost a century of suffrage for a candidate of their own.

Then think about working women, who are more numerous than ever before. They don’t get equal pay. Single mothers have to raise their kids alone, as well as support them. Even skilled professional women have to cope with everything from subtle bias and locker-room jokes to sexual harassment and outright discrimination, every day. And they have to smile while coping.

You don’t think all this makes a difference, subconsciously or even consciously, when women go to the polls, and no man is looking over their shoulders?

I didn’t come by these views accidentally, far less through logic. I came by them through hard experience, watching the last eight years with increasing horror. I now believe that 20-30% of the opposition to our President (not votes, but intensity) has racist motivation, and around 70% of the extreme opposition does. Subconscious affiliation matters.

As a result, I feel a whole lot better about Hillary as a candidate. I still think Bernie is the better candidate, with a shaper mind, keener judgment, and a better grasp of policy and priorities. I’ll still vote for him in the primaries, if only to budge Hillary to the left and terrify the smuggies who think that anything they can dub “socialism” is doomed.

But I won’t be at all unhappy if Hillary wins the nomination. I will have the hope that, for the first time since FDR, the Dem nominee will be able to budge the needle of gridlock and forge a new coalition, drawing angry working women and some angry working men back into the Democratic Party, where they belong.

We have to move our broken country off the dime and start moving forward again. I don’t much care how we do it, as long as there’s no new war, civil or otherwise. And I do increasingly believe that—for reasons that shouldn’t exist but do—Hillary is the one best equipped to perform that difficult but absolutely necessary task. Nuances of intelligence, judgment and policy just won’t matter if we still have gridlock.

Footnote: As I’ve discussed at length in another essay, it was Reagan who introduced the “policy” of selfishness that has gripped this nation for over thirty years and brought it low. It was Reagan, not Dubya, who invented the mantra “It’s your money!”

The Dems’ Saturday-Night Debate

Wow! I repeat, wow.

Tonight’s debate was a stark contrast from the recent GOP debates. I had trouble deciding which candidate I would best like to see in the White House, rather than which candidate made me least nauseous. I was ecstatic to find that there are intelligent, caring life forms among our pols. I was particularly surprised to find that, at least among Dems, you have to be an adult to hold the world’s most important job.

Who “won”? The easiest answer is the Democratic party and our battered democracy. All three Dems showed how to disagree without being disagreeable. The also proved what a monstrous chasm of intelligence, workable policy, and empathy lies between each of them and every GOP candidate. In the process, they proved that the term “a civil debate” is not an oxymoron.

The two leading candidates each had good moments. One of Hillary’s came as she responded to accusations of taking Wall Street’s dirty campaign money. She noted that 60% of her contributions have come from women. Twitter rated the audience reaction as the most positive of any she received.

That audience reaction also validated my analysis above. There are two statistics that no other candidate on the stage could match—nor probably any other candidate in our nation’s history. Hillary’s “affinity group”—women—is not a minority. It’s a 51% majority of all voters. Her 60% contribution figure underlined that point.

No one likes to talk about it, least of all Hillary herself. But her gender makes her the only candidate on that stage with a significant chance of winning the general election by a landslide, even in a bitterly divided nation.

As a man, I don’t like to generalize about women, if only because I get bashed (rightly so!) for trying to do so. But my experience with the women I’ve loved and my reading of Men are from Mars, Women are from Venus have convinced me that women don’t keep score the same way men do.

Some “political operatives” think that women, like men, will ding Hillary for her e-mails, her more-than-occasional self-aggrandizement, and her vote to make war in Iraq, which she now admits was a mistake. But I’m beginning to think that those operatives, like me, have no idea what women will do in the privacy of the voting booth, let alone after waiting a century to have the chance to vote for one of their own. There’s a good chance the operatives are in for a rude surprise, and we Dems are in for an extraordinarily pleasant one.

Yet the 60% Twitter moment, was not, in my view, the best part of Hillary’s performance. In a way that had not that much to do with substance, she somehow dominated the debate emotionally.

I can’t quite put my finger on how she did it. But I think it was a combination of flexibility (agreeing with others enthusiastically when they were right), humility (admitting her error on Iraq), and experience. When it came to crises of national security, which were a substantial subject of the debate, she had more experience than either of the two men on that stage, and it showed.

But instead of touting her experience in the abstract, as she had done (badly) in the 2008 campaign, she let the facts speak for themselves. That showed not just her her superior ability to be commander in chief, but her ability to learn and profit from her mistakes.

Hillary’s worst moment, in my view, was her refusal to endorse her two rivals’ views (which I share) that no one can rein in Wall Street without breaking up the big banks. Here Hillary resorted again to her dismal “trust me, I know better” approach, referring to her Website and insisting that she has a more comprehensive and better plan. Later she even went so far as to laud her own proposal as a “good plan.” The less she does of that, and the more she provides specific, credible answers, the more likely she will be our next president.

On substance and policy, Bernie still had the high ground. When asked how high he would raise top-bracket taxes to pay for his generous social programs, he said he wouldn’t raise them as high as they were under that “socialist” Dwight Eisenhower. (Ike had presided over 90%-plus top rates.) That remark marked Bernie’s Twitter-approval peak.

More important, Bernie had it right on the substance of policy. He touted, among other things, Medicare for all, tuition-free college, curbing Wall Street by breaking up the big banks and reinstating Glass-Steagall, giving workers medical and parental leave, and reducing our astronomical incarceration rate by getting the federal government out of the business of jailing marijuana users. In my view, every one of these policies is right and proper and would make an enormous improvement in our nation. Most are long overdue.

The problem is that any single one of these achievements, let alone all of them together, would be a high hurdle to leap. The President didn’t settle for “Obamacare” because single-payer was easy to get done. As early as May 2007, he recognized that single-payer was politically impossible, and that we’d all have to settle for something less.

So, with a little help from Martin O’Malley, Hillary was able to paint Bernie as a starry-eyed idealist. At the same time, she was able (by implication) to claim the mantle of the practical pol who could get at least part of Bernie’s ambitious agenda done. She gave the impression that Bernie is the party’s conscience and she the fixer and wheeler-dealer.

Overall, I would have to say that Hillary advanced her agenda well. She drove another block closer to the nomination and the presidency. (As for me, I’m still going to vote for Bernie in the primaries. The more who vote for him—even believing that Hillary will win—the more credible these sensible policies will become. As Bernie repeatedly pointed out, most of our developed-country allies, and even our rivals, have most or all of these policies in place right now. We are the outlier, and our people suffer for it.)

I don’t mean to slight Martin O’Malley. He also accomplished a vital thing for himself: for the first time, he showed himself as a credible and attractive candidate for the presidency.

His big Twitter moment came when he described Donald Trump as an “immigant bashing carnival barker.” That was a great line, but it wasn’t his greatest moment. That came in response to a question about dealing with crises.

O’Malley began with humility and ended with common sense. He honestly disclaimed, as a former mayor and governor, ever having resolved a crisis of national or international scope. Yet he noted how he had resolved numerous lesser municipal and state crises: by listening, being flexible, thinking, and knowing how to manage a team of experts.

Isn’t that exactly what you want in a president? Then and there, O’Malley answered for me one the most important questions anyone can ask about a candidate for our species’ top job: how does he or she think? O’Malley didn’t have time to say so, but the contrast with Dubya’s disastrous approaches to Iraq and Katrina was patent.

In other ways, too, O’Malley proved himself candidate worthy of the White House. Reminding us indirectly of his youth, he called for “new leadership” in his closing statement. His youth gives him time to run again when it’s his turn. For myself, I can say I could vote for him without a qualm. Maybe he’ll end up being vice-president.

So the night was a win for Hillary and an even clearer win for Democrats generally. It was also a win for the moderator, John Dickerson, who consistently asked important questions, followed up well, and nudged the rivals to obey the rules without being obsequious or obtrusive.

All in all, it was a great night for democracy and a hopeful one for our much-diminished nation. Not since the Kennedy-Nixon debates of 1960—and certainly not in the last decade—have I seen the like. It was a tasty morsel for a starving nation.

P.S.: A Morning-After Thought

The contrast between last night’s Democratic debate and the GOP mud-wrestling contests so far was stunning. It felt like emerging from one of Hollywood’s dystopian slums into Camelot.

Whatever Democratic strategist had the idea of limiting Dem debates in number and timing is not just making a possibly tragic mistake, but missing a huge opportunity. Sure, debates are hard on the candidates. But the notion (apparently held by some) that Hillary risks her lead by debating is utter nonsense.

Bernie and O’Malley are no slouches, but Hillary beat them fair and square. She’s good at debating, and she appears to be getting better. The practice will do her good.

But that’s not the point. After the primaries and party conventions, there will be a general election. Presumably, there is still a critical mass of citizens who have a modicum of intelligence and discretion and some small ability to think. If not, we are irretrievably lost as a nation. If so, debates like last night’s are the most powerful and compelling campaign strategy that any Democrat could imagine.

Dem debates show three things. First, unlike Republicans, who can’t seem to agree on the time of day, we Dems have a generally common and coherent set of policies. We differ on detail, not goals or direction. Second, those policies make sense, at least if you think about them and don’t react like Pavlov’s dogs conditioned by Fox. The more Dems explain their policies before a national audience, as they can do in debates, the more traction those policies will get. Third, the tone of Democratic debates, even with no thought of substance, reminds voters subliminally that adults are better leaders than children.

Hillary might have been elected president in 2008. But she made a critical strategic error. In putting all her eggs in the primary basket, she took her eye off the ball. (How’s that for a mixed metaphor!) The most egregious example was her “playing the race card” against Obama late in the game—a stratagem that infuriated white Dems like me and yet cut her no slack among GOP-leaning voters.

There are other ways, especially in foreign policy, in which Hillary’s obsessive 2008 focus on winning the nomination hurt us Dems and the nation. Neither we Dems nor Hillary can afford the same mistake now. The stakes are too high.

The quality of our debates, as compared to the GOP’s, is the best advertisement for our leadership money could buy. With Hillary in a commanding lead and looking more and more like the inevitable nominee, it’s long past time for her and her staff to start thinking about how to position her party and the nation after she wins the nomination. As every chess player knows, the easiest way to lose is to think only about the next move.

One last point. There’s a lot of fretting on the Internet about the shallowness of the Democratic “bench,” especially in state and local politics. Debates like last night’s can rejuvenate and expand our party by attracting thousands of talented young people into politics, especially young women.

We Dems need more debates like last night’s, not fewer. So does the nation.

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05 November 2015

Metrojet Flight 9268: the Price of Tyranny?


The tragic loss of 224 lives aboard a Russian flight from Sharm el-Sheikh to St. Petersburg has the potential to become a politically transformational event. But to realize that potential, the global public—and especially the public in Egypt and Russia—must understand the cause of the disaster as a terrorist act.

That is why we may never know what actually happened.

We Yanks and Brits, among others, may be amazed and disheartened by what happens now. After any disaster involving aircraft, we are used to an immediate, thorough, and consummately professional investigation. Cost is never an object. Each investigation consumes all the necessary material, technical and intellectual resources of a great nation. While the process is not entirely public, the results and conclusions eventually are.

We are used, for example, to seeing every shard of a downed plane reassembled in a huge hangar and examined exhaustively by forensic experts, for months or for years, as long as necessary. We are used to seeing foreign experts summoned and involved in the process. All those who conduct the examination are specialized experts with no political role whatsoever, and therefore no axe to grind. There are no Karl Roves among them. They are like seasoned detectives at a crime scene: calm, professional, expert, and relentless.

We are not likely to see that same diligence and professionalism in the Sinai. Why? Because the two countries involved, Egypt and Russia, are tyrannies trying to disguise themselves as such. When they are not busy jailing and killing their own people to maintain “stability,” they are assiduously controlling the information to which their people have access.

Insofar as they are able, they also control information available to the outside world. We still have no verdict on the downing of MH Flight 17 in Eastern Ukraine, for example, because of what the Donyetskii separatists and their Russian backers did to and at the crash site. It was as if the local authorities had allowed a bunch of local gansters to stage a raucous days-long block party at the crime scene, taking away whatever “souvenirs” they wanted.

Just as Russia had no desire to let its people or the world know who shot down MH17, neither Egypt nor Russia has any wish for the world to know the real cause of Metrojet Flight 9268’s destruction.

It the cause was a mechanical failure or pilot error, it would reflect poorly on Russian aviation and tourism. Ditto for a fault in Russian security. If it was a defect in Egyptian security, it would reflect poorly on Egypt’s current tyranny, airports, tourism, and general security, as well as General El-Sisi’s supposed progress in his self-declared war on Islamists. And if it was a terrorist attack, it would cause the Egyptian and Russian public to begin to doubt that the natural consequences of El-Sisi’s and Putin’s confrontational policies are good for them. So the outcome most desired by the rulers of Egypt and Russia is to make the entire story disappear from the news quickly and without a trace, just like the victims who died.

In the beginning, there was just Israel and Palestine. From the “invention” of hijackings in the 1970s, the first acts of terrorism against aircraft targeted only Israelis. Slowly, inexorably, the terrorists’ bull’s eye widened to include us Yanks. Hijacking of American planes met increasingly stringent security measures. Then came Lockerbie and later 9/11. After the fact, we Yanks took in that the late bin Laden had declared jihad against us, the greatest superpower in human history.

Russians felt the sting of terrorism only more slowly and rarely. There was the slaughter of children in Beslan and the “hijacking” of the Nord-Ost Theater in Moscow. But those terrorist acts, apparently, were perpretrated by Chechens or their sympathizers. So Putin “pacified” Chechnyá—an effort that appears to have achieved at least partial success. But Chechnyá was and is a small, mountainous and isolated place, far from the millennial turmoil that is now engulfing the Middle East.

So Chechnyá taught Putin the wrong lesson. Wield a firm hand, the inveterate silovik thought, and stability will follow as day the night. And so he backed Assad, a silovik far more stupid and brutal than he. But in so doing, Putin hid behind Iran’s Shiite theocracy, Assad’s direct backer.

Now Putin has come out of hiding, putting his own Russian crews in charge of maintaining, servicing and directing, if not actually flying, the planes that mercilessly bomb Syrian civilians and rebels alike. “What could possibly happen to one of the world’s great superpowers?” he must have thought.

He should have asked the ghost of the Shah of Iran, who, at the time he fled Tehran, had had the consistent backing of the other great Cold War superpower. He should have asked the ghosts of the Yanks who died in the barracks in Lebanon, in the warship Cole, and in the 9/11 attacks.

An obvious consequence of Putin’s coming out from behind Iran’s shadow is that Russia and Russians are now direct targets of global jihad. An obvious consequence of El-Sisi’s heavy-handed tyranny is that Egypt’s government is now such a target. So are its innocent people, as “collateral damage.”

What’s even more interesting, in a macabre sort of way, is that the downing of Metrojet 9268 may presage a wholly new era of terrorism against aircraft. Reports of satellite observations appear to suggest that a blast came from an engine, not the fuselage. If so, that means a person with access to the innards of the engine may have planted a bomb there, where no one but a trained mechanic might notice it.

It’s not hard to believe that, among the hundreds of people who manage, service and maintain aircraft in Egypt, there might be an Islamist sympathizer or two who have no love for either Russians or official Egyptians. Such a person might be a relative of one of the tens of thousands whom El-Sisi has condemned to prison or to death, often with patently rigged trials and little or no evidence.

Putin and El-Sisi, of course, are both smart and ruthless men. No doubt they fully understand the consequences of their actions and policies and are prepared to accept them. After all, Putin already has accepted the deaths of thousands and the displacement of over a million in Eastern Ukraine, not to mention the utter destruction of Syria. El-Sisi has already accepted the incarceration and/or condemnation to death of tens of thousands, many of whom he must know are innocent.

But it’s different when the long arm of terrorism hits home. Neither tyrant wants to let his own people (or the world) connect the dots of cause and effect.

So the vehement and immediate protestations of Egypt and Russia that terrorism could not possibly have caused the disaster were utterly predictable. In fact, they were as predictable as Putin’s protestation that no Russian—not even the loose-cannon Russian agent and agitator “Strelkov”—could have been responsible for the downing of MH17.

Putin and El-Sisi would rather admit that their aircraft, pilots, and/or security failed than that their policies encourage terrorism and incite jihad. That is why the Western World, and all journalists and freedom-loving people everywhere, should not let this story die along with its innocent victims.

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