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

26 July 2016

The Dems’ Convention


This post is devoted to reporting the Convention day by day. For my views on what Hillary must do to earn a three-branch sweep, click here. For a day-by-day review of the Trump Convention, click here.

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3: Discovering Decency
Day 4: The Disappointment

Day 1

What a difference a week makes! Last week’s Trump Convention opened with serial laments by ordinary people who had suffered and—for reasons neither expressed nor apparent—blamed their suffering on Obama. It was amateur night of amateur nights, enough to make an American Idol blush.

That first day now seems even worse in retrospect. Having blamed their suffering on the wrong person(s) for reasons unknown, les miserables had no recourse but to follow the evil demagogue, who promised to fix their troubles by methods unsaid, with no recourse but “believe me . . . I am your voice.”

Thus were the dismal first day and Trump’s passably political acceptance speech all of a piece. They introduced the evil villain and his modus operandi as if in a Disney cartoon. Trump’s and Fox’ politics as entertainment were immanent, perhaps just not as intended.

The Dems’ first day was as different as day after night. Not only did it highlight professionals as distinguished from amateurs. It showcased some of the best Dem leaders.

The Dems (or some of them) served up a list of grievances, too. But they were not personal grievances; they were societal ones. Unlike Trump’s les miserables, the Dem’s savvy professionals traced the people’s grievances, step by step, to a generation of GOP mistakes and bad policy. And then—especially in the case of Bernie, who spoke last—they described exactly how to fix them.

You can lead a voter to logic, but you can’t make him think. If you could, any voter watching last night would have begun to understand how smart, practical people solve big problems with real solutions. And they would have seen it by being shown how, not told.

But there was much more than just information, facts and logic. There was also tone.

In an effort to pull the party together after the grueling primaries, Cory Booker and Michelle Obama gave “unity” speeches. Booker, a former Rhodes Scholar and Yale Law grad, gave a rather abstract speech. Pulling facts and words from our nation’s history, he traced our nation’s genius not to being the best of all possible worlds, but to having the strength and will to improve ourselves continually. What makes us a great nation, he told us, is striving always to form a more perfect union, wherever that striving may lead.

Michelle continued in the same vein, but with much more power. Her voice breaking with emotion, she noted that she “wake[s] up every morning in a house that was built by slaves.” With that single sentence, Michelle demolished both the notion that we are not a great nation and the lie that we have not made progress. Our progress may be slow, and it may be subject to reversal, she implied, but it can move faster, and much, much faster if the Dems make a three-branch sweep.

Michelle also mapped out a course for the level of our campaign. “When they go low, we go high,” she advised. It’s a lesson derivable not just from her husband’s presidency, but from the GOP’s own primary campaign and its results. Where are all the GOP pros who tried to go low with Trump now?

In an odd way, the speeches of Day 1 also introduced Hillary, although she won’t speak until Day 4. They introduced her by showing the power of great women, albeit two very different ones.

Michelle spoke of children and grandchildren. She framed a president’s role as improving their futures. She spoke with self-evident conviction and personal power—so well, in fact, that I found myself hoping that some day she might run, too. That audience apparently agreed: its reception of her speech was the warmest of the night.

Elizabeth did what she is famous for. She catalogued the GOP’s blunders and frauds, explaining exactly how they cause people pain and bring our country low, and how to fix them. And she did so in words and concepts simple enough for any voter to understand.

Bernie capped the night with an extended concession speech endorsing Hillary. Among other things, he thanked his many supporters, noted how he had driven the party’s platform to the left, and promised that his “revolution” would continue. No doubt it will, for Bernie seems to have made Hillary aware of the futility of “triangulating” opponents that have no fixed position and are broken, splintered and at each other’s throats.

All in all, the Dems’ Day 1 was as organized and purposeful as Trump’s was dismal and chaotic. It set the tone of the Dem’s campaign (“high”) and its substance. Our country is great and need not be made great again. It just needs to recall what makes it great and follow the Dems’ prescription for equal justice and cooperation. Day 1 thus resolved the “oxymoron” of an optimistic case for big changes: we need change because the plutocrats and Citizens United have stolen our democracy, and we need to get it back. The theft was recent enough that the changes required shouldn’t qualify as “revolutionary;” it was that execrable decision that was radical.

Putin’s hackers may have tried to stir division in the Dems by broadcasting Schultz’ anti-Bernie e-mails. But the ploy backfired. Schultz got fired, as she should have been long ago. The Bernie and Hillary factions cried and made up last night, and the evening’s unity and powerful speeches reduced Trump’s chances of winning by 5% to 10%. More to the point, the gambit reduced Putin’s popularity here even further, if that were possible.

Unlike Trump (or what he may have said once), Trump’s likely supporters despise and fear Putin and Russia. So by trying to help Trump, Putin probably hurt him, not just indirectly through the failure of the ploy, but directly as well.

We do still have a great nation. Our greatness lies in our ability to improve ourselves and to rise from the ashes of our failures. We might reverse course, but we never quit. Those who don’t take the time to understand us will find that out to their chagrin, including both Donald J. Trump and Vladimir Vladimirovich Putin.

Our President’s newest diplomatic proposal will soon reveal Putin’s true intentions, just as his many reasonable proposals to Congress revealed the GOP’s. Either Putin will work with us to extinguish the scourge of IS and to stabilize what is left of Syria and its neighbors, or he will continue his present course of Metternichean power plays, causing death and destruction as he does. We and the world will soon know.

It’s may seem odd that all this comes from a political party about which Will Rogers once quipped, “I’m not a member of any organized political party. I’m a Democrat.” But those who write us Dems or us Yanks off have always lived to regret it. What appears to be our weakness often becomes our strength.

Endnote on Putin’s Ploys. For all his faults, Putin is an innovative leader. This is at least the third time he has tried to assert direct influence over the American political process. The first was an op-ed piece in the New York Times. The second was harboring Edward Snowden. The third was releasing hacked e-mails revealing Schultz’ improper campaign against Bernie.

We should expect this sort of thing to continue and not fret too much about it. It’s a far cry from the kind of “cyberwarfare” that makes centrifuges, dams or power grids fail. In some cases, it might advance the progress of our species. Truth is not often a bad thing, even if it outs awkwardly. And in tapping our communications, Putin’s spooks might learn something about how democracy works, just as our spooks (or our government) may have learned something about how great leaders think by tapping Angela Merkel’s cell phone.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post erroneously referred to the resigning DNC Chair Debbie Wasserman Schultz as “Strauss.” Late-night blogging after a long day does have its discontents.

Day 2

About midway through the second day, the Dems’ Convention began to distinguish itself strongly from Trump’s. Except for the testimonial givers, its speakers are professionals pols, not amateurs like Trump himself. Second, its organizers are also professionals. Visible themes, and visible transitions among them, appeared as Day 2 grew on.

There was little evidence of tightly enforced discipline, as you might have expected from the GOP of old, when it was a real political party. After all, these were Dems, who often take Will Rogers’ quip (“no organized political party”) as a badge of identity and pride. But subject to the needs of tender egos and emotional healing, the Convention completed the party’s unification and, after a display of diversity, began to move toward humanizing and promoting its candidate.

The final push toward party unification came in an extended roll-call vote, before prime time. The party elders allowed the vote to continue until long after Hillary had gone over the top. It continued until Vermont, Bernie’s state, when he wisely and graciously asked that the vote be made unanimous by acclamation. And so it was.

Thus did Hillary Clinton, without excessive fanfare, become the first-ever female candidate for president pushed forward by a major party. A small number of “Bernie-or-bust” delegates walked out, with protest signs and garb and a few boos. It was unclear from PBS’ reporting whether they ever returned. But the vast majority of delegates remained to see the displays of diversity and the night’s crowning glory, Bill Clinton’s speech.

At various times, I have speculated on Bill’s loss of grey matter during his heart bypass operations. No more. Whatever he may have lost at some time since his presidency, he seemed to have gotten back in full force. And his thin-as-a-rail physique appeared to underline the reason: like most Dems, he believes in science, including the science of living longer.

It’s a difficult thing to praise your own wife of over forty years and make the praise real and credible, let alone when you’ve had some very public marital difficulties and political defeats. Bill did so, magnificently, in a rousing speech that was focused entirely on Hillary and family, was mostly personal, and was completely devoid of references to Bill’s own triumphs and accomplishments.

A good political speech is as fine a balancing act as tightrope-walking across Niagara Falls. It must blend emotion with reason, hope and inspiration with hard fact. It must be simple enough for people with ninth-grade educations to understand, and complex and detailed enough not to bore PhDs. It has to have enough truthful and accurate descriptions of real events and history to maintain credibility. It must have a heaping portion of human interest and humor, so that each listener hears himself or herself in it and doesn’t take it too seriously.

A good speech must also vary the tone so as to avoid boredom. But it must lead inexorably to a final crescendo of approval or disapproval. At its end, each member of the audience must have the same undeniable urge to stand and cheer as after a once-in-a-decade concert. For a great political speech is a work of art.

Bill knew all this last night, and he delivered a masterpiece. In broad outline, it was a complete history of his life with Hillary, from their first meeting, through their marriage and childrearing, to their latest years. It was loving, personal and often whimsical, as if told by an uncle to a favorite nephew. Yet it managed to cover virtually every specific accomplishment of Hillary’s long political career, complete with formal names of places, bills, committees and effects.

The speech had three self-evident goals. The first was to humanize Hillary and convince listeners that she cares more about each American—especially the powerless and voiceless—than she seems to care about her own career when she hides behind a wall of secrecy and her defensive crouch. The second was to contrast Hillary’s multi-decade record of public service with Trump’s, who (as far as his public record shows) has never done anything for anybody but himself. The final goal was to paint Hillary as a “Change Maker,” not a protector of the status quo, as ubiquitous floor signs that magically appeared late in Bill’s speech insisted.

Bill is a supremely gifted speaker, raconteur, and persuader. His brilliant speech went far to meet the first two goals.

But on the third, he fell short despite his effort. Virtually all of the accomplishments he mentioned were incremental, partial, small, or unsuccessful. Perhaps the largest was Hillary’s pushing S-CHIP, the State Children’s Health Insurance Program, which subsidized the states in insuring about eight million children who had lacked health insurance previously. Perhaps the most important failure was so-called “Hillarycare,” her pre-Obama attempt at universal insurance, which Bill himself admitted had been overly complex and badly managed.

Bill and the many testimonials left the listener convinced that Hillary loves people, wants to improve their lives, and has left many, many individuals better off through her personal effort. What neither did was to convince listeners that Hillary can initiate or manage change big enough to satisfy the people who made Trump the GOP candidate and nearly made Bernie the Dems’.

There was also another vital question that Bill’s speech did not even address: trust. Believing that someone has a good heart and cares about you is not quite the same as trusting her. It’s easy to hope that more information and testimonials like Bill’s can alone instill the former belief, but much harder to see how to cure the trust deficit.

Logically, doesn’t lack of trust preclude earning trust by words alone? Doesn’t it require action?

If so, I can think of only two things that a candidate in Hillary’s position can do, in the midst of what promises to be an incredibly ugly general-election campaign, and while lacking the power of any current political office. First, she can endorse a policy or course of action that seems best in substance, but appears to contravene her own personal political advantage. (This was exactly what she failed to do in endorsing Dubya’s catastrophic invasion and occupation of Iraq.) Second, she can promise to include in her Cabinet people who already have earned the public’s trust and have it now. They include, among others, Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker and Sherrod Brown, on economics Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz, and on climate change Martin O’Malley, her other serious primary challenger.

So far, Hillary has not taken either of these approaches to curing her trust deficit. Will she do so on Day 4, when she will first appear in person like a cloistered bride and address our nation as the first-ever female candidate for president from a major party? The President cannot do this for her when he speaks tomorrow, because the initiative and action must come from her.

Whether Hillary will take one or the other approach is probably the most important question to answer in the last two days. Everyone knows that she is a good speaker and debater. The basic quality of the Dems’ Convention already so surpasses Trump’s as to leave little room for improvement, only for a fall from grace. The sole big questions remaining are how big a change she can produce and how to cure her trust deficit.

Day 3: Discovering Decency

I had expected Day 3 of the Dems’ Convention to be somewhat lackluster. It was to be a day of testimonials and character witnesses for Hillary, but not the candidate herself.

Boy, was I wrong.

Day 3 was a parade of immensely powerful speeches by people who had known Hillary for decades and wanted the public to know what they know. Leon Panetta, former CIA Director and Secretary of Defense. Joe Biden, Vice President. Michael Bloomberg, former mayor of New York, truly “balanced” newspaperman, former Republican and now Independent, who will be voting for and supporting Hillary this time. Barack Obama, the Dems’ beloved change agent, who saved us from the scourge of Dubya and a GOP bent on radical extremism. All testified passionately for Hillary.

Like Michelle on Day 1, they all testified from a deep acquaintance with Hillary going back decades. The all told us how passionately concerned with all of us she has been, how hard she works, how she never quits, how much she knows, and how qualified she is. They called her the most qualified candidate ever to run for president.

But they did something better, too. They put the cosmic gulf between Hillary’s character and Trump’s in perspective and gave it a name: decency.

Up to now, pols have used terms like “character” and “temperament” to describe what Trump self-evidently lacks. But they are neutral terms, without specific content, let alone approval or disapproval. They are categorical, not descriptive or normative. They don’t hit the nail on the head.

Defaming Mexicans categorically when they are just trying to improve their lives—like the Pilgrims and every other group who ever came here—is not decent.

Defaming a fully American judge just because of his Mexican ancestors is not decent.

Excluding peaceful Muslims living and working here, when Muslims are, by far, the single group most murdered, maimed, and rendered homeless by Islamic terrorists and by Assad, is not decent.

Running so-called “businesses” through multiple bankruptcies, so that you emerge richer while your partners, investors, workers, subcontractors and customers get poorer is not decent.

Referring to women like a diseased adolescent who sees them only as arm candy and sex objects is not decent.

Proposing to abandon allies who, for decades, have depended on us for protection and freedom if they can’t pay is not decent.

Proposing to build a wall like the Berlin Wall is not decent.

Bringing political debate down to the level of prepubescent boys comparing hand and penis sizes is not decent.

I could go on and on, but you get the idea.

Although not all four primary speakers used the word, all touched on the concept. Perhaps our President and Vice President did so most passionately. Joe spoke of the Scranton working-class culture in which he was raised. Barack spoke of the middle-class, Midwestern culture of his Kansas grandparents, who partly raised him. Both told us that the things described above, which Trump does without caring and often without even thinking, are not decent.

They are not who we are. If they come to dominate our thinking or our politics, we will lose our claim to being “exceptional.” And we will have lost our Republic, too.

The word “decency” has a good political pedigree. Joe (not Gene!) McCarthy was a demagogue much like Donald Trump. He set up a committee to purge so-called “Communists” not just from government, but from everyday life.

His committee was a bit like Trey Gowdy’s today: a pack of attack dogs. McCarthy led it with the flimsiest of evidence, mostly guilt by association. His targets were not people like Hillary, strong pols who could protect themselves. They were ordinary people in ordinary professions. Through innuendo, false claims, and lopsided procedures, McCarthy had scores of them blacklisted, blackballed, and ruined personally and financially—barred from their chosen professions and, in effect, exiled.

McCarthy was not a presidential aspirant. But he did incredible damage to our nation’s decency and self-image, let alone to the people he defamed with his demagoguery.

Dwight Eisenhower, our Republican president and our war-winning general, called McCarthy into his office and chewed him out like an errant private. But Ike didn’t make his displeasure public. McCarthy’s reign of demagogic terror continued until stopped by Joseph N. Welch, then Chief Counsel for the United States Army, in what became known as the Army-McCarthy hearings.

In the key day of those televised hearings, Welch was trying to defend a young lawyer in his own law firm who was the latest of many targets of McCarthy’s baseless character assassination. Early in the exchange, Welch said, “Until this moment, Senator, I think I never really gauged your cruelty, or your recklessness.”

After enduring minutes more of McCarthy’s trademark self-regarding and unresponsive ramblings, Welch hit the nail on the head again. “You've done enough [to defame innocent people]. Have you no sense of decency, sir, at long last? Have you left no sense of decency?”

According to legend, it was those words that finally showed the nation what a scumbag Joe McCarthy was. His influence began to wane. His Senate colleagues began to shun him. The good people of Wisconsin diselected him, and not long afterward he died of cancer. It was as if the evil that had consumed his soul consumed his body, too.

So it may be with Donald Trump. Along with showing us how good a person Hillary is, the Dems’ last night showed us exactly what a Trump presidency would do to our Republic.

God knows, we Yanks may make mistakes. We may commit blunders. But at our core we are a decent people. We don’t just believe in vague abstractions, like the nameless “freedom” of which Ted Cruz spoke, saying much but meaning nothing. We believe in concrete things like helping your neighbor, working hard, protecting the weak, telling the truth, and building a cohesive society, one brick of personal relationship at a time.

Trump lacks those basic values and virtues. So, unlike Obama—the so-called “alien,” “Muslim” and “extremist”—Trump is not one of us. We should reject him as our bodies do germs. And if last night’s powerful speakers have their way, we will.

Day 4: The Disappointment

After devoting eight solid days to absorbing both conventions, I leave disappointed. I feel like a kid two days after Christmas. I now know that no gift of material things can ever provide the transcendent happiness I expected. But that’s a feeling common to all kids with any sense of maturity. This time my disappointment was greater: the main gift I had expected never came.

Hillary’s acceptance speech simply didn’t measure up to the best of the Convention: not to Michelle’s, not to Joe Biden’s, not to the President’s, and not to Bill’s. It didn’t because it was vintage Hillary: making lists, checking the boxes, promising something for everyone. The striving was there; the passion was not.

The speech was flat in tone. Twice—once in the professional video introduction and again in her speech itself—Hillary referred to her mother standing in the doorway of her home and forcing her to face bullies. That mother was all you could hear in Hillary’s virtually constant, strident, almost abrasive monotone. She became her mother, forcing all of us to do the right thing, using the same harsh tone a mother might use who had been abandoned as a toddler and forced to work to survive from the age of fourteen. There was little joy in Hillary’s delivery, even when noting her brilliant example for women and girls.

Finally, Hillary did not even attempt what I had hoped she would do: assuage public doubts and try to cure her trust deficit by naming reinforcements. She gave absolutely no hint of whom she might appoint to her Cabinet. I guess she thought the earlier speeches of some who might be included would be enough. They weren’t for me.

Don’t get me wrong. Hillary’s speech wasn’t bad. It just wasn’t very good. She showed off her policy wonkishness, named plausible solutions for most of our serious problems, and nodded to Bernie on Wall Street, free college and college debt. Her diction and articulation were excellent; she got through a 65-minute speech with only one noticeable slip of the tongue. She even referred, albeit obliquely and too quickly, to Trump’s decency deficit. She derided him appropriately and humorously, leaving absolutely no doubt that she would make an infinitely better president than he, under any foreseeable circumstances.

Yet she left me with all of the same doubts I had had about her from the day she first challenged Obama in 2007. She makes fine lists. Almost every big thing we need to do as a nation was on hers. But what if she has to set priorities? What if she has to choose? What if, for practical or political reasons, she has to pick one or two things to get done and leave the others behind?

The President did that. He put all his political chips on health insurance and bet his legacy on it. As a result, twenty million people have health insurance who never had it before, and a century-long span of political failure is history. He won on that score despite the most awful, mindless and, yes, racist opposition I had ever seen in my 71 years.

My second doubt, about Hillary’s judgment, also remains. She is good at triangulating, sensing where people stand, and doing things to make people’s lives better. She works hard. But what if she has to predict cause and effect on grossly incomplete information? What if the decision involves something as consequential as war and peace?

Several months before our invasion of Iraq, the President did just that. He gave it a short paragraph in a sparsely covered speech. He wasn’t dogmatic; he expressed himself in terms of probabilities, not certainties. But every one of his doubts has become fact, as if he had been a biblical oracle. Hillary, in contrast, jumped on the bandwagon for war, without even reading the NIE.

Nothing Hillary said tonight in her hour-long speech convinced me that she will avoid such errors of judgment as president. And nothing convinced me she will have in her Cabinet people whose judgment I trust more. I don’t know Tim Kaine.

Nevertheless, this is a unique election. There is no grey here; all is black and white. Hillary is the serious, smart, experienced and earnest candidate. Trump is the utterly unqualified buffoon. If you take him at all seriously, he’s a man who could bring us the Third Reich, Light.

So there is absolutely no doubt that you and I should vote, and vote for Hillary, this November. There is no other choice. But I didn’t need to follow four days of a convention to know that.

Despite the division of Bernie’s near win, the Dems’ convention was infinitely more interesting, well planned and persuasive than Trump’s. A few speeches of people I trust persuaded me that Hillary might do better than I expect, maybe a lot better. But nothing Hillary herself did or said persuaded me more. Nothing she did or said even surprised me. If I had spent a couple of days on it, I probably could have written a close facsimile of her acceptance speech myself.

So I left the Dems’ Convention much as I came in. I’m a little more optimistic, both about Hillary’s chances of winning and about her competence and character. But I still have the same doubts that I’ve suffered since 2007. They will dog me even as I vote for her and (if she needs it) send her money. Voting for the lesser of two evils is a sacred duty, and I will do mine.

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23 July 2016

Tim Kaine: A Risky Choice for Veep


[For analysis of the present historical context and day-by-day analysis of the GOP Convention in Cleveland, click here.]

There are times when Hillary seems to have a tin ear. Progressives like me, who are trying to conjure up enthusiasm for her candidacy, gasped in disbelief upon hearing of her choice last night of Tim Kaine as running mate.

Voters in both parties want change. GOP voters want change enough to have rejected every conventional or establishment candidate and to have picked an utterly inexperienced maverick as their champion. Democrats want change enough to have nearly dropped Hillary in favor of a self-declared “Democratic Socialist.” They thirst for the change they expected in 2007 and (due to the GOP’s scorched-earth opposition) didn’t get. The notion that Tim Kaine represents the kind of change that voters in both parties crave is sheer fantasy.

So what does Kaine bring to the party as Veep? He covers Hillary’s right flank. His experience as ranking member of our Senate’s Armed Services Readiness Subcommittee and an important Foreign Relations subcommittee give him heft and substantive knowledge. He can use them in rebutting bogus attacks on Hillary, such as the Benghazi Attack Committee’s.

Kaine is also a man. He can help dispel unconscious bias against a woman as a commander in chief facing serious foreign threats. Finally, from all reports Kaine gets along fine with Hillary, so she will be comfortable with him and will listen to him when she needs a “Devil’s advocate.”

All these things can be helpful. But this election is still about economics and a rigged system, not national security. It could move more toward national security, for example, if we had a big domestic terrorist attack, or even if the steady drip-drip-drip of small attacks at home and bigger ones abroad continues.

In focusing his acceptance speech primarily on “law and order,” Trump sought to cover that base (not to mention follow tried and true GOP demagoguery). But in doing so he also took a calculated risk.

At the same time, Trump made a direct appeal to Bernie’s voters. He didn’t just ask for their votes. He repeated, vehemently and more than once, Bernie’s charge that the system is rigged. Having Tim Kaine a heartbeat away from the presidency will do nothing to keep those voters from straying, or to bring them back if they have already strayed.

At the moment—and perhaps for the duration—the most important issues in this election are those that Bernie raised and that the Clinton candidacy has never adequately addressed. Millions of voters are out of sorts, both here and in Britain, not because they fear terrorism but because they see the middle class of which they once were part dissolving in economic inequality, bad trade deals, and unfettered immigration. Those are the issues that Hillary must address well to win big.

For a variety of reasons, voters don’t trust Hillary. She talks well. She may be the best orator and the best debater among all presidential candidates in all parties in this election cycle. But skeptical voters need more than talk; Hillary can’t gain or restore their trust by talking. The only way for her to win their trust is for her to have people on her team who’ve earned their trust and have it now.

With Dick Cheney and Joe Biden, the vice president morphed from an attack dog waiting for disaster to a real member of the Cabinet and a trusted presidential adviser. No one should begrudge Hillary having the same sort of helper. Indeed, that’s particularly important for her: her amateurish advisors so far have caused her a lot of harm. Tim Kaine is no Dick Cheney and no amateur, so that’s all to the good.

But in the next week, Hillary must name other names that the people and her party trust much more. As I’ve written before, she must name names like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Paul Krugman, and Joe Stiglitz. She must name them not just in abstract praise, but as prospective members of her Cabinet.

“Triangulation” has been Hillary’s Achilles Heel. Among other things, it led her to make her most disastrous mistake: her early and much-too-prolonged support for Dubya’s disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. In any event, today’s GOP provides no visible point of triangulation. The party, its leaders, and Trump himself are all over the block. Trump changes his views, in substance and in nuance, every few days, as the winds blow.

You can’t triangulate when one point is oozing mush. Nor can you find any single Republican individual whom the right trusts as much as the left trusts the people named above (and others).

Hillary has talked a blue streak, articulately and cogently. But her negatives just keep getting higher. She needs leaders—named leaders—on her team whom the people trust. Tim Kaine is not such a person, if only because he’s not well known outside of Virginia.

If Hillary’s selection of Kaine means a step to the right on issues of terrorism and national security, that’s reasonable. If it means a step to the right on domestic economic policy, it could be fatal to her candidacy. Or it could turn a possible three-branch sweep into a niggling win that does nothing to cure national gridlock.

To win big and become a transformational president, Hillary must keep all of her base—and all of it fired up! She also must attract new voters with trusted names and personas, not arguments. If she does not, she may miss the first real chance in a generation to remake this nation. In the worst case, she may help elect a clueless, unqualified and dangerous demagogue who could ruin this nation and our world.

Erratum: An earlier version of this post confused Tim Kaine with Jim Webb, a former senator from Virginia and former Secretary of the Navy, who performed abysmally in the first Democratic primary debate last year. I regret the error. (The fact that a political junkie like me could make that error shows how little Kaine is known nationally and how difficult it will be for him to cure Hillary’s trust deficit while establishing his own national reputation.)

What’s at Stake

It’s one thing for people who consider themselves insightful, like me, to deride and fear Trump’s character. It’s quite another thing for a gifted journalist who spent eighteen months with Trump, and who probably knows him better than anyone outside his family, to do so.

This week Tony Schwartz, the man who actually wrote “Trump’s” best-seller The Art of the Deal, allowed a tell-all interview of his views of Trump to be published in The New Yorker magazine. Here are a few highlights, as quoted from Schwartz and reported by the interview’s author, Jane Mayer:

1. “He has no attention span.”

2. “I genuinely believe that if Trump wins and gets the nuclear codes there is an excellent possibility it will lead to the end of civilization.”

3. If Schwartz were writing the same book today, Schwartz would title it “The Sociopath.”

4. “More than anyone else I have ever met, Trump has the ability to convince himself that whatever he is saying at any given moment is true, or sort of true, or at least ought to be true.”

5. “[I]t’s impossible to keep him focussed on any topic, other than his own self-aggrandizement, for more than a few minutes, and even then . . . . If he had to be briefed on a crisis in the Situation Room, it’s impossible to imagine him paying attention over a long period of time[.]”

These, of course, are reasons to vote for Hillary under any foreseeable circumstances. But they are also reasons for all thinking people, not just progressives, to keep Hillary under constant scrutiny. A misstep in her campaign leading to Trump’s election could be catastrophic for her political career and for humanity.

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18 July 2016

Smugness and the New Feudalism


[For a recent post on rehabilitating Hillary, click here. For short, day-by-day notes on the Trump Convention, click here. The following post deals with fundamental, longer-term issues raised by Brexit and our current, bizarre Yankee presidential campaign.]

Introduction: optimism can be dangerous
The Economist: today’s apostle of smugness
Today’s three big problems, and the new feudalism
Finding worthy work for idle hands
Conclusion

The Trump Convention

Day 1
Day 2
Day 3
Day 4
    “The Devil makes work for idle hands.” — Old folk proverb.
Introduction: optimism can be dangerous

About a quarter of a millennium ago, the great French philosopher Voltaire published a book about optimism. Most people know it by the name of its main character, Candide. It’s still one of the greatest works of literature and humor in any language. It’s an easy afternoon’s read, but it teaches profound truths with belly laughs that go on for minutes.

The book’s analytical target was a bit of “philosophy” then in vogue among the French upper classes. The world the French elite then lived in, went the notion, was the best of all possible worlds. It was so because Man then was (and is) the best of all possible species, a being of Reason in the Age of Enlightenment.

Not long ago, the high priests of our Yankee upper classes believed a very similar thing. They believed that, at least in the marketplace, people are rational actors. We all act rationally according to our own best interests, they told us, which we assess with laudable precision.

The collective result—so the tale went—is a bit like thermodynamics in physics. Just as widely distributed molecules in a gas obey the same laws of physics and chemistry, making it possible to predict their collective behavior with some precision, so, when people follow the dictates of Reason, you can predict their behavior with some precision. Not only that, their collective behavior, drawn from the wellspring of Reason in each individual heart, will ever be orderly and make good sense. You can even predict, as did High Priest Alan Greenspan, that a rare outburst of disorder in markets will self-correct.

We all know how that one turned out. The Crash of 2008 nearly caused a second global Great Depression. Europe and Japan, if not the US, are still digging out of the financial rubble: Brexit is part of it.

As for Voltaire, we often forget the timing of his great work of philosophy and humor. He first published it in 1759, just thirty years before the French Revolution began. On a per-capita basis, that was probably the bloodiest revolution in human history. The Russian revolution may have been bloodier overall, but the French had a lot more elite to lose their heads.

With these two well-studied historical disasters in mind, perhaps we can all begin to ken that neither the optimism of Voltaire’s day nor the facsimile among our so-called “Chicago school” of economists (before the advent of behavioral economics), is the best possible assessment of our species’ propensities and prospects.

The Economist: today’s apostle of smugness

Today the “best of all possible worlds” philosophy has a respectable global house organ. It’s the British weekly, self-styled a “newspaper,” called The Economist.

The Economist is probably the most widely read single publication on the subjects of economics, politics, and commerce among the global elite, regardless of country. There are three reasons why. First, it’s independent of the world’s three great empires: China, Russia and the US. The Brits lost their empire almost a century ago; so, readers assume, their elite global publication has no axe to grind. And the recent Brexit vote makes clear how independent Britain is from both Europe and the US.

Second, The Economist is the only global publication (for nonspecialists in economics) to focus on economics and commerce and to cover politics mostly as it affects them. More important, it’s not afraid of math, graphs and charts and has reporters who are numerate. One of its most useful (albeit occasional) services is digesting and summarizing leading-edge academic economic research papers for readers too busy or unspecialized to read them in their original form.

The Economist’s third advantage is coverage. It covers all industries and the entire globe (every inhabited continent) and in a unique, quantitative way. In contrast, the New York Times is virtually innumerate, the Washington Post focuses on American politics, and the Wall Street Journal is too much a house organ of extreme capitalism and an adopted bastard son of Rupert Murdoch. American weeklies like Time have some great journalists, such as Joe Klein and Jon Meacham, but their heft and coverage have dwindled to the point of occasional useful commentary.

So for people who want or need to understand today’s world, and who hope to take a crack at predicting what it may be like tomorrow, The Economist is the globe’s pre-eminent newspaper. The fact that it’s a weekly, not a daily, gives its reporters time to analyze, as well as gather facts, and readers time to absorb a week’s significant changes in a globe of seven billion people.

So what wrong with all that? Nothing, so far. The trouble is The Economist’s editorial policy, which often creeps far out of its many weekly editorials and into stories of ostensible “news.” In fact, in some issues it’s almost impossible to find a single “news” story without a taint of editorial preaching.

The Economist’s self-described editorial policy—and its consistent prescription for all the world’s ills—is “liberalism” or “liberal internationalism.” In essence, it’s capitalism with a large dose of laissez faire, and international relations based on democracy, free trade and nearly complete freedom of action by private parties (short of outright theft or murder), including businesses and non-governmental organizations.

It’s not that these things are bad. In many cases, maybe in most, they are good. And in most cases where The Economist prescribes them for countries or regions that don’t have them, they might make an improvement, at least in the short term. The problem is that The Economist consistently recommends these things as solutions to very real problems its news articles describes, without ever analyzing whether and how they might work. In other words, The Economist assumes that its “liberalism” is a universal remedy, just as Alan Greenspan once assumed that broken markets would fix themselves.

Unfortunately, the facets of liberal internationalism that The Economist’s editorial staff tout so much and so often are no panacea, far less a rational analytical prescription for the world’s many remaining ills. They may be the way that the best part of the world works today. In that respect they are analogous to the French elite’s celebration of the “best of all possible worlds” in the middle of the eighteenth century. Things were fine for the elite until the party ended and the guillotine came down.

The best example of how these facets are descriptive, and nowhere near prescriptive, is The Eonomist’s “Special Report” on London as a global metropolis, in its issue of June 30th - Juy 6th, 2012. You would be hard pressed to find any more over-the-top triumphalism in any print publication that styles itself a “newspaper.” The greater part of this “report” was a love letter to London and a celebration of how far it had come from some of its worst old days (going back centuries).

The “report” also celebrated London’s newfound wealth, most of which came (and still comes) from bankers and foreigners. In a rare, large-type subhead near the end of the article, the editors made a brief lurch from triumphalism toward the truth. They summarized: “The three groups of people who are unpopular in Britain—the rich, bankers and immigrants—are those on whom London depends.” Nowhere in the “Special Report” was there a discussion why these three groups were (and are!) unpopular, and whether their unpopularity has a rational basis. And so now, barely four years later, we have Brexit, which came as a huge surprise to both British and European elite.

The “newspaper” that styles itself the globe’s pre-eminent publication of popular economic and social analysis should have done better than that. Yet if the truth be told, The Economist’s editorial staff suffers from much the same malady as our Yankee Republicans. It has far too great a tendency to dance triumphantly and repeatedly on the lonely graves of the last century’s Communists, and an aversion to discovering and exposing the flaws of the present capitalist-internationalist order, of which Brexit is just the first of many likely consequences.

As I have noted recently in putting Brexit in historical context, Russian and Chinese Communism are dead (the latter in all but name). So are Marx, Engels, East German Communism, and Hugo Chavez. Fidel Castro is dying; his brother is turning toward the US and the normal international order; and Nicolas Maduro is on the way out. So shouldn’t we should stop re-fighting the last century’s battles and start worrying about this one’s?

Today’s three big problems, and the new fuedalism

Today’s socioeconomic problems are largely consequences of the extraordinary success of the capitalist-internationalist order that The Economist so assiduously celebrates. As it noted three years ago, the present global economic order has raised a billion people out of extreme poverty in one generation. That is an extraordinary achievement.

But that achievement has had several unintended consequences. First, 60,000 US factories, like many in Britain and Europe, have moved to once-poorer nations like China, taking many respectable and well-paying jobs with them. In the aggregate, the massive movement of manufacturing jobs to low-wage nations has threatened the survival of the middle class in advanced nations.

I and and others have written on this phenomenon repeatedly (see 1 and 2), so I won’t dwell on it here. But it’s a real and important effect, if only because the rise of a middle class has been the chief earmark and a seminal achievement of so-called “advanced” societies. A big middle class that languishes or disappears will produce extraordinary social and political instability—such as we see now with the ascendance of Boris Johnson and Donald Trump.

As odd and unqualified as they may seem, these figures are real people with real followers. They beg to be taken seriously. Or at least the causes of their ascendancy do. The alternative is to whistle as the tumbrel carts approach, like Voltaire’s compatriots in pre-revolutionary France.

The second unintended consequence of the current global capitalist order is the greatest concentration of industrial and financial power since our Yankee Guilded Age. But this time, the concentration is global, and there is as yet no governmental or global leader or institution adequate to fight it. Teddy Roosevelt and our Senator Sherman, an author of the eponymous law that is the fount of all competition law, are no longer with us.

Today, in America, there are four major airlines, four major hotel chains, one dominant Internet search firm, and two credible makers of smart phones and similar mobile devices. As of 2014, our five largest banks controlled nearly half of all banking assets, and their aggregate assets had tripled since 2002. Apple is so powerful that it could, in effect, tell national security authorities to brute-force a smart-phone lock, rather than seek or command its help.

No single individual with a grievance can stand against these corporate behemoths and expect to prevail when not even the US government or the EU can. And the much-heralded common law of England, which we Yanks inherited, they can circumvent with simple contractual boilerplate.

Together, arbitration and secrecy clauses in simple contracts threaten to wipe out the speedy and public justice that our Yankee Constitution promises. The “judges” will not be highly trained, impartial jurists, but commercial arbitrators, drawn from corporate ranks and the same social class as the bosses. There will be no precedent, as decisions in arbitration are not precedential and are often secret. In most cases there will be no appeal, as grounds for appealing an arbitral decision are limited to things like fraud, self-dealing, and obvious bias. So arbitration and secrecy clauses, if judicially enforced, will throw employment and consumer disputes out of the system of “common law” justice that Englishmen and Americans have enjoyed for centuries.

The crux of the matter is the extraordinary growth of corporations. When invented, corporations were efficient and salubrious ways of taking productive economic activity out of the purview of nation-states, with their (then) royalty, large-scale politics and intrigue. Start-up companies were, and still are, means of duplicating in a productive enterprise the kind of thirty-or-fewer member tribes in which our species evolved. So corporations were more comfortable, more flexible, more adaptable and more effective in productive activity than nation-states.

But what are corporations today, when many are as powerful, as rich, as untouchable and sometimes almost as large as nation-states? That is a key question that political and economic responses to the global capitalist economic order have not even begun to address. Offshoring jobs and avoiding home-country taxes are just the tip of the iceberg of big-corporation impunity.

The final issue raised by the present capitalist-internationalist order is the risk of a new feudalism. The vast size of present-day corporate empires easily mimics that of nineteenth-century nation-states. Use of the law and contracts to avoid recourse to the court system makes the individual as helpless before the corporate board as was the serf before the lord in his castle. But the coup de grace of independent worker is the so-called “service economy.”

At the moment, The Economist and like-minded publications laud the transition to an economy based on services, rather than manufacturing. But what does that mean for the average worker? Are all the millions of middle-class workers, who once made or fixed things with their hands or machines under their control, going to go into services? If so, what will they do? Will they all go into sales and dun the rest of us with cold calls, so that no one ever gets any peace from ubiquitous marketing? Will they open restaurants and pubs? Will they serve the bankers and lawyers as cooks, nannies, housekeepers, gardeners, bodyguards, and children’s tutors?

If so, how will our future society differ from seventeenth-century feudalism? Indeed, how will it not be worse than seventeenth-century feudalism? When feudalism was in real flower, obligations flowed both ways: the lord and lady had a bond with the servant and had to keep him employed, fed, protected and alive. There is no such bond today: menial employees of the rich are “at will,” subject to being laid off or fired at any time. So the modern serf has all the burdens of the old feudalism and few of the benefits.

When you think of these three points from the perspective of today’s average worker, his or her lot doesn’t seem so fine compared to a lifetime job with a big, reliable corporation, a “defined benefit” pension, and a strong union to protect his or her rights, does it? Yet all those good things have vanished in our “new” global capitalism—all to the workers’ loss and the bosses’ and shareholders’ benefit. The prices of imported goods may be lower now, but who from the working class can afford them? Reversing Henry Ford’s “solution” by making goods cheaper so that workers with minimal wages can afford them is a race to the bottom with no apparent end.

Finding worthy work for idle hands

As if these social and political problems were not enough, a fundamental choice faces humanity in a now-foreseeable future. Within the next century or so, we may reach a point where work, in a fundamental economic sense, becomes optional, not mandatory.

Wild animals spend virtually all of their days in a perpetual quest for food. They don’t take long to reproduce—their “courtship” and gestation periods are a mere fraction of ours. But once offspring appear, the need to feed new mouths and protect them from predators occupies parents to the point of exhaustion and distraction, often jeopardizing their own individual survival.

Human civilization began when we put that daily quest for survival behind us. By cultivating crops and food animals, we gained time for unrelated commercial and artistic activities. We could make jewelry, better clothes, shoes and weapons, and eventually computers and mobile devices.

But what happens next? What happens when and if we can manipulate the genes of our crops and food animals to ensure their survival (and their maximal healthiness to us) and make farming and ranching even easier? What happens when automated machines make the clothes, houses and other things we need, and when those machines can even make and fix themselves?

How do we divide labor then? Today there are those who begrudge safety nets and other support for the disabled, poorly educated and those who for other reasons cannot find work. What will they and we do when work itself becomes unnecessary, at least for the vast majority of our human population?

Some futurists have predicted a society in which most of us turn to the arts. But will everyone have talent? And if today we give the 0.1% the vast substance of our civilization, mostly through corruption and inertia, what will happen when a lot of today’s work becomes unnecessary or superfluous? Will fights over fair distribution subside when there is more to share, or will they sharpen because there are fewer objective standards for sharing? Will the bosses, who stick together and can make good arguments by virtue of their superior education and experience, take it all?

One thing is clear. Any society in which a whole social class—such as our middle class today—feels aggrieved, resentful and oppressed is not a happy option. As we lapse into our new feudalism, will the privileged live in houses or compounds looking more like the castle-fortresses of old than the gated communities of today? Will they rely on armed guards and automated drones to protect them from the masses, or will they construct a society fair and equal enough so that they they need no special protection and can walk the streets unguarded and unarmed?

Today’s discontents raise these questions clearly enough. But how much starker will they be when much production is automatic, disease is rare (due to genetic engineering), and today’s conceptual links between work and results become more and more tenuous? The purported thinkers who run The Economist and our many think tanks should concern themselves with these future-oriented questions and leave the post mortems of Marx, Engels and (eventually) Fidel to historians.

Conclusion

The wonder is not that members of the middle class have discovered some undesirable but apparently unintended consequences of the global capitalist order that The Economist and other elites so relentlessly celebrate. The wonder is that it took them so long.

The wonder is that François Hollande, who claims to be a socialist, not only failed to see it coming, but failed to see the significance of the general workers’ strikes that nearly shut down his own economy only months ago.

The wonder is not that the dam burst first in Britain, with Brexit. Britain is the world’s oldest democracy, the most experienced, and the least dominated by elitist propaganda.

As a parliamentary democracy, Britain can respond more quickly and adroitly than our own Yankee hog-tied system, which suffers minority rule in both Houses of Congress. So it’s no wonder that the Brits moved first.

Now that they have, the risk of a new feudalism, and the possible unintended consequences of an effort to fend it off, should be self-evident to every thinking person. The corporate behemoths of today are rapidly replacing the overbearing and even tyrannical nation-states of old. Ordinary people are rightly afraid that their reign might be more subtle but no less oppressive than that of the kings, queens and dukes of old.

To be sure, they are smoother and more subtle. Where the nation-states had (and still have) barrel bombs, firing squads and (in some cases) nuclear weapons, the corporate bosses have lawyers, lobbyists, and smooth-talking PR folk. To the unthinking, they can make their oppression sound like a blessing.

But the middle classes, who are losing their livelihoods, their self-respect, their prospects for self-advancement, their economic independence, and their legal rights, are not fooled. Britain is the canary in the coal mine; despite its relatively small population—it is perhaps the world’s most advanced democracy. France and the US likely will follow. Neither the discontents that underlay Bernie Sanders’ candidacy nor the huge Internet following that he accumulated and nurtured will soon subside.

So The Economist and other celebrators of the present global capitalist order had better stop fighting the last century’s battles with dead Communists. They had better leaven their triumphalism for a system that has inordinately advanced the prospects of the 0.1% and left the rest of us hurting, fearing or insecure. In short, they had better stop celebrating and start thinking again, about how to fix an international order that has kept the peace and accomplished much since humanity’s most terrible war but is now clearly starting to run off the tracks.

Trump Convention, Day 1

Day 1 of the Trump Convention was a uniformly dismal affair. It was amateur night, all night long, just like Trump’s candidacy. Speaker after speaker complained bitterly and inarticulately about misfortunes in his or her life, or the nation’s, blaming all angrily on the President, Hillary and our current government without rhyme or reason.

Seldom in any political event was there so little logical connection between facts and emotion, logic and angst. Totally lacking the entire evening were humor and warmth. I have been to informal protest meetings in the sixties with far more intelligence, empathy, humor and humanity. If this was entertainment as politics—Trump’s key “innovation”—it was very, very bad entertainment.

Even the evening’s “highlight”, Melania Trump’s “character testimony” for her husband, was a dismal affair. Her speech was competently delivered, but stiff, cold, aloof and abstract. Utterly absent were charming little stories about The Donald, humor, and warmth. Like a talking dog, Melania impressed us not with the quality or memorability of her speech, but with the bare fact that this former refugee from Slovenia, displaying a strong accent and self-evident fear of the limelight, could get through the speech in her non-native language at all.

The only former GOP president or presidential candidate to show up was Bob Dole. He spoke to reporters just enough to reveal his strong party loyalty and his senility. Mike Pence was there, of course, and Trump’s family.

The rest were people you never heard of before and never want to hear from again. Even the technical quality of the coverage was poor: the Convention’s managers put PBS in a sky “booth” open to the air and floor noise, so that they and the audience could barely hear each other over the über-amplified voices of the speakers. It was a cheap trick you might have expected from a Soviet convention.

The sole bright point of the whole evening was the absence of feared violence, both inside and outside the Convention. The sunny, mostly empty Public Square of Cleveland was peaceful, except for a brief visit of about a dozen local militia members open-carrying assault weapons. Apparently, even the crazies had decided to stay away—perhaps a good omen for the vote in November. The overwhelming impression was of sadness and disbelief that a once-great political party had sunk so low.

Day 2

Day 2 of the GOP Convention was as much a surprise on the upside as Day 1 was on the downside. The reason was completely unexpected.

It was not just unexpected, but unremarked, at least by PBS’ pundits. Like Trump’s very candidacy, the surprise simply crept in under the radar of professional pols and media analysts. No doubt they had never seen the like before and so just didn’t know what to make of it. Isn’t that the story of Trump’s entire campaign?

The instrument of the surprise was Trump’s son, Donald Trump, Junior. A complete novice to large-scale politics, he gave by far the best speech of the night. It was “best” in the sense most directly relevant to GOP needs: increasing the probability of Trump Senior winning the general election.

Mitch McConnell damned Trump Senior with faint praise, referring repeatedly to McConnell’s own patience and party loyalty. Paul Ryan lent Trump Senior some credibility by calling him a fellow conservative, but at the same time tried to pull him and the audience toward Ryan’s different vision of conservatism. Chris Christie demonized Hillary in “prosecutorial” style, using a series of truths, half-truths, innuendoes and outright lies, many of which would never have passed muster in any real courtroom. Ben Carson completed Hillary’s demonization, literally, by associating her indirectly with Lucifer.

But a key goal of the Convention—perhaps the most important one for Republicans—was convincing a skeptical public (and themselves!) that Trump Senior might actually make a competent Chief Executive able to handle substantive policy. The only person even to address that goal was his own son.

Junior Trump’s speech was remarkable in four ways. First, like his dad, he’s not a politician. He’s a young graduate of Wharton Business School and, apparently, his father’s key assistant. If he wrote some or all of his speech himself, he’s a credit to his school, and his school a credit to writing that makes sense and can drive a point home.

Second, the son’s speech was by far the most substantive of the night, with the freshest and newest ideas of policy. Part of the newness was simply refusing to use the same, old, tired jargon of left and right. But part of it came also from the notion that Trump & Son, both businessmen, learned how to create jobs and “sign the front of a paycheck.”

Third, in describing his father’s relationship with him and other workers, the son humanized the candidate, painting him as patient, loyal, tough but supportive—a good dad and a good boss. He made it possible to believe that, even if you also believe that the father is sometimes a hard dealer and sometimes a self-dealing fraud.

But the most remarkable and effective aspect of the son’s speech was how he humanized workers in his father’s company. He recalled how his father had assigned him (and his siblings) to work under and learn from people who did construction, poured concrete, and raised drywall. He lauded working people who lack impressive academic credentials but have doctorates “in common sense.”

By telling those simple stories about his post-Wharton business “education,” Trump Junior did something I have not heard any pol in either party do (or do well) for a number of years. He gave our American working people the respect and admiration they deserve.

Last night, after Day 1, my family wound down by watching a PBS feature on the final steps in constructing the new Number 1 World Trade Center. The feature focused particularly on five so-called “iron workers,” men who assembled multi-ton steel structures, a thousand feet above street level, in mountain-style wind and weather.

Men like these, and the many women who join them, are not just the salt of the Earth. They are the backbone of America. I met and worked with many in my short career as a scientist: technicians, miners in my temporary below-ground work, and machinists. Their common sense, “situational awareness,” resourcefulness, and sense of safety make dangerous work safe and get difficult projects done on time. The fine world in which we highly educated folk live would not be possible without them.

Their problem is that, today, they get no respect. Their jobs and careers are ever on the block for lower prices and “shareholder value.” They are “voters,” “workers,” “labor” and lately the “middle class.” They are seldom, if ever, people like us college grads and PhDs. They get none of the admiration that their skill, training, resourcefulness and steadfastness deserve. And that simple fact is part of what’s behind their current, often incoherent rebellion.

I have no idea whether Trump Junior’s speech was truth or fastasy. I have no idea whether he wrote any part of it. But I do know two things: if I were one of those workers and heard that speech, Trump would likely be my candidate. And if Trump can generalize that feeling from white men to the many marginalized black, brown, yellow and immigrant workers throughout the Rust Belt—the ones whose jobs bosses have sold abroad for cheap pliers and lawn chairs at Wal Mart—he just might be the next president of the United States.

Day 3

Day 3 of the Trump Convention, apparently, was the end of amateur night. It was a night of professional demagogues.

Make no mistake about it. Ted Cruz and Newt Gingrich are highly skilled, articulate demagogues. They are among the best we have. They were the “keynote” speakers on Day 3, which was supposed to unify the party and trot out those few “establishment” characters who could hold their noses long enough to work for Trump.

Cruz may look like the 50s Red-baiting demagogue Joe McCarthy (except for Joe’s paunch). He may have the same nauseating smirk. But he’s much smarter and a much better speaker than Joe McCarthy ever was. So he’s infinitely more dangerous.

Midway through his delivery, an evil mix of humor and triumph suffused Ted’s smirk last night. There he was, speaking before masses of delegates over three-fourths of whom had voted against him. There he was, a man described by reporters as uniformly hated by all who know him, including his 99 Senate colleagues. And there, with good English and excellent delivery, he had been singing a siren song of vapid platitudes about “freedom” that had put the entire audience in the palm of his hand.

Ted relished every minute of it. You could see it is his face. A couple of times he couldn’t contain himself and almost laughed out loud.

Ted was polite enough to congratulate Trump for winning at the outset of his speech. But his smirk of irony and triumph only grew and grew as the end of his allotted time approached, and the still-smitten audience slowly began to realize that he was never going to endorse The Donald. He left the stage without doing so, after advising listeners to vote their consciences.

It was not true, as some reported, that the audience booed him off the stage. Ted finished his demagoguery just as he had planned it, like a precision instrument of verbal retribution. There were some boos, but he was in control of the audience for every minute of his allotted time. There was even an audible undertone of yeas amidst the boos.

If you like the Kevin Spacey character in “House of Cards”—if the politics of vengeance is your idea of democracy—you will love Ted Cruz in 2020. But gentler souls quail at the prospects of what might be the first genuine US tyranny.

Newt Gingrich spoke more quickly and less formally, but with equally good English and confident delivery. A has-been who knows it, Newt adopted the pose of gray eminence. In less than twenty minutes, he made the case for a full-scale, global, hot war against radical Islam. He “reasoned” that, by avoiding such a war, the President and Hillary have lied us into a trap that will ultimately destroy your home and family.

Hyperbole? You decide. But the cowboy-hatted delegation from Texas seemed to eat it up.

Again, the demagoguery was near-perfect. Newt’s skill at oversimplifying and misleading was a luminous thing.

But there again, like a poisonous snake in the grass, arose the question of character. Newt is, after all, a man who served his ex-wife divorce papers in the hospital where she was being treated for terminal cancer. And Ted, it seems, is the type who would like to crush his political enemies with his bare hands, just to see their blood ooze through his fingers.

It’s telling, is it not, who the heavy hitters were in Day 3? You would expect they might be the “establishment,” beloved party regulars, trying to mend fences and build the unity that every pol knows a party must have to win. But, no, they were in two ways clones of the Donald: men of execrable character and skilled in demagoguery.

They did do The Donald one favor. Compared to them, he almost looks human. It’s hard to like him, but it’s not hard to pity him—his scattered brain, his inability to maintain a coherent thought, his puerile desire to annihilate every midget who nibbles at his knees, and his adolescent compulsion to have the prettiest woman, the largest penis, and the biggest hands. If you had to choose between Trump, Cruz and Gingrich on character alone, Trump would win. Indeed, he has.

But a favorable comparison with the most dangerous man in American politics and a has-been who was once the most vile is not particularly compelling. Tonight, on Day 4, The Donald must give ordinary people something to like about him, something to trust in him, and some reason to believe that, after his presidency, our nation will look better than Trump University. The lukewarm support of low-life demagogues didn’t help him much, but it didn’t hurt him much either. Trump remains as he has been from the beginning: entirely on his own.

Day 4: Trump’s Speech

It’s been a long and often boring convention, so I’ll cut to the chase. Trump’s style was shouting and his speech far too long. As an English composition, it deserved a D. But as instrumental oratory—getting people to vote for Trump or to consider voting for him—it was pretty effective. My estimate of the probability of Trump becoming our next president is now over 40%.

One thing amazed me about PBS’ coverage of the event: how much its pundits’ attitudes mirrored the smugness and complacency described in my post above. Here David Brooks was the principal Pangloss, but not the only one. He kept referring to how “dark” (i.e., pessimistic) the speech was, implying that Trump had missed a big chance to declare optimism, i.e., “morning in America,” just like Reagan.

Didn’t unwarranted optimism among the elite help bring on the French Revolution and our own Crash of 2008? Brooks and his fellow pundits just can’t seem to understand that there are millions of people in this country who don’t have their income, their job prospects (or any job at all), their family, their kids’ prospects (or debt-free college) or their clean, crime-free and often gated communities.

Of course people who live like Brooks are not going to vote for Trump. But 14 million people living very different lives already have. The question before us is how many more like people there are, and how many still more Trump’s “pivoting” can attract.

The honest answer is that no one knows. So complacency is not in order, especially when polling analysis reveals a significant reluctance of Trump voters to admit their preference to pollsters.

Anyway, to say that Trump’s speech did not “pivot” toward the general election is nonsense. In fact, he pivoted in at least four ways.

First, Trump threw his formerly overt racism mostly out the window. When mentioning Latinos and African-Americans by name, which he did several times, it was only in the context of commiserating with their plight and promising to make it better. When calling out crime by illegal immigrants, Trump was careful never to identify their ethnicity. And when beating the drum of immigration reform, which he did vigorously, he stayed within the context of obeying and enforcing existing laws, which no one denies are being flouted daily. Probably under professional advice, Trump has wisely stopped demonizing immigrants and started complaining of widely unenforced laws and the economic and social effects of massive illegal immigration.

In so doing, Trump may have followed a tried and true GOP tactic of pandering to racists in the primary and toning the pandering down in the general election. It’s not clear whether that overused tactic will still work in the age of ubiquitous mobile video recordings. But it might if the economic picture or terrorism get much worse in the four months of campaign remaining. Trump was very careful—and often explicit—in including everyone in his promises to improve economic circumstances and safety.

Trump’s second pivot was probably his most important. He made repeated, direct appeals to Bernie voters. He didn’t just make a plea for votes. He adopted Bernie’s key pitch, repeating several times that the economy and politics are rigged and that he knows how to unrig them. Bernie himself was never that explicit about how to unrig the system, and neither was Trump. But undoubtedly there are some voters, including many young ones, whom a mere recognition of the rigging could attract. (This is especially so when Hillary, as Trump oft remarked, appears to love the status quo.)

Perhaps Trump’s most substantive pivot was on his most serious disagreement with GOP orthodoxy: trade. He dropped any mention of imposing tariffs, which would be calamitous. Instead, he merely promised to re-negotiate trade deals and make them more advantageous for American workers. He specifically mentioned NAFTA, China’s role in the WTO, and the TPP, including the abomination of “pay for rules.” If you believe these deals are renegotiable and that Trump can do it, that’s about as far as anyone could promise to level the playing field and maybe even get some lost jobs back.

Trump’s fourth and final pivot involved the “LGBT-Q” (Lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender and “queer”) community. After lamenting its devastation by terrorists in the Orlando massacre, Trump noted the following applause. Then he thanked his party for recognizing this community’s humanity. It was Trump’s “Sister-Souljah” moment, a mild, implied rebuke to his own party, and a clear act of leadership. I wish I could remember something similar that Hillary has done.

As for Brooks’ so-called “darkness,” most of it derived from Trump’s early emphasis on recent terrorism. Brooks may be right that dwelling on “existential” risks to safety and life is a standard tool of demagogues. But pundits like those on the PBS stage don’t go to edgy nightclubs in the wee hours or spend time in public celebrations of Bastille Day. In just a few months, the kind of people who do have been subjected to two terrorist attacks here at home, two big ones in France, and one in Belgium, not to mention systematic executions of police, some by trained snipers, in several US cities.

To think that these events don’t weigh on the minds of ordinary people, especially those with too much time on their hands, is to belie human nature. Public safety and “law and order” will be issues in this general election. If there’s another 9/11-scale attack before it, they may be the dominant issues. Trump may have taken a risk of over-emphasizing these issues in his speech, but it was a calculated risk with a good chance of paying off. Neither ISIS nor justly aggrieved minorities at home are going to disappear before November.

Like his eponymous son the day before, Trump’s daughter and business partner Ivanka did a beautiful job of humanizing him. Like his son, she portrayed him as familiar with and sympathetic to working people. She also raised so-called “women’s issues,” such as equal pay and workplace discrimination against mothers, and she promised that Trump would do something about them.

In his speech, Trump made far too many promises. If you add them all up and include his promised massive tax cut, you have to conclude that he will explode the federal deficit.

But never mind the details. Dubya beat Kerry by making plausible promises without the slightest proof of their possibility. The average voter is no more likely to call Trump on his many promises than to call Hillary on her many unspecified “comprehensive plans.” And in any event, most Trump voters are unfortunates desperately grasping for straws.

As an example of elegant oratory and detailed command of policy, Trump’s speech may been dismal. But as an entree to and pivot toward the general election, and as a deft show of Trump’s possible leadership skills, it was effective. Anyone who thinks that Hillary will win in a cakewalk has total amnesia about the man whom every “insider” with “experience” never expected to get anywhere near this far.

Morning-After Addendum

Three thoughts arose in the light of the morning after the Trump Convention. First, I had forgotten yet a fifth point of Trump’s pivoting: his thanking evangelicals for their support and his implied promise to both lead and accommodate them. It was a small thing, but a clear sign that we are now dealing with a “new” Trump: one who understands that politics requires politesse and that a big tent provides a better chance of winning.

Second, it occurred to me that there has been some method in Trump’s “madness.” With his puerile antics and his insults, he has not only alienated all his more “serious” GOP rivals. He has also marginalized them. Ted Cruz may have thought he had the convention floor in the palm of his hand on Wednesday, but his refusal to endorse the clear winner left him without a viable constituency, except perhaps in 2020. Trump’s “scorched-earth” clearing of the field has left no doubt who’s now boss.

That’s the way Trump likes things. But it’s also the way the entire South (one-third of our nation) likes things and the way that hurting people from the French Revolution, through the Russian Revolution, to Nazi Germany have liked things. This state of affairs leaves Trump far more agile, flexible and unbound by dogma or personal loyalty than any GOP candidate has been in decades. The leadership of his party—and perhaps the nation—is now his to win or lose.

Finally, and by far most important, Trump has made a full-throated claim to be the change agent, painting Hillary as an apologist for Wall Street, a rigged political and economic system, and the status quo. His overt and apparently sincere outreach to Bernie’s voters was the most important point of his acceptance speech, by far.

The men and women of our political “establishment” have spent their entire careers acquiring loyalties and dogmas like barnacles on a ship’s hull. As a result, they are close to unmoveable. They appear to be so stunned by what has happened in the last year as to be unable to assess its significance, let alone assimilate it. Hillary is one of them.

In the last year, two men—both national unknowns—came from out of nowhere to capture the nation’s hopes and spirits and astonish everyone. That single fact is most of what you need to know to assess America’s current political prospects.

One of those men (Trump) is now the GOP nominee. He needs to work on his tone and pacing, and he needs to get someone who can write to prepare his speeches. But the substance of his acceptance speech showed that he gets the nation’s current position and the middle-class’ wholly justified angst. It also shows that he can learn to “do” politics and win friends.

The other newcomer to national prominence (Bernie) nearly upset the applecart of a woman who has aimed for the presidency for two decades and, since 2007, has considered it her birthright. She carries with her the most marginalized majority in the history of American politics: women. For Bernie to have nearly thwarted her drive, when Hillary has the putative majority, the longevity, the money, and the strong support of minorities, is no small thing.

The people want change. They want it in both parties. One way or another, they will have it. They want new, more honest faces, who recognize and reject the rigged system that has hurt them and are willing to fight it.

Trump’s hit last night on security, safety, and “law and order” is no head fake. It’s a tried and true bit of GOP demagoguery that both Nixon and Reagan used as a stair step to national power. But for Hillary to focus on it, and not on the primary change-seeking message of the rank and file in both parties during the last year, would be a fatal mistake from which she could never recover.

Hillary may need some experienced national-security advisers. But she can get them down in the bowels of the national-security establishment where few in the public but wonks look.

What she needs to win this thing is the people’s known friends in her Cabinet, and she needs to name them next week. If names like Barack Obama, Bernie Sanders, Elizabeth Warren, Cory Booker, Sherrod Brown, Paul Krugman and Joe Stiglitz don’t drop from her lips—and names like Martin O’Malley for climate change—I believe there is a fifty-fifty chance that she will lose. Then all the aspirations of women, all Hillary’s decades of preparation, and our nation’s chance for methodical, competent non-“gut”-based government will be toast come this November.

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10 July 2016

Rehabilitating Hillary


[There is nothing lacking in Hillary’s competence as a political thinker. In my last essay, I explained why she has a character problem. This essay explain how it hurts her and how she might fix it.]

Background: the defensive crouch

1. Graduate from law school.
2. Put the PR junkies under adult supervision, where they belong.
3. Pick a “Team of Rivals” for the ages, like Lincoln’s.

Background: the defensive crouch

Secretary Hillary Rodham Clinton has bad advisors. How do I know? I don’t know her or any of her advisors personally. But I can see the results. So can we all.

It’s strange, really. On anything that doesn’t involve herself personally, Hillary does what you would expect of a graduate of Yale Law School and a student of politics for decades. She studies. She analyzes. She thinks. She synthesizes and articulates. She comes up with a public statement that is balanced and pitch perfect.

That’s what she did last week after the massacre of police in Dallas. She told us the unvarnished truth. The only way we can get through this nightmare as a nation is to have complete empathy for both sides—the innocent, hard-working police who risk their lives daily to protect us, and the equally innocent people of color who are stalked, profiled, harassed, manhandled and sometimes murdered because they have the wrong color, dress wrong, fail to react coolly, or live in the wrong neighborhood.

So Hillary is good to excellent when working on problems that don’t directly involve her or her career. When they do, she invariably assumes a secretive, defensive crouch.

That defensiveness is invariably counterproductive. Sometimes it can be catastrophic, both for Hillary and for the nation.

Virtually every bad decision in Hillary’s political career, and every single so-called “scandal,” was like that. The scandals, in particular, were practically self-generated. Let’s run through them quickly.

Hillary’s most serious error of judgment was supporting Dubya’s unnecessary and disastrous invasion and occupation of Iraq. Self-protection—i.e., protecting her chance to become the nation’s first female president—appears to have been foremost in her mind.

How do we know? Because this lifelong policy wonk didn’t read the National Intelligence Estimate—the top-secret executive summary prepared jointly by our several intelligence services. That document contained page after page of vehement top-secret dissents to war and vehement disputes about the “factual” basis for war. But Hillary didn’t even read it; she just attended slanted briefings of Dubya’s war-bent administration.

And don’t think her staff read it. As a new senator, she had no one on her staff with the appropriate security clearance. Two special, guarded reading rooms were set up in the Senate Office Building, with access to sitting Senators only, and no one on Hillary’s staff.

The report was 90 pages long—a light evenings’s homework assignment for a Yale Law graduate. Yet Hillary didn’t even read it. She self-evidently made her decisions on political grounds. If the war had been a success and she had opposed it, she would forever have been tarred as “weak.” Yet if it got bogged down, as it has, she could “change her mind” along with the nation’s, as she has.

The rest of her so-called “scandals” don’t rise nearly to that level of importance, even all put together. But let’s look at them anyway, just to see how much her reflexive and counterproductive crouches have cost her politically.

After Iraq, the next most telling is Benghazi. There the substance of what Hillary did was unambiguously good. The Tripoli Gestapo, under the command of the madman Qaddafi, had cornered the Benghazi rebels—members of different tribes—and was about to wipe them out. The President was hesitating. He would not use force without UN authorization. So the world came close to witnessing the worst genocide and ethnic cleansing since the Balkans and Rwanda.

Just in the nick of time, Hillary and her team got the necessary UN authorization and convinced the President to use it. We stopped the incipient Benghazi genocide in its tracks, and the Libyan people ultimately deposed and murdered Qaddafi. You can argue about whether deposing a mad tyrant is a good thing, at least without a good backup leadership plan. But it’s hard to argue that stopping a genocide, without significant losses or casualties, was a mistake.

So Benghazi—the actual foreign-policy deed, not the farce of an “investigation” that followed the subsequent murder of American diplomats—was undoubtedly Hillary’s single greatest substantive foreign-policy achievement. Yet she gets no credit for it because of her defensive crouch.

What difference does it make whether the later surprise attack that killed four diplomats morphed out of an otherwise peaceful demonstration or was a carefully planned and executed terrorist attack? In either case, the attack was unforeseen and unforeseeable. Yet by putting out a premature press release with a hasty and incorrect assessment, Hillary and her team seemed to be dropping into a defensive crouch.

The attack dogs smelled fear, and they lunged. Trey Gowdy, the Attack Committee’s chair, even looks like a Doberman, an ill-groomed one at that.

The appropriate response was to condole the families, express sorrow and regret, commission a thorough and prompt internal investigation (to pre-empt any by Congress), and stonily await its conclusions. It was not to issue press releases with premature and ultimately false conclusions. As I wrote, bad advisors.

All the other Hillary “scandals” had much the same cause. From the Vince Foster suicide, through Travelgate and l’affaire Lewinski, past withholding the Wall-Street speech transcripts, to the current e-mail gate, Hillary’s defensive crouch has done her no good. In every case, withholding key information from the public and stonewalling just made the attack dogs strain at their leashes and the public wonder and doubt.

And to cap it all off, there’s Debbie Wasserman Schultz. Who was the best debater in the entire presidential field, in all parties? Hillary. Who tried to limit Hillary’s debates with Bernie? Schultz. Yet another useless, counterproductive defensive crouch, leading voters to believe that Hillary is scared, has something to hide, or wanted to beat Bernie by unfair means.

Of course a lot of this defensive crouch has to come from Hillary. She tries to project confidence, but she must be one of the most personally insecure candidates ever to undertake presidential politics. If that’s so, isn’t that precisely why she needs better advisers, who can tell her when she’s making a mistake, support her, and convince her?

So Hillary needs to clean house, big time. She’s likely to be our president in a little over six months. She needs a presidential team, now, not a bunch of protect-your-ass amateurs. She should clean house and announce her new team, or most of it, at the upcoming convention.

Here are three concrete ways she could form a winning team and make her presidency one for the ages:

1. Graduate from law school.

At long last, Hillary must “graduate” from law school and discover the wider world out there. Virtually all of her defensive crouches and “hide the ball” secrecy come from lawyers. There are too many of them in our government, in our Congress, and on Hillary’s team.

That’s why our nation is stagnant. Lawyers dominate its leadership. They are not trained to get things done. They are trained to protect clients and advance clients’ interests and points of view. Hide-the-ball and stonewalling are standard (and much overused) tactics in litigation. Lawyers are simply not trained to see cause and effect, let alone to shape effect in the medium or long term.

Hillary needs people who can see beyond preparing for depositions, managing evidence, and winning at trial. She needs people like Elizabeth Warren, who knows as much math and finance as she does law. She needs people like Cory Booker, who rushed into a burning building to save a woman, without stopping to calculate how success or failure might look on his resume.

2. Put the PR junkies under adult supervision, where they belong.

Second only to lawyers, Hillary needs to put PR folk in their proper place—subordinate to people who understand the real world and can get things done in it.

Hillary should study up on the 1982 Tylenol crisis. Some maniac put cyanide in extra-strength Tylenol tablets, killing seven people in Chicago. Tylenol sales plunged. The PR folk wrote wonderful apologies, pointing out how minuscule was the chance of getting killed. Lawyers prepared to defend lawsuits.

But like Hillary protecting the real-world Benghazi rebels, the top managers decided to protect innocent customers and their brand. They halted all advertising, recalled the entire nation’s product—about 31 million bottles—and produced new bottles with tamper-proof seals. Today, 34 years later, Tylenol is still a leading brand among over-the-counter pain killers. Not only that: the entire over-the-counter industry, and much of the food and drink industry, has adopted Tylenol’s customer-protective tamper-proof seals.

Hillary needs to act more like Tylenol’s managers in the early eighties, who spent $100 million of short-term losses to win in the long term. She needs to downplay and demote the lawyers and PR folk who focus only on the risk of a trial that may never come, or on the next news release or the next local election.

3. Pick a “Team of Rivals” for the ages, like Lincoln’s.

Hillary’s present advisers are self-evidently bush league (pun intended). She needs to pick new ones: powerful people with independent constituencies, who can tell her forcefully, with the weight of years and experience, when she is wrong.

Today, “Stronger Together” is just a PR slogan, another bit of flotsam in our endless stream of meaningless political babble. But Hillary can make it real by putting Barack Obama and Bernie Sanders in her Cabinet. (Obama cannot be president again, but he can hold any other office, including on the Supreme Court; and he’s decided to stay in Washington for family reasons.) She should also find places for Elizabeth Warren and Cory Booker, who apparently is languishing in the Senate. He’s a doer, not a debater, who needs executive wings to fly.

Think of the draw of such a cabinet for progressives! Think of the party unity! Think of the FDR-like “brain trust”!

Most of all, think of the future. Throughout her political career, Hillary has made the defensive crouch, with secrecy, her standard response to adversity. She might still become president while maintaining that leadership style. But she won’t win the mandate that the GOP’s division and disarray promise, and her presidency would be wounded from the start.

If she drops the defensive crouch and picks a team of powerful, household-name rivals, she could not only beat Trump. She could crush him. And in the process she could become the transformational president for whom progressives have been yearning since 2007.

Endnote:

The custom of presidents serving no more than two terms was begun by George Washington and broken by FDR. Today it is enshrined in our Constitution, in the Twenty-Second Amendment. That Amendment is very specific in imposing the two-term limit; it says that “No person shall be elected to the office of the President more than twice . . . .” (Emphasis added.) Thus it prohibits any former president, such as Obama, who has been elected twice, from standing for and being elected president a third and subsequent time.

By its terms, the Twenty-Second Amendment does not preclude a former president from being elevated to the presidency a third time by any non-elective process, such as the elevation of Cabinet members in the event of death or disability under the Succession Act of 1947. And even if it did do that, it certainly wouldn’t prohibit a former president from being appointed to and confirmed to a Cabinet post on the off chance that some unforeseen and unforeseeable disaster might elevate him or her to the presidency.

As for the Supreme Court, there is already a precedent for an ex-president serving not just as any Justice, but as the Chief Justice. William Howard Taft served a single term as president from 1909 to 1913; he was appointed Chief Justice in 1921 and served as such until shortly before his death in 1930.

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