Saturday, March 31, 2012

Good night, good luck and good grief:
Olbermann and Current TV

WE MIGHT have seen this coming. On Wednesday night, as Keith Olbermann signed off his Current TV news and analysis program “Countdown With Keith Olbermann,” there was none of his usual snarky  closing remarks thanking the audience “for surviving another day of this crap.” He didn’t ritually wad up a sheet of paper and throw it at the camera; the customary broken-screen graphic (timed to Olbermann’s throw at the lens) never appeared.

On Wednesday, Olbermann closed with seven words, tersely delivered, by a man with his mind obviously somewhere else. “That’s ‘Countdown.’ I’m Keith Olbermann. Good night.” Fade to black.

We might have seen it coming back on Dec. 5, when, less than six months after going on the air on Current TV, “Countdown” went dark. Literally. A blown fuse suddenly dimmed the lights on the set of the fledgling show, pitching Olbermann into near darkness as he was beginning a segment on “Occupy politics.”

This was apparently no mere glitch; something in the vast electrical bowels of the Current studio in Manhattan had gone awry that night and stayed wrong. For days stretching to weeks. It finally got to where the sparsely-lighted Olbermann made a virtue of the situation. It was all somehow part of the voice-in-the-media-wilderness shtick that Olbermann had laid claim to for years.

But it was ominous, if not exactly telling: That first big glitch, and others before and since, signaled deep technical difficulties at Current TV. On Thursday, and well into the Friday news cycle, we discovered that, from the perspective of Current management, the biggest technical difficulty facing the not-yet-seven-year-old network was Keith Olbermann himself. It was a problem remedied in a letter on the Current Web site, written by Current founders Al Gore and Joel Hyatt:

To the Viewers of Current:

We created Current to give voice to those Americans who refuse to rely on corporate-controlled media and are seeking an authentic progressive outlet. We are more committed to those goals today than ever before. Current was also founded on the values of respect, openness, collegiality, and loyalty to our viewers. Unfortunately these values are no longer reflected in our relationship with Keith Olbermann and we have ended it. …

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With that, Olbermann was fired from Current TV, his contract terminated slightly more than a year after he was hired, for reasons of breach of contract and what one Current insider called “sabotage.” This time, unlike when Olbermann made his valedictories before leaving MSNBC in January 2011, KO got no chance for goodbye commentary. His last Current “Countdown” was Wednesday night; various reports say the hammer dropped sometime on Thursday morning.

In a transitional sleight of hand that was masterful, Current scheduled Eliot Spitzer to pinch-hit for Olbermann on Thursday night at 8 o’clock. Nothing seemed to be publicly amiss. “I’m Eliot Spitzer sitting in for Keith Olbermann,” Spitzer said.

Fast forward exactly 24 hours. On Friday night, Current debuted its new show in the Olbermann time slot: “Viewpoint With Eliot Spitzer,” featuring the disgraced former New York governor at the helm of his second talk show in two years (in 2010, he was tapped to co-host a news and commentary show on CNN with conservative columnist Kathleen Parker; that show died the death last year).

It all happened so fast, DirectTV didn’t even have time to reprogram the title graphics on its channel lineup. At least, it all appeared to happen fast.

“We are confident that our viewers will be able to count on Governor Spitzer to deliver critical information on a daily basis,” Gore and Hyatt wrote.

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KO took to the Twitterverse, offering his side of what happened with an Olbermannesque explanation, vitriol dispensed 140 characters at a time:

“I'd like to apologize to my viewers and my staff for the failure of Current TV. Editorially, Countdown had never been better. But for more than a year I have been imploring Al Gore and Joel Hyatt to resolve our issues internally, while I've been not publicizing my complaints, and keeping the show alive for the sake of its loyal viewers and even more loyal staff. …

“It goes almost without saying that the claims against me in Current's statement are untrue and will be proved so in the legal actions I will be filing against them presently. …

“[J]oining them was a sincere and well-intentioned gesture on my part, but in retrospect a foolish one. That lack of judgment is mine and mine alone, and I apologize again for it.”

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ON PAPER, it all looked so ... right. Olbermann, long chafing under the saddle of his corporate masters at MSNBC (and their corporate masters at the newly reconfigured NBCUniversal) was cashiered from his “Countdown” perch at MSNBC in January 2011. But he emerged, almost phoenix-like, with a new and potentially game-changing offer to transform Current TV, a fledgling user-generated-content network launched in August 2005 by hotel magnate Joel Hyatt and Al Gore, the popular-vote-determined 43rd President of the United States.

For Current, nailing Olbermann down gained the documentary-driven network needed gravitas in the news arena, as well as one of the more recognized faces in electronic media. "It is the first thing Current TV has done since launch to put itself on the map,” said Larry Gerbrandt, principal at Media Valuation Partners, to Georg Szalai of The Hollywood Reporter, in 2010. “It's been a non-factor in terms of programming … for the first time, this puts Current on the map as a real player,"

Olbermann got out of the chute OK. He set the tone for the new “Countdown” on the first show, on June 20, 2011. “This is to be a newscast of contextualization,” he said at the beginning, “and it is to be presented with a viewpoint: that the weakest citizen of this country is more important than the strongest corporation; that the nation is losing its independence through the malfeasance of one political party and the timidity of another; and that even though you and I should not have to be the last line of defense, apparently we are.”

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For Olbermann’s legacy viewers, there was a lot to feel comfortable with. With only a few cosmetic tweaks, the new edition replicated the old one, right down to the Beethoven opening and the Friday salons with the work of James Thurber. Everything was close to the same. Everything but the audience.

In February 2011, The Hollywood Reporter reported that “Current averaged 18,000 homes in primetime for fourth quarter 2010, lower than any other network measured by Nielsen.” This after being on the air for almost five years; and accessible in 60 million homes.

Stelter in The Times: “In his 40 weeks on Current TV, he had an average of 177,000 viewers at 8 p.m., down from the roughly one million that he had each night on MSNBC. Just 57,000 of those viewers on any given night were between the ages of 25 and 54, the coveted advertising demographic for cable news. Still, Mr. Olbermann ranked as the highest-rated program on Current.”

He’s been nothing if not consistent: The Associated Press, extracting from Nielsen Company figures, reported that on the night the new “Countdown” launched in 2011, the program pulled in 179,000 viewers between 25 and 54 — about eight times the previous average for Current TV at that hour.

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AND THEN it all started going south. Keith Olbermann has a reputation for doing difficult to work with and to work for. David Carr, a reporter for The New York Times and a man with some personal knowledge of Olbermann, distilled the general perceptions of KO’s personality in a blogpost on Saturday:

“Mr. Olbermann is talent, and a big baby to boot — any reporter who has covered him could tell you all about that — so the idea that he would default to the good of the many over the needs of the one is just not in his nature. ... Mr. Olbermann is a ferocious fan of team sports, but that’s not how he plays the game.

“He is the equivalent of a supremely talented left-handed pitcher with a strong arm — and some obvious control issues — that can give whatever team hires him a lot of quality innings. On the bench and off the field? He will complain about his coach, his teammates, the quality of the field and the stadium lights.”

Nation N' the hoodie:
Trayvon Martin and America

THE GENTLEMAN from Illinois is recognized. Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush is on the floor of the U.S. House of Representatives on Wednesday, at the mike, speaking truth to power. Congressman Rush tells the House that the Feb. 26 slaying of Trayvon Martin in Florida “is indeed an American tragedy. Too often, this violent act that resulted in the murder of Trayvon Martin is repeated in the streets of our nation. I applaud the young people all across the land for making a statement about hoodies, about the real hoodlums in this nation. ... “

Then, Rush peels off his suit jacket to reveal underneath … a hoodie, one like any other of the hundreds of thousands that have surfaced since Martin was shot to death 24 days after his 17th birthday wearing a similar garment while on a mission through a gated-community neighborhood in pursuit of nothing more ominous, more dangerous than a bag of Skittles and a can of Arizona iced tea.

“Racial profiling has to stop, Mr. Speaker,” Rush said. “Just because someone wears a hoodie does not make them a hoodlum.”

The gentleman will suspend. The gentleman will suspend. The gentleman is out of order. The sergeant-at-arms will remove the gentleman from Illinois.

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Call it a stunt or a strategy (and people in the blogosphere have pretty much done both), Bobby Rush’s breach of House dress-code decorum made a point about the death of Trayvon Benjamin Martin and the way it’s permeated into the wider American experience, and apparently resonated with a refreshingly broad cross-section of the country.

Martin’s killing has aroused something akin to soul-searching in a nation ill at ease with young black men in general; to go by what’s been worse at numerous protest rallies on behalf of Trayvon’s memory and of his deeply grieving parents, the makers of pullover athletic garments must be enjoying robust sales right about now. For all the wrong reasons.

In New York City, a “Million Hoodie March” was convened to drive home the point that death by fashion choice isn’t acceptable, or shouldn’t be in an enlightened society. What seemed to have emerged in the last week was an admirable attempt to universalize the connection between Trayvon Martin and the rest of us, and do it by adopting the deeply anonymizing sports apparel that too many Americans have equated with violent crime (if it’s worn by young black males, anyway).

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Marc Morial of the National Urban League made the point further that night, on “Countdown With Keith Olbermann”: “I think he makes the point that a man, an African-American man, wearing a hoodie is not, by definition, suspicious. In America, which looks on it that way, that's the very essence of what we mean when we talk about racial profiling …”

This bid to “take back the hoodie” had its detractors. We might have guessed it wouldn’t be long before situational moralists raised their voices. Geraldo Rivera, a television personality forever in search of relevance, obliged us, jumping into the controversy via Twitter on March 22, with a tweet whose insensitivity to the human tragedy was breathtaking:

Rivera was roundly condemned in what he called “a viral avalanche” of tweets — and, apparently after his son Gabriel criticized him for the comment, and telling the old man he was ashamed of what he said. In an e-mail Tuesday to Politico, Rivera walked back the ridiculous:

“By putting responsibility on what kids wear instead of how people react to them I have obscured the main point that someone shot and killed an unarmed teenager,” he said.

“I apologize to anyone offended by what one prominent black conservative called my ‘very practical and potentially life-saving campaign' urging black and Hispanic parents not to let their children go around wearing hoodies.”

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BUT RIVERA'S squishy quasi-apology obscures the central point of the Trayvon Martin tragedy, the point that the hoodies only dramatize. For young black men in America, the hoodie is a symbol for the sense of emptiness, the agonizing drift they feel in a country that criminalizes them presumptively. A nation in which black children and teenagers find themselves more often the victims of the same violence that white Americans more generally imagine.

In her lovely essay “Walking While Black,” published by BET News, Marian Wright Edelman, president and founder of the Childrens Defense Fund, explored the differences:

“In 2008 and 2009, 2,582 Black children and teens were killed by gunfire. Black children and teens were only 15 percent of the child population, but 45 percent of the 5,740 child and teen gun deaths in those two years. Black males 15 to 19 years-old were eight times as likely as White males to be gun homicide victims.”

There’s no escaping the fact that such dire statistics stem from something going on longer than the hoodie’s been at the root of our current urban sartorial paranoia. It’s bigger than what we wear.

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Consider a different picture of Trayvon Martin — not the one with him smiling in the HOLLISTER T-shirt, and not the black and white shot of the teenager in a hoodie, the ghost picture that, right or wrong, may become the searing Madonna image of a young man gone too soon.

Consider the picture of Trayvon in his Bulldogs football uniform, a young man on purpose, a young man of purpose clearly eager to be a part of the wider picture of the world, to contribute to something bigger than he is.

This is Trayvon Martin in another manifestation. Trayvon Martin in another set of clothes that people, Floridians, Americans would no doubt have found a reason to fear him in.

The deeper tragedy of the Trayvon Martin incident is how little we learn from things like the Trayvon Martin incident.

Image credits: Rush: C-SPAN. Edelman: via BET News. Trayvon Martin: The Martin Family.

Thursday, March 29, 2012

Mr. Roberts and the health-care debate

FOR John Roberts, Chief Justice of the Supreme Court of the United States, it was just one of those things ... a trip to the hospital on cerebral wings.

On July 30, 2007, with the temperature in the high 70's, the Chief Justice suffered a seizure that caused him to fall somewhere between five and 10 feet while on a dock near Roberts’ summer home on Hupper Island, Maine. Roberts, who suffered only slight scrapes in the fall, was taken with some dispatch to Penobscot Bay Medical Center in Rockport, Rockland, maybe 10 miles away. He spent the night there for observation.

Happily, it was apparently no big deal. In a statement, the Supreme Court said the Chief Justice had “fully recovered from the incident,” and that a thorough neurological evaluation “revealed no cause for concern.”  Doctors told CNN that the incident was a “benign idiopathic seizure.”

Apparently resembling a similar episode that occurred for no reason back in 1993.

No big deal.

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Denise Grady and Dr. Lawrence K. Altman, reporters for The New York Times, explored scenarios that were not so benign in an August 1 story:

“Because the seizure was his second … he meets the criteria for epilepsy, and he and his doctors will have to decide whether he should take medication to prevent further seizures,” the reporters wrote, citing doctors not involved in Roberts’ care.

“Even though his two seizures occurred 14 years apart, they meet the criteria for epilepsy because they were ‘unprovoked,’ meaning that they were not caused by a head injury,” or other causes, they reported.

A specialist in epilelpsy begs to differ. “Epilepsy diagnosis is a meaningless term in this case,” says Dr. Frank Gilliam, director of the epilepsy center at Columbia University Medical Center. In an interview with Time magazine, Gilliam said that one percent of the U.S. population is diagnosed with epilepsy, and 30 percent of those cases needed no medical treatment. “It's a wastebasket term for anyone who has had two or more unprovoked seizures,” he said.

Here’s every hope that Dr. Gilliam’s assessment is correct. Long life to Chief Justice Roberts; in the short term, as the Roberts Court deliberates the fate of the Affordable Care Act, he’s got a lot to do. But also for the course of the debate, Chief Justice Roberts may be an accidental symbol of the need for health care reform, a solid test case of how the current health-care system plays favorites, by coincidence and by design, with the universality of a common need and the social and economic inequalities related to those in this country who get that need satisfied, and those in this country who don’t.

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MANY on the conservative right — from former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum, his presidential campaign writhing in its death throes, to the mandarins of conservative electronic media and talk radio — are framing the totality of the Obama health-care law as an epic struggle for the preservation of federalism, the alignment and balance of power between federal and state governments.

This howling class has focused the crux of its argument on Article I, Section 8, Clause 3 of the Constitution, the so-called Commerce Clause, 16 words that convey to Congress the “Power ... to regulate Commerce ... among the several States.” Obamacare opponents have screamed for years at how the Obama health-care law is a repressive eat-your-peas law that eviscerates personal freedom; their argument also entertains the idea that for the court to approve it would be its own overreach of federalism, a breach of the separation between the elected branches of government and the judiciary.

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Rebecca L. Brown, Newton Professor of Constitutional Law at the University of Southern California Gould School of Law, refutes these expedient interpretations in a lapidary essay published Feb. 7 on the Web site of the New Orleans Times-Picayune.

“The challengers [to Obamacare] pluck out one situation from the vast interstate reach of the statute -- failure to buy insurance -- to designate as outside the meaning of "commerce," Brown writes.

“A deep American instinct insists that certain government interferences -- federal or state -- go too far in invading personal liberty. ...

“Powerful or not, this is not a federalism argument; not a claim about which government should set policy, but about what policy is set. ...

“As framed, the argument seeks instead to import -- surreptitiously -- the individual-rights impulse into the Commerce Clause, whose purpose is the different one of protecting from federal incursion the states' sovereign right to govern. The individual mandate does not implicate that federalism commitment.

“There is no serious argument that health care and insurance purchasing are not economic, or that they affect purely local interests -- the arguments in all prior Commerce Clause challenges. More importantly, no one urges that the health-care crisis can or should be addressed solely by 50 states acting independently. The undeniable strength of the national interest in this law renders it profoundly different from prior laws facing commerce challenges.”

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BROWN CONTINUES: “Yet the court is asked to invent a novel, artificial restriction on Congress's commerce authority, by arbitrarily carving out a failure to buy from "commerce" or a requirement to buy from "regulate" -- to vindicate a value, however laudable, having nothing to do with the policies underlying that clause. The requested judicial craftsmanship is dangerous because it finds no support in the Constitution's text, original understanding, precedent or theories of federalism, and thus undermines judicial legitimacy.

“Because the individual mandate neither threatens federalism nor violates recognized individual rights, the vote on the court should be unanimous — not because the justices like the law, but because they respect the Constitution.”

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The professor's insightful analysis has at its core the responsibility a government has to its people. When everything else is stripped away, it awakens the questions at the core of the health-care debate:

Does a society have a clear and present interest in the health and well-being of the people who inhabit it? Without question. Do a society’s elected leaders have a clear and present interest in seeking enactment of laws that enhance the health and well-being of those citizens? The answer is yes — or it should be in an enlightened society.

The relentless back & forth over the individual mandate — the linchpin of the Obama health-care law, and the trigger for the hue and cry against it — obscures the overriding national self-interest that a nation has in itself, first and foremost.

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THAT'S WHY this is way more than a law governing commerce, a string of citations and arguments related to the purchase of a “product.” This is bigger than that. Affordable health care, and its availability to the cross section of the nation, is more than a “product” like peas or lumber or truck engines. Or broccoli.

Affordable health care is nothing less than a statement that a nation intends to further its existence, by investing in the citizens that ensure its existence.

All the full-throated libertarian cries of Obamacare as an encroachment of liberty and an unwarranted government intrusion into everyday lives must confront that. They have to face the fact that there’s a compelling, unified national interest in health-care reform because there’s a continuing everyday national need for health-care reform, one that transcends the particularities of the individual states. They have to contend with how the four freedoms cherished by this nation don’t include freedom from sickness, or freedom from accidental injury. Or devastating diagnoses, and their equally devastating financial fallout.

Or freedom from hopefully benign idiopathic seizures.

The full-spectrum world-class health care that Chief Justice John Roberts certainly enjoys, and the freedom from having to ever having to worry about paying for it, is a world away from the overwhelming majority of Americans.

The Obama health-care law is as close as we’ve come as a nation to correcting that imbalance. The first truly comprehensive health-care reform in the nation’s history needs to advance on its merits, with the Justices of the Supreme Court sticking to a thorough application of the Constitution as written, not as conjured or envisioned through a partisan lens.

There are some peas we need to eat.

Image credits: Roberts: Robert F. Bukaty/Associated Press.

Monday, March 26, 2012

Standing on shaky ground:
Jeb Bush and the consequences of bad law

OF all the voices aired in the furious and still-building debate over the death of Trayvon Martin, the one we’ve scarcely heard until now has been that of John Ellis (Jeb) Bush, the once Florida governor who signed the law that, given its frightening breadth of possible application, certainly helped make Trayvon’s death possible.

But in his first defenses of the Stand Your Ground law, Jeb Bush does more than reveal the law’s shortcomings as sound law. The measure’s apparent uselessness as a law calls into question nothing less than Bush’s judgment as a governor, and, if he ever goes in that direction, his soundness as a presidential contender.

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As governor, Bush signed Florida Statute 776-012 into law in Oct. 1, April 2005. “It’s common sense to allow people to defend themselves,” he said then. “When you’re in a position where you’re being threatened, there’s a life-threatening situation, to have to retreat and put yourself in a very precarious situation … you know, defies common sense.”

Here’s the opening of the law’s language:

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony ...

(Reading this, a striking parallel of rationale rears up: Is there any foundational difference between the language of this law and the broader pretext for aggression against the Republic of Iraq, evangelized and defended by Jeb Bush’s brother, George Herbert Walker Bush, former president of the United States?

Just sayin’.)

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Since 2005, the law’s application has seen a multitude of tragedies. The St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times reported that, five years after its passage, the Stand Your Ground defense had been implicated in 93 cases that resulted in 65 deaths statewide. It's certainly above that now.

Since the Trayvon Martin incident, Bush has defended the law’s intention, if not its application by citizens like George Michael Zimmerman, the neighborhood-watch captain wannabe who shot Trayvon in the chest on Feb. 26.

“Applied properly, I support the law,” he told the Dallas Morning News on March 23.

And to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram, Bush attempted to sever any connection between Florida’s law and what happened the night of Feb. 26. “This law does not apply to this particular circumstance,” he said. “’Stand Your Ground’ means ‘stand your ground.’ It doesn’t mean ‘chase after somebody who’s turned their back.’”

But for Floridians, and especially those victimized by the law’s permissions, that amounts to a distinction without a difference. When a law is based on the perception of a threat, however momentary or impulsive that perception might be, actions taken in the name of self-defense have too much latitude — including the opportunity to be actions taken proactively, rather than reactively.

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IT’D BE one thing if Florida’s SYG law was based on, say, the protection of one’s home. But the law isn’t domicile-specific. This isn’t another “castle doctrine” law, based on the principle derived from English common law and stating, finally, that a man’s or woman’s home is his or her castle, and defendable as such.

Laws of self-defense of one’s life, family and property have been on the books in Florida for years, just like they are, to one degree or another, in every state in the country. The opening 44 words of the bill Bush signed into law in 2005 are almost verbatim with those of justifiable-use-of-force state statutes going back to at least 1998.

Under those pre-SYG statutes, people in Florida were compelled to use every means possible short of deadly force to extricate themselves from a dangerous situation.

There’d have been no need for Stand Your Ground in Florida, no reason to change the existing law if there hadn’t been some new or enhanced threat (or perception of a threat) that Stand Your Ground was intended to correct. A law without an objective is a bad law.

“There was no one in Florida who needed this law,” said Florida State Sen. Dan Gelber, a former federal prosecutor, to Ed Schultz on MSNBC, on Monday.

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Which isn’t to say someone didn’t want this law — or the other similar laws in at least 22 other states, according to the Brady Campaign to Prevent Gun Violence.

The identity of that someone, or something, is evident in photos of Florida Gov. Jeb Bush signing the bill into law. On his right side is Marion P. Hammer, a top lobbyist for the National Rifle Association, which lobbied legislators hard and long to get Florida’s SYG legislation through the State Senate and onto the governor’s desk. And into the lives of Floridians, for worse and for worse.

“There was no one in Florida who claimed that they’d been wrongfully charged … or wrongly convicted and needed the protection,” Gelber said. “This [SYG] was done solely because the NRA asked the legislature to do it, and they have a lot of sway with the legislature …”

William Meggs, state attorney for the 2nd Judicial Circuit in Tallahassee, told Reuters that "[b]asically it's a law that fixed something that wasn't broken, and then it created a lot of problems."

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WHATEVER his high-minded intentions, Jeb Bush’s signing of Florida’s Stand Your Ground law — the law that became a national template — has ushered into Florida and beyond a renascent cowboy mentality, a meme of shoot-first-ask-questions-never; a climate of dangerous permission, and of the potential for a settling of scores real and imagined, of deep xenophobic tendencies actualized under the elastic rubric of self-defense.

It transports the ethos of frontier Dodge City to the modern-day streets and communities of the Sunshine State, and elsewhere. And it undermines, however marginally, whatever prospects for the presidency Jeb Bush may have entertained, most likely in 2016.

The scope of the law and its consequences are bad enough. What’s worse, what’s more politically indefensible is the fact that the Florida SYG law was unnecessary, that it became a law at the request of a powerful pro-gun lobby and its deep-pocketed proxies, and through the energies of that lobby’s philosophical toadies in the legislature. And almost no one else.

Long before any presidential aspirations are formally announced, if that ever happens, Jeb Bush already faces the burdensome label of being in the pocket of at least one very special interest. It’s an association with literally fatal consequences, one that yielded a law that, like its successors, gives our tribal, atavlstic aspect free rein — calling on the worst that’s within us, instead of the best.

Image credits: Jeb Bush: via MSNBC. Jeb Bush signature: Wikipedia. George Zimmerman: Orange Country Jail/Florida Department of Law Enforcement. Marion Hammer: Florida Attorney General's Office via Trayvon Martin: The Martin Family.

Friday, March 23, 2012

Pretty sketchy

THE Obama 2012 re-election campaign, the field of Republican challengers for the nomination, and the Ohio Art Company of Bryan, Ohio, all owe a debt of gratitude to one of the top advisers to the presidential campaign of Mitt Romney.

In one accidentally revealing rhetorical quip, that adviser unmistakably distilled in an instant what political observers and millions of Americans have been saying about Romney for months, if not years: In his tireless pursuit of the presidency, the former Massachusetts governor is a man, and a candidate, of many guises.

On Wednesday, dissecting Romney’s lopsided wins in the Puerto Rico and Illinois primaries, Romney campaign adviser Eric Fehrnstrom was interviewed by John Fugelsang, a self-described “political comedian” working with (and on) CNN.

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Part of the interview hinged on the dilemma of Romney’s relentless tacking to the political right, and its possible impact on the public’s perception of the candidate after the primary season is over.

Fugelsang: Is there a concern that the pressure from [former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick] Santorum and [former House Speaker Newt] Gingrich might force the governor to tack so far to the right, it would hurt him with moderate voters in the general election?”

Fehrnstrom: “Well, I think you hit a reset button for the fall campaign. Everything changes. It’s almost like an Etch A Sketch, you can kind of shake it up and start all over again. ...”

In that moment, Romney’s goofily quixotic quest for that campaign’s prize of nomination, and what he’d do to achieve that prize, was crystal clear like never before.

Followers of the campaign — the punditburo, the analyst corps, the political cartoonists — had been looking for something brief and pithy and devastatingly effective to boil down the Romney political identity. Ironically enough, they found it, not as a result of endless oppo research, but from the mouth of an adviser to the Romney campaign itself.

One Etch A Sketch: $11. Impact on the GOP race: Priceless.

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Rick Tyler, a honcho with the Gingrich SuperPAC, got the ball rolling that evening on MSNBC: “The reason it’s been playing all day is that it just rings so true. We’ve always suspected it. I’ll predict by tomorrow morning, we’ll have an Etch A Sketch ad on YouTube — you know, ‘turn a little to the right, turn a little to the left, Romney will be however you want him to be …”

Howard Fineman of the Huffington Post said much the same thing on MSNBC on Thursday. “It’s so utterly apt, it’s going to stick to him from now on.”

Michael Wolraich, founder of, grasped what it means in a piece at “The Etch A Sketch perfectly captures voters' perception of Mitt Romney as an opportunistic politician anxious to redraw himself according to the political requirements of the moment, a man who leans left in Massachusetts and right in Mississippi. The notion provokes the mistrust of conservatives, the cynicism of moderates and the amusement of liberals.”

Joe Klein, writing in Time Magazine, clearly understood what’s happened:

“There is a gestalt to every campaign, a deep organic spirit. Kerry’s campaign was infected by the candidate’s indecision about what to do regarding the war in Iraq. Bill Clinton’s campaign was propelled by his native resilience. George W. Bush succeeded because of his gormless certitude. The Obama campaign’s steadiness emanated from the candidate’s no-drama persona. In Romney’s case, this spirit expresses itself in embarrassing gaffes, often at the moment of victory — and it reflects the sterile management-consultancy ethos at the heart of the candidate.”

Santorum understands what it means too:

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YOU knew it was bad when Ann Romney, wife of the candidate and Romney campaign charm-offensive coordinator, had to climb out from behind the wheel of her two Cadillacs to go on the air to defend her Mitt from the slings and arrows of outrageous derision.

“This is exactly what happens in a campaign when you get these distractions,” she said Wednesday on “Piers Morgan Tonight” Wednesday. “Obviously, he was talking about how we’re going to change focus, and we’re going to change, you know, what we’re going to do in the organizational sense of changing. Not Mitt changing positions.”

That was bad enough. You knew it was really bad when the candidate himself felt compelled to do an interview with reporters to explain what Fehrnstrom really meant. Romney’s walkback, a towering blunder in itself, was one of the first times in memory that a candidate had to go before the cameras and explain what a campaign adviser had said on the candidate’s behalf.

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And there were other unintended consequences that arose from the unintended consequences of Fehrnstrom’s goof. The day he made his remarks, the OTC shares of the Ohio Art Company could be bought for $4 a share. The day after Fehrnstrom’s comment, shares of OART stock soared, closing at about $12 a pop.

It didn’t last, of course; wildcat events like that never do. By Friday, OART opened at $9.10 and ended the day and the week falling back further, to close at $6.90. But the offhand thinking of a campaign adviser had, for one brief shining moment, the kind of real positive impact on part of the economy that Romney’s been promising on the campaign trail for months.

No matter what the stock does in the future, though, you haven’t heard the last of this. Fehrnstrom’s gaffe will resonate in the minds of general election voters, as the man whom master Democratic strategist James Carville once memorably described as “a serial windsock” rewrites himself again and again … and the little red toy of our childhoods will symbolically inform the political conversation, like nothing else could.

Image credits: Etch A Sketch: © 2012 Ohio Art Company, via Fehrnstrom: CNN. Santorum: via The Huffington Post. Ohio Art Company stock chart:

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Trayvon Martin and the law that breaks the law

Unless you’ve been vacationing in the Mariana Trench for the last two weeks, you already know much of the gathering back story, as agonizingly reliable, as ubiquitously recognized everywhere from the floor of that trench to the summit of the highest mountain on this planet: the lives of young black men in America remain at a tragically presumptive risk.

Trayvon Martin of Miami was visiting his father and stepmother in The Retreat at Twin Lakes, their gated subdivision in Sanford, Fla., about 20 miles north of Orlando. He was watching the NBA All-Star game on Feb. 26 with his family — his mother, who brought him, his 13-year-old brother and the others — when little brother asked Trayvon to buy him some Skittles at a nearby convenience store.

What transpired in the following minutes and hours and days — the death of Trayvon at the hands of George Zimmerman, a white Hispanic neighborhood-watch wannabe; the inconsistencies of his story about the incident; the police department’s refusal to make an arrest; the emergence of evidence of Zimmerman’s state of mind vis-à-vis race; the state and federal investigations set to step off this month; the grand jury set to convene next month — has already assumed the status of national tragedy.

The deeper tragedy, of course, is the one just under the surface. We’ve lived this movie before. We’ve seen this kind of law enforced before.

◊ ◊ ◊

It might be tempting to look at such cases as the Trayvon Martin tragedy as a case of mistaken identity, a momentary overreaction, if not for the facts — the immediate facts and the ones that more recently emerged.

Martin, 17, was shot to death by Zimmerman, who told police he shot Martin in self-defense, finally confronting the teen after calling 911 and reporting Martin as a "suspicious person." But the fabric of Zimmerman’s defense began to fall apart almost immediately. Cell-phone recordings are a clarifying thing.

In Trayvon’s case, the last conversation he had on his cell phone, with his girlfriend moments before he was slain, are calling into question Zimmerman’s claim that he was menaced by Trayvon, whom Zimmerman outweighed by at least 100 pounds.

In Zimmerman’s case, a snippet of conversation with a 911 dispatcher brings into stark relief the presence of Zimmerman’s racialist state of mind.

The dispatcher asks Zimmerman what entrance of his home the presumed intruder was heading toward. What’s next is audible, indelible.

Zimmerman says, “The back entrance … fucking coons.”

And over the course of the next ninety seconds, other cell-phone calls to 911 would result in multiple audible perspectives, some of them punctuated by the screams of a child, a sound with a weight, a primal power, an emotional valence all its own.

And then, a gunshot.

◊ ◊ ◊

George Zimmerman pulled the trigger on Feb. 26, but at the end of the day, he stands in for some in the leadership of the state of Florida. They won’t spend a day in court over it, but the other people who helped kill Trayvon Martin the night of Feb. 26 were the legislators who worked for the passage of Florida Statute 776-012.

An excerpt of that law, enacted Oct. 1, 2005:

776.012 Use of force in defense of person.—A person is justified in using force, except deadly force, against another when and to the extent that the person reasonably believes that such conduct is necessary to defend himself or herself or another against the other’s imminent use of unlawful force. However, a person is justified in the use of deadly force and does not have a duty to retreat if:

(1) He or she reasonably believes that such force is necessary to prevent imminent death or great bodily harm to himself or herself or another or to prevent the imminent commission of a forcible felony ...

The St. Petersburg Times and the Tampa Bay Times reported that, as of October, five years after the law went into effect, the Stand Your Ground defense was implicated in 93 cases that resulted in 65 deaths statewide.

In an e-mail for supporters of ColorofChange, Rashad Robinson wrote that “Florida's notorious ‘Shoot First’ law takes a shooter's self-defense claim at face value — incentivizing law enforcement not to make arrests in shooting deaths that would lead to murder charges in other states.

Tuesday, March 20, 2012

Rush’s judgment:
Social media vs. anti-social radio

Even by his embattled standards, it’s been a bad two weeks for Rush Limbaugh. In a period of time that’s seen the talk-radio Doberman and former (and possibly current) recreational pharmaceutical enthusiast shedding advertisers at a furious clip — 141, in one recent count — for his latest embrace of misogyny, Rushbo faces maybe the biggest challenge to his impact on the conservative debate, a challenge that shows signs of emerging from within the conservative camp.

For conservatives generally, the Limbaugh affair represents an opportunity to reset the terms of the conservative debate on its viral, galvanizing social platform — talk radio — and to come to grips with its shortcomings in the other realm of social media.

◊ ◊ ◊

By now you know the back story. Sandra Fluke, the Georgetown law student who was denied the right to speak at the crude facsimile of a contraception hearing sponsored by Rep. Darrel Issa, got her opportunity at a subsequent hearing. Fluke testified eloquently of the need for birth control, invoking not the argument of carnal convenience but making the case for affordable birth control options as part of a full spectrum of tools for the achievement of women’s reproductive rights.

Rush Limbaugh on Feb. 29 asked on the air: “What does it say about the college co-ed Susan Fluke, who goes before a congressional committee and essentially says that she must be paid to have sex? What does that make her? It makes her a slut, right? It makes her a prostitute.”

He doubled down on March 1, adding, "if we're going to pay for your contraceptives and thus pay for you to have sex, we want something for it. We want you to post the videos online so we can all watch."

Limbaugh tripled down during his show on Friday, March 2. "She was not allowed to testify because it was not about women at Georgetown who have so much sex they can't afford birth control," he said.

◊ ◊ ◊

The next day, Limbaugh, availing himself of the weekend’s low-information end of the news cycle, backpedals furiously. He issued a rare apology that afternoon, saying he was "sincerely" sorry about his "insulting" characterization of Fluke.

“For over 20 years, I have illustrated the absurd with absurdity, three hours a day, five days a week. In this instance, I chose the wrong words in my analogy of the situation. I did not mean a personal attack on Ms. Fluke. ...

“My choice of words was not the best, and in the attempt to be humorous, I created a national stir. I sincerely apologize to Ms. Fluke for the insulting word choices."

◊ ◊ ◊

This was, of course, no road-to-Damascus moment for the pit-bull darling of conservative radio. It was a Gestapo-spank event “brought to you by” risk-averse advertisers who began bailing out of their Limbaugh sponsorships. Sleep Number Beds, LegalZoom, AOL and Quicken Loans dropped their ad campaigns in the last week.

Another advertiser, the online backup-security company Carbonite, posted a Facebook message announcing plans to end its sponsorship of Limbaugh’s program with a bold personal statement from the CEO.

"No one with daughters the age of Sandra Fluke, and I have two, could possibly abide the insult and abuse heaped upon this courageous and well-intentioned young lady," David Friend wrote. "Mr. Limbaugh, with his highly personal attacks on Miss Fluke, overstepped any reasonable bounds of decency. Even though Mr. Limbaugh has now issued an apology, we have nonetheless decided to withdraw our advertising from his show."

By March 6,, Deere & Co., St. Vincent’s Medical Center in Connecticut, Bethesda Sedation Dentistry, Cascades Dental, Allstate, Sears and Bonobos had all reportedly pulled ads from Limbaugh's show. Others that bailed include AutoZone, Bare Escentuals and ProFlowers.

◊ ◊ ◊

The fallout from Limbaugh’s adventures in culturally Mesozoic radio may have fallout beyond his own program. Talk-radio advertisers are said to be considering a revisitation of the right-wing pit-bull business model. Mike Huckabee may be one of the beneficiaries of that new thinking.

Huckabee, the affable former Arkansas governor and presidential candidate, and now a Fox News Channel commentator, is set to launch “The Mike Huckabee Show” on April 9, under the banner of Cumulus Media, competitor of Clear Channel Communications, which owns Limbaugh’s syndicator, Premier Radio Networks. Huckabee goes up against Limbaugh weekdays from noon to 3 p.m. Eastern time, and will initially air on 140 stations,” The Wall Street Journal reported Sunday.

Given how long it takes to prepare for and launch a nationally syndicated radio program, the Huckabee effort was certainly well in the weeks before Limbaugh’s current troubles.

But considering what’s happened in the last two weeks, Huckabee may be the beneficiary of uncommonly good timing. There hasn’t been a more clear-cut opportunity to meaningfully capitalize on unanticipated events since the feel-good Beatles landed in a traumatized America in February 1964, about eleven weeks after the assassination of President Kennedy.

"They are going after Rush's affiliates," one radio company executive told Reuters’ Peter Lauria. "They are positioning Huckabee as the safe, non-dangerous alternative to Rush and saying to station owners, 'If you are looking for conservative content, we want you to consider our guy instead of theirs.'"

◊ ◊ ◊

From the standpoint of the public’s perception, though, all of this comes too late to change anything. It’s doubtful that Huckabee’s more inclusive, moderate tone can influence in weeks or months the public view of right-wing radio identity that’s been around for decades.

What the Limbaugh debacle also reveals is how dependent the conservatives are about talk-radio, and how they’ve left themselves exposed by their relative ignorance of that other viral platform of our time: social media.

Thursday, March 15, 2012

Newt the irrelevant

It’s been a talking point for political analysts who may be dabbling in chess or horse racing between talk-show appearances: the fortunes of former Pennsylvania Sen. Santorum, and the glide path to victory for former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney, depend on whether or not former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, the presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex, will exit the race for the Republican nomination.

The thinking goes that Gingrich has contented himself with the idea of being the burr under Romney’s Corinthian-leather saddle ”all the way to Tampa,” where Gingrich will attempt to bludgeon Romney by degrees at the convention, doing everything he can to deny Romney the nomination, and possibly to secure a role in the ascendancy of Santorum to nominee. (And just maybe find himself a place on what would be the most conservative GOP ticket in decades.)

Some analysts surmise that Gingrich’s presidential bid could go on if he continued to get — clear! — financial support from Sheldon Adelson, the billionaire Las Vegas casino baron whose millions of dollars in defibrillator assistance to the Gingrich SuperPAC have kept his campaign clinically alive.

But these various calculations have endowed the sputtering Gingrich bid with more leverage than it deserves. As it turns out, the conservative voters of every primary since Georgia, and most of those since South Carolina, have already sent their own message, convincingly. Machinations aside, his campaign is increasingly irrelevant to the deeper, future fortunes of the Republican Party.

◊ ◊ ◊

Look at the numbers, where Gingrich has finished in the primaries. Yes, he won the Georgia primary in a walk on March 3, as pretty much expected (it's his home state). And that was a nice follow-up on his overwhelming win in South Carolina, in January. Both victories seemed to be some vindication of his “Southern strategy.” But what’s happened before and since paints the sharper picture of the Newt 2012 campaign.

He placed third in Tennessee, third in Ohio, third in Kansas and (on Tuesday) third in Alabama. He finished fourth in North Dakota, fourth again in Maine and Idaho, and in Wyoming and Alaska, and in Hawaii.

Even one of his primary wins, his home state of Georgia, divides delegates proportionately, rather than winner-take-all. In terms of the delegate count, he had to split that triumph with someone else — Mitt Romney, Gingrich’s blood nemesis.

With the results of about a dozen primaries as proof, what we’ve seen, first marginally then moderately, is a political variation of what happens in nature when some irresistible force runs up against an immovable object.

The outcome of that dozen primaries, from January to last Tuesday, show that conservatives have factored into their votes the fact that Gingrich intends on remaining in the race, regardless of any real viability. Put simply, more and more often they’re voting around Newt Gingrich. The gravitational pull on his campaign toward third-or-worse finishes all year proves that. Conservative reception to his immobility, his dogged intent to stay in “all the way to Tampa,” is implicit in the results of his campaign so far.

◊ ◊ ◊

What happened on Tuesday in Alabama and Mississippi — ostensibly his good ol’ boy home turf — is the clearest expression of how the irresistible force of conservatives already deployed around the idea of Anybody But Mitt has pushed back hard on the entreaties of the former Speaker of the House, their energies steadily coalescing around another, parallel idea: Anybody But Newt.

If the math is prohibitive for Santorum, and it is, it’s terminal for Gingrich. For Newt to prevail, the phrase “run the table” scarcely applies. Gingrich would have to own the table from here on in. But winning isn’t Gingrich’s objective; he’s basically said as much. And this is the most dispiriting thing about the Gingrich campaign right now. It’s intrinsically the campaign of a spoiler candidate, one whose sole obstructionist reason for being is small and pinched and angry and punitive. All the character traits the Republican Party is desperate to shed this year, in pursuit of the White House.

There’s a reason the sunny, upbeat miens of Romney and Santorum are finding favor with Republican voters this primary season, in poll after poll, vote after vote. Ironically, it’s less about politics and more about perception. However goofy or provocative they may be, they appear to represent the future. Newt Gingrich surely, necessarily embodies the past.

◊ ◊ ◊

His “Southern strategy” could find a second wind. There’s a primary and a caucus in Louisiana, and other primaries in North Carolina, West Virginia, Arkansas, Kentucky and Texas in May. But before and after that, the scene generally shifts to the north and the west, where Romney and Santorum are thought to have the same regional advantages as Gingrich thought he had in the south.

Analysts and columnists will pull their chins about Gingrich’s prospects from now into the summer. But the assumption that Newt will soldier on, right as it’ll probably be in the short term, confronts another, more charitable possibility:

Newt Gingrich will come to realize that his role in the 2012 campaign is increasingly irrelevant; that any hope of his being a “kingmaker” in Tampa would be politically and historically hollow if he tries to attain through manipulation at the convention what he couldn’t attain through suasion and argument on the campaign trail; that eventually, bitter personal battles convey to your opponents a power they wouldn’t ordinarily have: the power to make you do things you wouldn’t ordinarily do.

If it was pride that animated his earlier battles with Romney and the others, if it was pride that made him persist despite last year’s organizational train wreck, then nothing less than pride — in himself, what’s left of his conservative reputation and in his grasp of campaign reality and the laws of political probability — will eventually usher him out of a race whose outcome he can scarcely influence, and cannot control.

The winter months of 2012 have been less than kind to the Newt 2012 campaign, and this spring’s not really gonna be any better. Consider, if you will, a cautious wager: that even a strategic Machiavellian political insider ideologue like Newt Gingrich, a minder of various political balance sheets, will soon look at the math of his current campaign and the calculus that will decide his wider legacy and his reputation.

And pride will go down well before this fall.

Image credits: Gingrich: Reuters/Daron Dean. Adelson: Mike Clarke/AFP/Getty Images. GOP delegate count and poll average tracker chart: Real Clear Politics. Newt 2012 logo:

Sunday, March 11, 2012

Weekends with (and without) MSNBC

MSNBC has been gradually morphing into the kind of full-service cable network it’s long promoted itself to be. Its Monday-through-Friday slate of programs have been insightful, provocative and generally top-shelf, combining a range of flavors of news, analysis and robust commentary that’s a far cry from the not-so-distant past.

One of the big knocks on the network has been its weekend programming; for much of Saturdays and Sundays, starting at 8 p.m. Eastern time, MSNBC has strangely transformed itself into the Incarceration Channel, with rolling segments of its six-year-old “Lockup” documentary series, which looks at life in some of America’s grittiest prisons. It’s as if weekend-mode MSNBC checks its identity as a newsgathering operation at the door of the Suffolk County Jail — there to remain in solitary until it’s released sometime late Sunday night, when it goes back to its day job as a news network.

Lately, MSNBC’s work-release identity has shown some promising changes. Over the last five months, the network has ushered in a weekend lineup of three new programs, a lineup that brings the same smart, incisive news analysis and straight reporting to Saturdays and Sundays as MSNBC does reliably the rest of the week. But by virtue of scheduling, and depending on where you live, that shiny near-new lineup may be the best collection of weekend news shows you’ll never see.

◊ ◊ ◊

MSNBC began its switchup in September with the debut of “Up With Chris Hayes,” awarding a branded news and political analysis program to Hayes, a frequent MSNBC commentator and guest host for several of the network’s prime-time programs in the past. Hayes, editor at large for The Nation, brings a freewheeling, no-holds-barred energy to a variety of topics on the program.

Also in September, MSNBC rebranded its weekend news block hosted by longtime network newscaster Alex Witt. Her show, “Weekends With Alex Witt,” brings a news veteran to weekend mornings; Witt, with MSNBC since 1999, has been one of the network’s more reliable Swiss army knives over the years, reporting on a range of stories from various hot spots with authority and grace.

The network followed in mid-February with “Melissa Harris-Perry,” a news analysis program hosted by its namesake, an author, professor at Tulane University; a founding director of the Anna Julia Cooper Project on Gender, Race, and Politics in the South; and a columnist for The Nation. Harris-Perry was also a frequent guest on numerous MSNBC shows, and even pinch-hit for Rachel Maddow on previous occasions. She arrives as the first African American woman hosting a news and politics show on a major network.

Harris-Perry’s show (its title typographically shorthanded as “MHP”) indicated that MSNBC was serious about expanding the voices on its air. Harris-Perry followed the Rev. Al Sharpton as an African American program host on the network (Sharpton’s show debuted in August). Since Harris-Perry debuted, she’s spoken truth to power on matters of race, gender politics and other combustible topics she’s invested with humor and the insights worthy of a top-shelf academic.

◊ ◊ ◊

The early reactions have been promising, David Sirota, recounting his experience as an “Up” guest, wrote in Salon that Hayes’ program “purposely rejects the manufactured red-versus-blue mallet that bludgeons every issue into partisan terms. Instead, the program’s host is creating a space for more expansive discussions with voices typically deemed too unconventional, provocative or dangerous to be allowed anywhere near a television set. ...

“If it succeeds, it will play a huge role in creating a new model that will serve journalism and the citizenry far better than today’s vast television wasteland.”

In the Christian Science Monitor, Courtney E. Martin said of Harris-Perry: “Her professorial credential is beyond unusual for a TV show host. It adds a welcome intellectual quality to a more diverse public conversation.”

Ann Holmes, writing in The Washington Post, said her show was “a rebuke of sorts to the rest of the cable news landscape, which, maddeningly and inexplicably, continues to hew to the middle-aged, white and shouty male demographic.”

Saturday, March 10, 2012

Three odd men out:
Why Christie, Rubio and McDonnell can’t help the GOP

There may be little or no clarity for a while about who the Republican nominee for the presidency will be, as the mad process of elimination plays itself out on the campaign trail. But we can be fairly certain of three people who won’t be invited to the dance as vice-presidential nominees.

While Chris Christie, Marco Rubio and Bob McDonnell may have won plaudits and shored up their bona fides with primary season voters, recent actions by each of them can be expected to put them very much at odds with a general-election audience (read: the country at large and not just Republicans).

The actions of these three stooges, however well-received on their own political turf, aren’t likely to find their appeal is transferable on the national stage.

◊ ◊ ◊

Christie is thought to be keeping his powder dry while New Jersey governor, possibly the better to position himself as a contender for the White House in 2016. There’s not much shelf life in joining the Damaged Goods Sweepstakes that is the current battle for the Republican nomination.

It’s probably just as well Christie sits this one out for other reasons.

The New York Daily News reported that Gov. Christie laid into William Brown, a Navy veteran, on Thursday, calling the former Navy SEAL an “idiot” at a New Jersey town hall meeting. The two had reportedly clashed over Christie’s stated plans to merge two public universities.

Brown, a law school student at Rutgers-Camden, and someone who opposed the proposed merger of his school with Rowan University, expressed concerns that Christie’s plan would damage the value of his degree. "I know that all my friends in the military no matter what state they're from respect that fact that I go to Rutgers. It's also true that none of my friends in the military no matter what state they're from have ever heard of Rowan," he said, according to

Christie began an explanation, the Daily News reported, when Brown shouted "what about my son? What about my neighbors? What about my friends?"

Christie, who has a way of being prickly in a smoldering, timed-release fashion, continued his explanation. When Brown interrupted again, Christie went off.

"Let me tell you something, after you graduate from law school, you conduct yourself like that in a courtroom, your rear end is going to be thrown in jail, idiot," Christie shouted as Brown was led away by police.

Christie then told the largely sympathetic crowd, "You know, I tried to be patient with the guy. Every time I tried to answer, he started yelling over me again. Damn, man, I'm governor, could you just shut up for a second?"

◊ ◊ ◊

On Friday, Brown told the Daily News he was shocked at the way he was ushered from the public meeting. “I had two cops holding my arms,” he said. “I served my country, I am a combat veteran and they escorted me out like I was a criminal. I couldn’t believe this is America.”

Christie may be able to play that short-fuse persona regionally; that sort of in-your-face attitude gets you points in Jersey. Nationally, as part of a presidential ticket? Not so much. Never mind the fact that picking Christie to join a Republican ticket would require a certain amount of time just getting the American public up to speed with the Christie biography, telling the country who Chris Christie is.

Christie’s national coming-out party would also be overshadowed by events like the Town Hall blowup — a putdown of a veteran! A frickin’ former Navy SEAL! — and other similar explosions. That would make him a hard sell to the American public, which still reveres our veterans above just about anyone else.

Waiting for 2016 isn’t just a prudent move for Christie. Given his proven inclination for going off on anyone who crosses him, and the way it feeds into an already-strong perception of Republican intolerance, it may be his only move.

◊ ◊ ◊

Rubio, the young, telegenic Florida senator who’s become a darling of conservatives, was co-author of the Blunt amendment, a piece of legislation Rubio advanced in the Senate with Missouri Sen. Roy Blunt. The measure, which died the death in the Senate on March 1, would have permitted employers to make exemptions on health-care coverage based on how they felt about the moral dimensions of birth control — effectively replacing doctors with employers on such intensely personal matters.

The Blunt-Rubio bill went down to defeat, but it’s safe to say that millions of women around the country won’t soon forget Rubio’s role in creating the measure. Or the fact that Rubio’s name has been repeatedly bruited as a possible veep contender. That’s gonna be a hard sell to women voters in the general election, no matter who wins the nomination.

Florida Democratic Party Chairman Rod Smith told the Tampa Bay Times that Rubio “championed a dangerous and extreme measure which would have denied women the lifesaving health care they need. Make no mistake: Sen. Rubio, along with Mitt Romney, tried to turn women's health care into a political football in order to advance their own extreme agenda — a shameful, partisan tactic which threatened the lives of women in our state and across our country.”

Not exactly the kind of baggage you want to drag into the national spotlight.

◊ ◊ ◊

For McDonnell, the Virginia governor who has thoroughly fouled his relationship with the women voters of his state by signing into law an onerous piece of legislation that requires women to submit to state-sanctioned rape via ultrasound in order to receive abortions, the path to a spot on anyone’s ticket is hard to imagine.

McDonnell was set to sign the original measure passed by the state’s House of Delegates and Senate, requiring any woman seeking a first-trimester abortion in Virginia to undergo a medically unnecessary vaginal probe to “determine gestational age” — an invasive transvaginal procedure that is, in effect, a state-sanctioned rape.

He backtracked on the original bill, under withering fire from women’s health groups and others. But on Wednesday he signed a law that requires women to have an abdominal ultrasound before an abortion, conveniently omitting the more controversial requirement for a vaginal probe. For women, the change amounted to a distinction without a difference.

Cecile Richards, president of the Planned Parenthood Federation of America, called the Virginia law “an appalling and offensive government overreach.”

"Governor McDonnell's unwillingness to listen to the thousands of women across the commonwealth who are outraged by this political overreach into their lives shows nothing more than arrogance," NARAL Pro-Choice Virginia Executive Director Tarina Keene said in a statement.

◊ ◊ ◊

McDonnell’s action, already poisonous to the women of the Commonwealth, can hardly be seen as anything to be endorsed by the nation’s women voters, who constituted 54 percent of the vote in the 2008 election.

According to the Center for American Women and Politics at Rutgers University, “[i]n every presidential election since 1980, the proportion [of] female adults who voted has exceeded the proportion of made adults who voted.”

One cohort alone tells what’s at stake: There’s more than 22 million women between the ages of 18 and 29 eligible to vote. The Republicans couldn’t have found a more galvanizing issue to ensure their turnout in 2012 if they tried.

The Republican nominee, whoever he is, may throw caution to the winds and name one of these three Cro-Magnons to join him in pursuit of the presidency. But clearly, there’s every good political reason to look somewhere else.

Broad, high-minded, civics-driven concerns notwithstanding, people tend to vote their own self-interests. That fact is likely to doom any chances of a ticket that includes at least two of these three odd men out. That is, if women have anything to say about it. And they will have plenty to say about it.

Image credits: Christie and Brown: Washington Free Beacon. Rubio: via life McDonnell: Virginia ultrasound law protester: via youtube.

Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Super Tuesday: Dividing the spoils

“A win is a win.” It’s a simple sentence that distills the thinking of longtime election insiders accustomed to living and dying by the absolutist power of numbers. But in the battle for the 2012 Republican nomination, the political equations of the moment trump the convenient, zero-sum-game calculus of victory and defeat.

That came home last night. On Super Tuesday, the major national election before the one in November, Republican voters gave former Massachusetts Gov. Mitt Romney a solid string of wins in Alaska, Idaho, Massachusetts, Vermont, Virginia and crown jewel Ohio. But they refused again to convey unto Romney the quasi-coronation he’s been privately expecting and publicly working for since before the primary season began.

Voters validated the campaign of former Pennsylvania Sen. Rick Santorum with wins in North Dakota, Oklahoma and Tennessee, and a loss in Ohio that was, given its closeness (Santorum lost to Romney by one percentage point), really a spiritual victory. They kept the campaign of presumptive conservative prefrontal cortex Newt Gingrich alive, giving the former House Speaker a second win in the Deep South. And by night’s end, they further solidified the firm command of Texas Rep. Ron Paul as the also-ran in chief.

The seeming confusion in voters’ minds reflected a broad divergence of opinion on the candidates still standing, but one thing was inescapable: Romney couldn’t consistently put his opponents away, especially Santorum. Regardless of whether Santorum won or lost Ohio handily or marginally, the narrative going forward from that state’s results on Tuesday distilled a problem for Team Mitt:

In the calculus of perception, Santorum’s three wins were as big as Romney’s six. In Ohio, the evening’s big prize, a campaign running on fumes and righteous conservative indignation — a presidential bid powered by an indelible sense of mission and couch-cushion money — fought the best capitalized, best organized, most lionized of the GOP contenders for the nomination to a statistical draw.

◊ ◊ ◊

Maybe that’s why, on CNN, GOP strategist Alex Castellanos characterized the Romney campaign’s hair’s-breadth win in the Buckeye State as a "near-death experience."

If Romney wins the nomination as predicted (or dreaded, depending on your point of view) after long insisting that he’s the only one who can take on President Obama in the general, it will be because Romney’s campaign has less to do with politics as a populist, emotionally resonant experience and much more to do with politics as an exercise in the fulfillment of metrical expectations.

There was even a shadow on some of Romney’s wins last night. He was expected to win in Massachusetts, where he was governor. Regional ties being what they are, he was also expected to prevail in Vermont. And in Virginia, Romney only had to compete with Paul for votes, since neither Gingrich nor Santorum qualified, for various reasons, to get on the ballot.

It’s this inability to go beyond the expected, to achieve a galvanizing breakthrough, to land the decisive haymaker, that makes Romney the most vulnerable frontrunner in the recent history of American presidential politics.

◊ ◊ ◊

A big part of what’s held Romney back, ironically enough, is the very professionalism his campaign embodies. The juiceless, mechanized Romney juggernaut advances like a corporation pursuing a hostile takeover. Every step is meticulously planned, every eventuality is anticipated in the business plan. His campaign has been referred to more than once as a “well-oiled machine.” Which begins to get at the problem: Now as before, there’s more oil in this machine than blood.

When specifics are called for in campaign-trail interviews, Romney lapses into bromides and slogans. On the debate stage, when he’s pressed for details instead of outlines, he insists that he’s entitled to respond to questions the way he wants to, rather than answering the questions directly.

He’s running for the presidency the way Miles Davis was once unfairly characterized as playing the trumpet: “walking on eggshells.” Mitt Romney’s more concerned with making a mistake than he is with making a connection. That’s why it’s been so hard for him to close the deal in some of the primaries; that’s also why it’s been so hard for him to close the deal convincingly even in the primaries he’s won. He’d have put his opponents away more decisively, more quickly and more often if that weren’t true.

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