Thursday, January 31, 2019

Pain by numbers:
Trump, the polls, and the shutshow

IT TOOK 700 DAYS for the administration of Donald Trump to decide to weaponize the levers of government against the very people called on to operate that government. It took him that long to shut down much of the government he pretends to run.

Judging from a torrent of polls spanning geography, demographics and political inclination, the ensuing 35 days may well shut down his hopes of re-election.

Signs have been obvious for some time now. You didn’t need a super blood wolf lunar moon to grasp how The Don’s cratering approval numbers do damage to both his current standing and his prospects for re-election in 2020, even among the hypothetical base voters that form the core of his support.

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How has The Don’s stock fallen since the start of the year? Let us count the ways:

A POLITICO/Morning Consult poll, released the day of the president’s* Jan. 8 Oval Office address, found “only tepid support for the wall he wants to build ... Voters are opposed to shutting down the government to extract the funds for the wall’s construction — and more blame Trump and the GOP for the shutdown than Democrats.”

The poll found that 47 percent of voters think Trump is responsible for the shutdown, while a third, 33 percent, think congressional Democrats are at fault. Another 5 percent blame the Republicans in Congress.

And the survey clearly suggested that voters opposed the fundamentally contradictory position of shutting down the government in order to fund its operation. Some 65 percent of poll respondents said Trump was ill-advised to shut down the government to achieve his policy goals; only 22 percent said a shutdown was acceptable for that purpose.

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ACCORDING TO a Jan. 9-13 poll from Quinnipiac University, 56 percent of Americans blame Trump for closing the government; only 36 percent pin responsibility on congressional Democrats for the government shutshow now underway.

And a poll from CNN played the same music again: 55 percent of the poll respondents gave Trump the side-eye, while 32 percent faulted the Democrats. Nine percent blamed both sides.

An NPR/Marist/PBS Newshour poll from Jan. 17 found that 57 percent of registered voters absolutely won’t vote for Trump in 2020. A Jan. 18 poll from FiveThirtyEight found that only 40.2 percent of voters approve of Trump’s performance art in the White House.

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A Marquette University poll from Jan. 16-20 found that 49 percent of voters won’t vote to re-elect him as president*. In the Gallup poll from Jan 21-27, only 39 percent of voters support Trump. An Associated Press poll from Jan. 19 found that 34 percent of voters approve of Trump’s actions — plummeting from a Dec. 18 AP poll that saw 42 percent of voters in his corner.

He’s underwater in the Jan. 22 Pew survey (39 percent job approval, 58 percent disapproval) and the one from Fox News (43 percent support, on the TrumpNewsChannel!) and the NPR/PBS/Marist poll (40 percent approval, 54 percent disapproval)

In another Politico-Morning Consult poll, released on Jan. 23, Trump got a 40 percent job approval rating, down 2 points from a poll that spanned Jan. 11 and Jan. 14. Two more big polls from the same day bore the same news. CBS News’ poll found Trump with 36 percent support; the Associated Press-NORC survey gave Trump a 34 percent approval rating, the lowest in Trump’s presidency. And with a Monmouth University poll released on Jan. 28, Americans rejected Trump’s planned last-ditch recourse on the border-wall issue: 64 percent of the country disagrees with Trump’s plan to invoke emergency powers to get what he wants.

Had enough?

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YEARS AGO, Trump inoculated himself from the kind of criticism that would bring just about anyone else to a humbling, enlightening self-appraisal. And it’s true, a poll is at best a brief snapshot of a moment in civic time, an evanescent sampling of opinion for a moment and gone the next. And for a politician predisposed to a short attention span, like Trump, there’s an incrementalism to such polling that can make it easy to ignore.

But there’s no way to look at these polls in isolation. The fact that they’re conveying more or less the same downbeat statistical information, day after day after day, would be a problem for any forward-looking politician. For a profoundly insecure president* attuned (if not addicted) to the polls that illustrate his support, such a succession of surveys might actually be seen for what it is: pain by numbers, political death by a thousand random U.S. adults.

The next State of the Union address has been pushed back to Tuesday, Feb. 5. With the partial government shutdown finally over, but with the presidential threat to start a new shutdown on or after Feb. 15, President* Trump will speak from the House of Representatives to the American people, and try to impart his idea of the power of what’s possible. The wave after wave of polls that precede Trump’s speech in the House, and the ones that are certainly coming, will test his faith in the power of what’s possible — for him — in the 642 days between now and Election Day 2020.

Image credits: Trump top: Win McNamee/Getty Images. Logos of polling organizations © the polling organizations or their parent companies or entities.

Tuesday, January 29, 2019

Kamala II: Maiden voyage in Iowa

THE ROLLOUT OF the Kamala Harris 2020 campaign was powerful, eloquent, and convincing, but it was all on her terms — and her turf. The Jan. 28 CNN town hall at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, was her real coming-out party: an event that put her in a one-on-one footing with some of the savviest, smartly political citizens in this nation.

Harris brought the A games of her policy ideas and her personality to an unpredictable venue. To go from reactions from those in the hall and the punditburo around America, she more than held her own.

The candidate fielded a broad range of questions from the moderator, CNN’s Jake Tapper, but mostly from the various Iowans in Sheslow Auditorium.

Did she support the principles of a Green New Deal, popularized by New York Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez? “I support a Green New Deal and I will tell you why. Climate change is an existential threat and we have got to deal with the reality of it.”

“We have got to deal with the reality of the fact that there are people trying to peddle some ideas that we should deny it. They are peddling science fiction instead of what we should do, which is rely on science fact,” she said.

“Our planet is at great risk ... we have policymakers who are in the pockets of big oil and big coal (and) don't fully appreciate the fact that we are looking at something that is presenting an existential threat to our country.

“And listen, all children need to be able to breathe clean air and drink clean water, and we've got to have a commitment to a policy that will allow that to happen for ourselves and our children and our grandchildren. And right now we don't.”

HOW TO DEAL with gun violence? “You know, here's the thing. We have got to have smart gun safety laws in this country. And we've got to stop buying this false choice. You can be in favor of the Second Amendment and also understand that there is no reason in a civil society that we have assault weapons around communities that can kill babies and police officers.

“Something like universal background checks. It makes perfect sense that you might want to know before someone can buy a weapon that can kill another human being, you might want to know, have they been convicted of a felony where they committed violence? That's just reasonable.

“You might want to know, before they can buy that gun, if a court has found them to be a danger to themselves or others. You just might want to know. That's reasonable.”

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One witheringly to-the-point question, from Drake senior Riley Fink, could have been the blindsiding blow no one saw coming:

“You have positioned yourself as in line with the progressive movement to make criminal justice less punitive and racist, yet your record as a prosecutor shows that you embraced the tough-on-crime mentality. You’ve defended California’s death penalty, and as California’s Attorney General your office opposed the release of non-violent prisoners and violated the constitutional rights of various drug defendants. How do you reconcile your contradictory past with what you claim to support today?”

The question has its antecedents in American political drama. How would John Kennedy deal with the nagging issue of his Catholicism in 1960? How would Richard Nixon handle the persistent investigation of possible improprieties tied to political campaign expenses in 1952? Fink’s question invited Harris to make her own Checkers speech, her own plenary statement about a potentially hobbling issue. She parked that fat pitch in the center-field bleachers.

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MY CAREER has been based on an understanding, one, that as a prosecutor my duty was to seek and make sure that the most vulnerable and voiceless among us are protected, and that is why I have personally prosecuted violent crimes that include rape, child molestation, and homicide,” she said.

“I have also worked my entire career to reform the criminal justice system, understanding to your point, that it is deeply flawed and in need of repair,” she added. “Which is why as Attorney General, for example, I led the [California] Department of Justice…and implemented the first of its kind in the nation implicit bias and procedural justice training for police officers.”

“I created an initiative back when I was District Attorney…and this is the 90s and the early 2000s…back when there was a tough on crime mentality, and I created one of the first in the nation initiatives that was focused on reentering former offenders by getting them jobs and training and counseling,” she said.

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Then Harris went straight for the deeply divisive issue of the death penalty. “I am personally opposed to the death penalty, I have always been opposed to the death penalty and that’s not going to change. It is a flawed system, it is applied unequally based on race and based on income. It is something that we know is flawed in that we know it is a final judgment but we have seen many cases where DNA has proven that the person that was sentenced to death was not in fact guilty. And it is something that frankly costs the taxpayers of this country a lot of money.”

“We all realize it’s a deeply flawed system, but we also want to make sure that when a woman is raped, a child is molested, one human being is killed by another human being we also want to make sure there’s consequence, and serious consequence for those crimes.”

Your move, Riley.

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WHEN THE town hall was over, Harris capitalized on her obvious enthusiasm. Even as the applause continued, Harris walked to the side of the stage. “Can I go down now?” She shouted over to Tapper, asking for permission to go shake hands with the crowd, taking pictures with the people, taking the temperature of the room.

Paul Begala, CNN commentator and longtime Democratic party fixture, was upbeat, tweeting: “In tonight’s #CNNTownHall, @KamalaHarris was substantive without being pedantic, empathetic without being saccharine, authentic without being, well, inauthentic. Impressive performance.”

A big objective for the Democratic Party making plans for 2020 has been to find a candidate who can “beat Donald Trump.” That spongy imperative, that imprecise goal is by definition something arrived at through application of emotional metrics — strength, toughness, the je ne sais quoi of what Feels Right in the voting booth.

In just a few days, Kamala Harris has demonstrated she has that quality, a major asset as she prepares to build an audience for that inevitable extended residency in Iowa. Somewhere, Chris Matthews' leg is tingling.

Image credits: Harris: CNN. Nixon 1952: public domain.

Monday, January 28, 2019

Live, from Oaktown, Kamala Harris

AMERICA, WE are better than this!” Democratic Sen. Kamala Harris said Jan. 27 at a vibrant, raucous, genuinely multicultural rally before a crowd of 20,000, announcing her run for the presidency of the United States in a call for national unity from her town, Oakland, California, the heart of the country’s demographic breadbasket, a city that looks like America as much as any other city in America.

“We are at an inflection point in the history of our nation,” Harris told the crowd at Frank Ogawa Plaza. “We are here because the American Dream and our American democracy are under attack and on the line like never before. ...

“I believe we must acknowledge that the word ‘unity’; has often been used to shut people up or to preserve the status quo. After all let’s remember: when women fought for suffrage, those in power said they were dividing the sexes and disturbing the peace. ...

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“When we have true unity, no one will be subjugated for others. It’s about fighting for a country with equal treatment, collective purpose and freedom for all. That’s who we are.

“And so, I stand before you today, clear-eyed about the fight ahead and what has to be done — with faith in God, with fidelity to country, and with the fighting spirit I got from my mother. I stand before you today to announce my candidacy for President of the United States. ...

“We can achieve the dreams of our parents and grandparents. We can heal our nation. We can give our children the future they deserve.

“We can reclaim the American Dream for every single person in our country. We can restore America’s moral leadership on this planet. So let’s do this. And let’s do it together.

“And let's start now.”

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WHEN YOU embrace Oakland, by definition you embrace the underdog and the street. The city never got the brand advantage of San Francisco, its raffish, elegant, iconoclastic neighbor to the west.

But Oakland has always reveled in its own identity, sufficient unto itself, happy with its own reputation as a gritty working-class city and having shed any inferiority complexes some time ago, even as it wrestles with the pathologies of racism and gentrification. Jack London hailed from the city, likewise Oscar-winner Mahershala Ali. And Zendaya. And Daveed Diggs and Clint Eastwood. Gertrude Stein lost her beloved neighborhood there there. And popular culture and music are more than peppered with exponents of the Eastbay sound: Tower of Power, Too Short, Tony! Toni! Toné! were born there too.

I was one of the original editors at the Oakland Tribune under the stewardship of Robert Maynard, the fiercely enterprising former editor who rolled the dice and bought the Tribune from Gannett in 1983, creating the first management-led buyout in American newspaper history, and becoming the first African American owner of a major metropolitan daily. Walking into Tribune Tower every day, I felt a sense of mission, and a civic pride I’d rarely experienced before. “The Trib” was Oakland’s own.

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JUST LIKE KAMALA Harris is. She was born there, at Kaiser Hospital, of a Jamaican father and an Tamil Indian mother. Harris understands the value of relying on your roots at big moments in life. She follows the lead of Kirsten Gillibrand, the Democratic senator from New York and another presidential aspirant, who is basing her campaign in Troy, N.Y., where she grew up.

Born in Oakland, she was later raised in Berkeley, got her law degree from UCLA, and, ultimately, became district attorney of San Francisco. All in all, a solid power base from which to establish political bona fides. A place from which to develop a network of good friends.

Friends like Nancy Pelosi, who’s known her since at least early 2004, during Harris’ time as San Francisco District Attorney. Interesting how things turn out: Pelosi’s now the Speaker of the House, and Harris is the first undisputed major-league contender for the 2020 Democratic nomination. And they go back 15 years ...

Two great tastes that taste great together in 2020? Hey, relax. I’m just sayin’.

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Harris joins a field of Democratic contenders that’s hardly crowded, at this point. Only six are in so far, and more will formally join before long. One thing that may work to Harris’ advantage is the possibility that the field of contenders may not be as big, as philosophically wide open, as some Democrats fear (or as big as the Republicans may be hoping).

It’s way too soon to start throwing around the phrase “front runner” at this point. There are too many variables in the early going — matters of financing a presidential run, staffing up, building the brain trust, doing the polling, gauging the grassroots energy — to anoint anyone with that lofty title just yet. That’d be one good reason for the field to either remain small or (more likely) thin out in a hurry once the logistical and financial demands become clear.

But Harris has the momentum of the early start. She’s been priming the pump the right way (a recent memoir; appearances in high-profile Senate hearings that are, among other things, essentially free advertising).

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SHE’S GOT A thorough sense of history and of timing: Her splashy campaign rollout in her hometown capitalizes nicely on the official launch of her White House bid (via video) on Jan. 21, the MLK holiday.

She has a smart feel for her political room. Harris’ hometown is and has been for more than two generations a Democratic bastion, with consistent votes in presidential elections for Democrats that were never lower than 60 percent going back to 1964.

And not for nothing: Harris has raised a lot of money in a hurry. On Jan. 22, Slate reported that Harris “had raised $1.5 million from roughly 38,000 donors in the first 24 hours after she made her 2020 plans official” on MLK Day.

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HARRIS recognizes that a long-haul enterprise like running for the presidency requires a big haul of cash. “Harris’ insta-fundraising is more evidence that she’ll be able to compete in what is expected to be a deep primary field,” Slate reported.

“Other big-name Democrats like Sens. Elizabeth Warren and Kirsten Gillibrand have not released any fundraising numbers to date, though both are still technically in the exploratory phase of their bids,” Slate said. “That difference, though, could be a further boon to Harris, who will likely now enjoy a feedback loop of sorts, in which her rapid fundraising start earns her more attention, which in turn boosts her name recognition, which in turn earns her even more cash, and then more attention.”

The wall comes down

THE POLAR vortex known as Donald J. Trump, the one that froze 800,000 federal workers out of their rightful employment, finally broke after 35 days. In the process of partially shutting down the federal government, President* Trump may have done no small damage to the future of his White House, shutting down some percentage of his likelihood for being re-elected.

Speaking in the Rose Garden, Trump announced the end to the government shutshow he birthed, at the end of December, faced with the empty threats of Sean Hannity, Ann Coulter and other bloviators in the conservative media ecosystem.

The Trump who spoke at the White House on Jan. 25 was a beaten man, forced to accept that, with the changing of the guard in the House of Representatives, he could no longer exert his will at will. The wall he conjured (as necessary to counter the immigration threat he conjured at the southern border) is not happening. Trump was forced to admit as much when he spoke.

“I am very proud to announce today that we have reached a deal to end the shutdown and reopen the federal government,” he said, to a smattering of applause from various White House staffers and flunkies standing in for a grateful nation of federal employees, air travelers and food consumers.

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Then Trump returned to threat mode. “I had a very powerful alternative but I did not have to use it at this time,” he said, in a not-veiled recent threats to declare a national emergency to get the $5.7 billion for the southern border wall he promised his base voters back during the campaign. “Hopefully it will be unnecessary.”

Trump continued, saying that if the White House couldn’t get a “fair deal” on border security from Congress, “the government will either shut down or on February 15, again, or I will use the powers afforded to me under the laws and the constitution of the United States to address this emergency.”

But this last statement was probably bluster and BS. Trump got schooled by House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on this whole issue, and was forced to go to the woodshed because Pelosi’s been in Washington for years and knows the terrain Trump’s just learning to walk on. It’s not likely he repeats having his ass handed to him by a politician he shouldn’t have underestimated.

His threat remains; in spite of the agony and embarrassment the nation suffered the first time, The Don could drag us through this crap again. But since the first shutdown, Republican power brokers have whispered into his ear, making clear how bad shutdowns are for business — the health of the American business whose stewardship Trump made a cornerstone of his presidential campaign.

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ALL IN ALL, Jan. 25 was not a good day for The Don and his advisers: They threw in the towel to Pelosi and the congressional Democrats, walked away from a campaign promise he never should have made.

We can thank the Congressional Budget Office for undercutting the likelihood of a repeat shutshow performance with nothing more than business. The nonpartisan CBO found that the 35-day partial closure of the government cost this country $11 billion — about $3 billion in the last quarter of 2018 and an $8 billion hit to the first quarter of 2019.

Note: $3 billion of that $11 billion in gross domestic product will never be recovered, the agency said in a statement Monday.

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And we can thank the human factor — the wrenching, painful stories of the thousands of people affected by this non-crisis. Since the start of this needless debacle, Team Trump worked long and hard to neutralize its human dimension, to smudge or play down the fact that it was happening to real human beings in real time, suffering real financial pain.

So it’s additionally sweet that the Trumpists didn’t get any of what they demanded, regardless of their post-shutdown spin. It’s just a shame that it took so long, wasted so much time, and — thanks to the tantrum of the nihilistic narcissist-in-chief — incinerated $11 billion from the United States economy — almost twice what his useless border wall funding demand was for in the first place.

Image credits: Trump: Jacquelyn Martin/Associated Press. Pelosi: Andrew Harnik/Associated Press.

Monday, January 21, 2019

'Unpresidented': Real fake news
with a grip on the truth

PARODIES HAVE a way of getting to the truth to come, by accident. The structure of good parody — the over-the-topness that distills a vortex of events into something you can get your head around, and laugh from — has always been at the heart of our democracy, our politics, and our culture.

But this is a special time we’re in, the time of the Trump White House, a time of huge challenge for parodists everywhere. The challenge? Finding exactly where “over the top” is anymore, in the face of an administration whose defiance of political, social and legal reality has created a whole new metric for brash excess and vast, naked greed.

It’s a bitch to parody that which can’t be parodied. Leave it to The Yes Men to give it a fresh try. The self-described “trickster activist collective” announced it had published a visually pitch-perfect fake newspaper pretending to be The Washington Post, its tongue-in-cheek look at the ending life of the Trump administration.

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The print papers — dated (perhaps optimistically) May 1, 2019, and strikingly similar to actual copies of The Post — circulated in the Washington, D.C. area, on Jan. 16. The Yes Men smartly followed through on the newspaper subterfuge, with a companion web site whose look and content mirrored the print edition. They contained stories about Trump, Vice President Mike Pence and others in the Trump orbit as The Don absents himself from the U.S. presidency via a resignation message left in red ink on a napkin in the Oval Office.

The parody Post lead story says the 45th president* decamped for Yalta, the location of a pivotal meeting of FDR, Churchill and Stalin in February 1945. It also reported that Trump’s quick exit from the federal city was prompted by “massive women-led protests” around the country — this more than a hint of one of the parody’s real(er) intentions, promoting the Women’s Marches, which saw hundreds of thousands throng the streets of Foggy Bottom, and everywhere else in America, on Jan. 19.

The Yes Men Unpresidented parody as a PDF

Apparently, we can look forward to celebrations around the world, to go from the parody paper of May 1 — not coincidentally, a date globally recognized as International Workers' Day.  “Entire globe breathes sigh of relief at end of dark period,” reads one story subhead. Go ’head, party like it’s 1999, +20!

And in other news of May 1: Freshmen Congressional Democrats will seek to advance a package of 64 bills, pursuing a panoramic legislative agenda that includes a new energy-efficient national infrastructure, corporate accountability, and Medicare for All.

Also: “Reince Preibus joins Dancing With the Stars tonight on ABC ... Kanye West will announce he is retiring his MAGA hat. 'Being a rich white asshole wasn’t as fun as I expected,’ he has admitted in recent days. ... The Honorable Ruth Bader Ginsburg will lead a 10K race over the river and through the woods.”

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THE Washington Post verité is not amused. “We will not tolerate others misrepresenting themselves as The Washington Post, and we are deeply concerned about the confusion it causes among readers,” Post spokeswoman Kris Coratti said in a statement. “We are seeking to halt further improper use of our trademarks.” Since satire and parody are constitutionally protected as free speech, it's not clear how much they can do.

But frankly, when you look at this parody in the context of other such projects, it's not exactly a game-changer. We’ve been here before.

Avid students of media will remember the Boston Globe’s March 2016 front-page parody of itself under a Trump administration. It was seen as a lighthearted jab at something that no one then thought was possible: Trump in the White House. And then, of course, eight months later, it happened.

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Some of what the Globe parody facetiously proposed has come eerily come close to reality. If not reality itself. Look at this parody's lead story: “DEPORTATIONS TO BEGIN.” “President calls for tripling of [Immigration and Customs Enforcement] force.” Other “stories” in the Globe parody are more, well, over the top: “Education Secretary Omarosa Manigault summoned PBS officials to Capitol Hill to discuss remaking ‘Celebrity Apprentice’ using hand puppets.” “Riots continue.”

Wiz9999, a commenter writing in Mediaite, may have hit on what connects the Post and Globe parodies, and all parodies to the truth they revealingly exaggerate. “Maybe it is a rip in the space-time continuum and the future has leaked into the present.”

If that seems far-fetched, cut the writer some slack: It’s no more far-fetched than anything emerging from the reality distortion field of the Trump White House.

Image credits: Washington Post parody, Yes Men logo: ©2019 The Yes Men. Boston Globe parody page: © 2016 The Boston Globe.

Saturday, January 19, 2019

MLK's persistence of vision

NOW, 90 YEARS AFTER he was born and more than 50 years after he was taken from us, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr’s vision continues — persists — in a time that’s more antagonistic to that vision than ever before.

Even in our siloed, compartmentalized, deeply tribal era, with no one overarching voice to speak for black America (which is neither possible nor necessary in the first place), his belief system — a balance of spirituality and activism, the homiletic and the street, faith in the word and in the law — still animates our nation. The ethical pillars of his life and career inform our lives today, in what may be its darkest hour.

Witness the power of redemption and forgiveness: During the Jan. 4 WHEC weather forecast, which included a live shot of Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park, in Rochester, N.Y., weatherman Jeremy Kappell appeared to call it “Martin Luther Coon King Jr. Park.”

All hell, of course, broke loose. “As a result of that broadcast, meteorologist Jeremy Kappell is no longer with News10NBC,” said Richard Reingold, WHEC general manager, said in a statement. “We believe strongly in holding our reporters and anchors to the highest standard.”

Kappell, who had been WHEC's chief meteorologist since October 2017, said Monday evening that the incident had been "a simple misunderstanding" that arose because he “jumbled a couple of words.”

“I had no idea what some people could have interpreted that as and I know some people did interpret that the wrong way. That was not a word I said, I promise you that. If you did feel that it hurt you in any way, I sincerely apologize,” he said via Facebook.

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RISING ABOVE the howl for a scalp, the ritual din of condemnation ... a voice from the King family. “I believe that when these racial slurs occur, unless there’s a situation where it’s continual, that people need an opportunity to be rehabilitated,” said Dr. Bernice King, daughter of MLK, speaking Jan. 10 to TMZ. “We don’t focus a lot on rehabilitation in our society today. ...

“Yes there has to be some repercussions. I don’t think it should go as far in this particular instance, firing an individual. I think demoting, giving them another assignment off-air, do some training, some implicit bias training, re-evaluating to see where they are in a better solution in this particular instance,” she said.

Proposing justice and mercy be applied in more or less equal measure, a daughter of the preacher who changed the arc of American society embodies the ethics of her father. The apple doesn’t fall far from the tree, of course. But the better, more pertinent metaphor obtains: That stone you drop in the water yields ripples that move far and far, and it does it for a long time. Redemption and forgiveness needn’t be strangers to us, even in the ethical gray murk of Trumptime.

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And then there’s the power of collective strength, reliance on the institutions of American government, and the pursuit of justice.

Rep. Steve King of Iowa, the reliably obstreperous Iowa congressman whose racist language and ethically-denigrating perspectives have come to define him and his worldview in ways great and small since at least 2002, finally jumped his own shark earlier this month. In an interview with The New York Times on Jan. 10, the congressman, apparently with a straight face, posed to the reporter some rhetorical questions: “White nationalist, white supremacist, Western civilization — how did that language become offensive? Why did I sit in classes teaching me about the merits of our history and our civilization?”

He was soundly rebuked by members of the House where he now serves in the minority, to the point of suffering a resolution condemning his remarks. “The House Republicans denounce his language. We do not believe in his language, and we’ve decided that he will not serve on any” committees, Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy, R-Calif., said on Jan. 15.

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KING, IN HIS ninth term in Congress, also faced the ire of African American members of Congress, lawmakers who weren’t there in such numbers and influence in 1968, when Martin Luther King was slain in Memphis — and sure as hell not in 1929, when MLK was born, and when such representation in Congress was a distant fever dream.

Illinois Democratic Rep. Bobby Rush, a top member of the Congressional Black Caucus, called for a full censure for Rep. King — a formal punishment. “As with any animal that is rabid, Steve King should be set aside and isolated,” Rush said in a statement. Tim Scott, a black Republican senator, showed that the Iowa firebrand actually managed to offend sensibilities across the aisle.

“When people with opinions similar to King’s open their mouths, they damage not only the Republican Party and the conservative brand but also our nation as a whole,” Scott wrote in a Jan. 11 op-ed in The Washington Post. MLK, the drum major for justice, wouldn't have said it any less plain.

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Today, the notion of a single figurehead symbolizing the hopes and aspirations of millions of African Americans seems quaint today; the idea has less credence now than it did before. Black America has too many flavors and styles, personalities and internal divisions to stand under one lightning rod. In truth, it always has.

But that doesn’t diminish the power of that once-figurehead’s ideas and values, his enduring momentum into our culture, and his equally enduring impact on our national self-image. Martin Luther King still commands our attention not necessarily because of what he was, but more because of what he insisted on.

We live in the time of that unique union of his singular attributes, not just now but into the future — starting with the days of the coming holiday weekend that bears his name.

Image credits: MLK top: unknown. Bernice King: via TMZ. King: Al Drago for The New York Times. King hoodie: © 2013 Nikkolais Smith.

Monday, January 14, 2019

Trump's grand box canyon

IT’S A TROPE of American western movies: the arrogant but hapless villains inflict their pain and do their damage, then seek to escape, riding across wide open spaces right into what they think is a wide-open avenue to freedom, only to find something ... completely different.

If you live in a city, you call it a “dead end.” If you live somewhere else where Realtors use highfalutin language, you might call it a “cul-de-sac.” But if you now or ever paid attention to the topography of westerns, you know a box canyon when you see one.

President* Donald Trump, who says he knows everything, may not know what a box canyon is, but he’s in one: a place with an entrance that doubles as an exit, and otherwise inaccessible and inescapable. With his sad, deflated performance in a nine-minute prime-time address from the White House on Jan. 8, Trump made history with the first Oval Office address about an issue of national security that does not exist.

By doubling down in his demand for $5.7 billion to build a wall on the southern border (despite clear evidence that the demand was politically motivated) or he would continue the shutdown of the federal government (a shutdown he created himself), Trump locked himself into a rhetorical course of action that he apparently can’t escape, trapped by his own tweets and his ego, confronting the naked politics behind the emptiness of a campaign promise he never should have made.

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From the start of the address, his first from the Oval since June 2017, it was clear there was an absence of substance, of any real reason for the speech even happening in the first place. Looking like an animatronic facsimile, The Don read from a script he didn’t want to read in the first place, and reinforced the vacancy of his claim of a looming “national emergency.”

I’ll spare you the specifics of the speech; if you want it, here’s the link to the video. Knock yourself out. But the shorthand of the address, its gist, is fairly easy to discern. It’s nine minutes consistent with the Trumpian anti-immigration party line:

With a dour, mechanical delivery more common to the principal of a hostage video, Trump conjured a parade of horribles, a modern hellscape worthy of Hieronymus Bosch: ruthless drug gangs, caravans of stolen children, border checkpoints groaning with undocumenteds, coyotes assaulting women on the brutal march to the north — all of which would be resolved with a multi-billion dollar commitment to The Wall.

◊ ◊ ◊

IT WAS a magical-thinking response to what Trump shrewdly described first as a “humanitarian” crisis and secondarily as a “security crisis,” the exact opposite of the White House’s priorities, and intentions, in the region.

At MSNBC, Michael Steele, former Republican National Committee head, called it “the quintessential definition of a nothingburger speech.” And Rep. Jerry Nadler, the incoming House Judiciary Committee chairman, said that “the walls are closing in on the president.”

Monday, January 7, 2019

Adult deficit disorder: Mattis and Kelly
exit the building. Who’s next?

This is Crazytown. This is the worst job I’ve ever had.
          —  John Kelly, as quoted in Fear by Bob Woodward

A NEW YEAR, like a new broom, sweeps clean. Two former principals of House Trump’s axis of grownups know this all too well. For James Mattis, once Secretary of Defense, and John Kelly, once the White House chief of staff, the arrival of 2019 was a welcome departure from the slough of despond otherwise known as 2018.

But it’d be a mistake to think the consequences of their departures ended with those departures. The bigger existential questions for the Trump administration have only shifted from one year into the next. Even though their exits are chronologically the property of last year, the farewells of Kelly and Mattis — putatively the adults on the White House playground — presage things to come at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue.

With major decision makers in an “acting” status (the attorney general, the secretary of defense, the chief of staff, the EPA administrator, and probably others we’ve briefly overlooked), the only reliable administration permanence rests with the man in the Oval Office. Which is unfortunate.

And as bad as the exodus from Trump has been ... we haven’t even heard from Robert Mueller yet.

◊ ◊ ◊

The country was blindsided Dec. 20, when Trump accepted the resignation of Mattis, with a resignation letter that was a clinic in elegant, eloquent rebuke. With the scholar’s touch he was known for, Mattis schooled the presidential asterisk on geopolitics, military posture, and the United States’ place in the world.

“One core belief I have always held is that our strength as a nation is inextricably linked to the strength of our unique and comprehensive system of alliances and partnerships. While the US remains the indispensable nation in the free world, we cannot protect our interests or serve that role effectively without maintaining strong alliances and showing respect to those allies.

“Similarly, I believe we must be resolute and unambiguous in our approach to those countries whose strategic interests are increasingly in tension with ours. ...

“My views on treating allies with respect and also being clear-eyed about both malign actors and strategic competitors are strongly held and informed by over four decades of immersion in these issues. We must do everything possible to advance an international order that is most conducive to our security, prosperity and values, and we are strengthened in this effort by the solidarity of our alliances.”

◊ ◊ ◊

MATTIS CONTINUES: “Because you have the right to have a Secretary of Defense whose views are better aligned with yours on these and other subjects, I believe it is right for me to step down from my position. ...”

It was masterful; in official Washington, it was a mike-drop with the impact of a howitzer barrage. In a “clear-eyed” expression of his understanding of the boundaries separating his world-view from Trump’s, Mattis made clear his principal objections: Mister President, you’re all too willing to make friends of our enemies and enemies of our friends. I’m not down with that anymore. And I never was.

Mattis, class act that he is, offered to stay on until Feb. 28, to help with the transition, ease the handoff to the next one in the turret, and take one last global victory lap, in a well-deserved long goodbye to friends abroad. The Don wasn’t having it. He ordered Mattis to clear out by the end of the year.

◊ ◊ ◊

Mattis, of course, was preceded in excommunication by John Kelly, the Marine general turned homeland security chieftain turned into the air traffic controller more commonly called “White House chief of staff.”

Kelly knew what was coming. If he didn’t, Peter Kuper, a well-known and spot-on cartoonist for The New Yorker, sure as hell did. In July 2017, during the runup to Kelly assuming the White House gig, The New Yorker ran a pitch-perfect cartoon by Kuper, a fixture in the magazine for years. In the cartoon, a man in uniform, rifle at the ready, crouches behind his desk amid sandbags and concertina wire at his lonely outpost somewhere in the West Wing. The omniscient caption reads:

John Kelly takes his position as the new White House chief of staff.

The New Yorker has an enviable history of nailing down the national sense of things in the inescapable visual vernacular, of which we’re all captives. But Kuper’s cartoon was more. This is no case of art imitating or distilling life; this was art predicting the life to come, in the metaphor of combat that the Trump White House embodies, and embraces, and richly deserves.

◊ ◊ ◊

Kelly would certainly say that now himself. On Friday, Dec. 14, President* Trump announced that Kelly would be leaving the chief of staff post at the end of the year. Trump thanked Kelly for services rendered; there was the ritual veneer of politesse. But the former Marine general’s departure from the free-fire zone of the West Wing comes amid backbiting and skullduggery inside the White House, actions Kelly finally decided he wanted no more of.

From the start of his misadventure, and up to right now this minute, inquiring minds have been asking: Why? What unusually dogged-blind sense of duty would compel a decorated former Marine general to sign on to the rolling train wreck of the Trump administration?

Maybe it was no more than that: Duty to the country, and to what he may have believed then was a fractured, breathtakingly dysfunctional White House that could use a Marine general’s approach to order and discipline. In that, Kelly could be forgiven; he saw a problem he thought he could fix.

◊ ◊ ◊

VOX REPORTED on Dec. 8: “Kelly saw his first order of business as installing a more rigorous process and structure to the infamously chaotic White House. He saw no use for bombastic, Machiavellian advisers like Anthony Scaramucci and Steve Bannon, both of whom he pushed out within weeks. Others who stayed in the White House saw their access to the president restricted or their responsibilities reduced.”

“While Kelly did get credit for stabilizing the White House’s internal functioning, one thing he didn’t do — and really, didn’t even try to do — was change the president.

“In fact, it soon became clear that those hoping Kelly would be a mainstream, establishment figure who’d help moderate the administration were sorely mistaken. In his hardline views on immigration, his traditionalist instincts on cultural issues, and his willingness to compromise the Justice Department’s independence, Kelly turned out to bear a great deal of resemblance to Trump himself.”

◊ ◊ ◊

It also became clear to Kelly, at some point not far into his relationship with the prevaricators, mountebanks, mushwits and fools of the Trump White House, that the order he believed he was there to achieve was the exact opposite of what his boss, the president*, really wanted.

That fact has permeated every aspect of the Trump administration.

The biggest obstacle to the work of a Trump chief of staff is that the job’s current reality is at odds with its very reason for being. Kelly was there to establish order and discipline, something he got used to and knew well after years in the Marines. Kelly went to work in a White House with no use for order or discipline.

Trump doesn’t embrace order or discipline as operational means to an end; he values chaos and disorder, and the ability to keep people off-stride. Kelly, a master of order in his past professional life, faced down a boss who is inimical to that which Kelly knows and believes in. With such a basic division between them, parting ways was inevitable from the day Kelly moved into his bunker — uh, office — in the West Wing.

◊ ◊ ◊

KELLY’S replacement in the Don Patrol is Mick Mulvaney, a man who’s long established himself as the Trump White House Swiss Army knife. A former member of Congress (in the House representing South Carolina), Mulvaney was Acting Director of the Consumer Financial Protection Bureau, until last year. He's keeping his other old job, as director of the Office of Management and Budget. On Jan. 2, he started the new chief of staff gig as a darling of the president*, one who's been also willing to put in trigger time as Trump admin spokesman on the Sabbath gasbag programs.

He’s hit the ground moving fast. But Mulvaney, no fool he, accepted the position on the basis of his being an “acting” chief of staff — in an administrative context a bit like being the acting air traffic controller at LAX or Heathrow two days before Christmas. In this way, Mulvaney pulled a fast one that could be repeated by others now considered for the numerous posts still unfilled in the White House, and the administration in general.

Mulvaney shrewdly set the terms of his own departure from the administration, a strategic move that, among other things, screams a lack of full confidence. Face it: You don’t pack a chute and sit next to the fuselage door if you think you won’t have to jump out of a perfectly good administration.

If it is a perfectly good administration.

◊ ◊ ◊

Word is out about the pitfalls and sorrows of working in the Trump White House, that it’s a toxic, terrible place to work. Mulvaney got himself the closest thing to an insurance policy you can get working for Trump. Kelly and Mattis stepped out on faith, which lasted until The Don stepped on them.

Kelly and Mattis may be two figures in the national rear-view mirror, but their frustration with and absences from a deeply, willfully dysfunctional White House is a matter of looking through the windshield — a look at what’s yet to come for the White House, and what’s ahead for America. The incomplete roster of functionaries needed to run the government will likely stay incomplete, as long as President* Trump keeps ... well, acting up.

And just think. We haven’t even heard from Robert Mueller yet.

Image credits: Mattis: Yasin Ozturk/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images. Mattis and Trump: Via The Economic Times. John Kelly cartoon by Peter Kuper: © 2018 The New Yorker. Kelly: Joshua Roberts/Reuters.  Vox logo: © 2019 Vox Media. Mulvaney: ABC News. Trump: Benoit Tessier/Reuters.

Saturday, January 5, 2019

The People’s House for real: The 116th Congress begins

THIS IS WHAT American democracy looks like, whether the American Republican president likes it, or believes it, or not:

A Native American lesbian mixed-martial artist with a law degree from Cornell University. A Latina now the youngest person elected to Congress in history. Two Muslim women. Two former CIA officers. The first black congresswoman elected from Massachusetts. The first Korean-American elected to Congress in a generation. The first Ecudorean elected to Congress in a forever. And more. And more.

The members of the 116th Congress were sworn in on Thursday, Jan. 3. What came together in the House of Representatives was the most diverse congressional representation of the American population in the history of the country. They wore hijabs and Kente cloth, pantsuits and pueblo dresses. They’re African American, Muslim-American, Native American, Palestinian American, LGBTQ-American, Young American ... American American.

And they’re impressively, refreshingly women Americans. Some 89 Democratic women took their seats last week in the House. They will be led by California Rep. Nancy Pelosi, who resumed her position as the Speaker of the House, replacing the lamentable Paul Ryan as speaker, the first to reclaim the office in more than half a century.

◊ ◊ ◊

What’s more important is the geographic breadth of the Democratic recapture of the House last November. It wasn’t centered on any one part of the country. Sure, Ayanna Pressley, who is African American, won a congressional seat representing the People’s Republic of Massachusetts — perhaps to be expected. Likewise Jahana Hayes’ victory in neighboring Connecticut.

But a deeper dive into the new House makeup tells a story that should have Democrats more widely encouraged. Kyrsten Sinema won a Democratic seat in deep-red Arizona. Sharice Davids won her seat in Congress hailing from Kansas (the Pantone-red state where the Republican secretary of state Kris Kobach did all he could to curb or hobble minority voting in the midterm election).

The Senate demographic is about as white as it’s ever been; the GOP gained seats in the midterms. But the House more fully illustrates the evolution of our hyphenation nation. MSNBC made that clear last week in a graphic that put all these firsts in perspective.

◊ ◊ ◊

IN A STARTLING measurement of inclusion in the 116th Congress, MSNBC determined that the diversity reflected in the new House of Representatives is as close as it’s ever been to a full-on representation of the country as a whole.

Women, who represent 51 percent of the national population, account for 23 percent of representation in the House. African Americans, 13 percent of the population, make up 12 percent of House membership.

And in a heartbreaking triumph, Native Americans — a tender 1 percent of the population — account for one-half of 1 percent of the House (thanks to Davids of Kansas, and Deb Haaland, newly elected to the House from New Mexico.

◊ ◊ ◊

This didn’t come from nowhere. Democrats have been nurturing this transition, cultivating it steadily in off-year elections and state races in recent years. It didn’t get a lot of coverage in the media, but Democratic National Committee chairman Tom Perez was prescient, telling us this would happen more than a year ago when he referenced two statehouse victories that amounted to a seismograph for what happened on Jan. 3.

“The last time Democrats won the governors race in Virginia and New Jersey, in the same year, was 2005,” Perez told the Washington Examiner in November 2017. “You know what we did the following year? We took the House of Representatives! That’s what we’re going to do next year.”

That confidence was thoroughly justified. Unlike the aftermath of the 2014 midterms, when the Democrats lost the Senate, there’s been a serious effort by Democratic leaders and grassroots organizers to get things right this time.

Truly populist candidates like Pressley, Sinema, Andrew Gillum in the Florida governor’s race, Stacey Abrams in the Georgia gubernatorial contest, and Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez in the New York congressional race lead the way as candidates who engaged people as full-throated, unapologetic Democrats making no apology for carving out the distinctions between themselves and Republicans — and building on those distinctions, asserting both their identity and their legacy.

And people bought in, in unprecedented midterm numbers. Even when candidates didn't win (Abrams and Gillum fell short, but by the smallest of margins), they made their cases well, often in states that Republicans have historically taken for granted.

◊ ◊ ◊

AND THAT may be the biggest, most enduring takeaway from the 2018 midterms, and the new House of Representatives from those elections: Democrats have learned the hard way that nothing should be taken for granted.

No more conceding states and electorates because history says a Democrat can’t win. Spread the field. Expand the map. That’s the message Dems got in 2018. It’s knowledge they’ll build on for 2020.

School’s in session. For the freshman class of 2018, that means the obligatory first-days-of-school shenanigans, the inevitable first blush of victory. But once they know where the bathrooms are, once they master the dance of creating legislation, the new House of Representatives will be about business, being what it’s never been before: substantively inclusive, demographically reflective, the People’s House for real.

Image credits: Ladies of the House: @BarbaraLee. Badass ladies of the House: @AOC. House diversity snapshot: MSNBC. Stacey Abrams selfie: Stacey Abrams. Pelosi sign: Twitter.
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