Saturday, July 13, 2019

This is America. This is not America

There is not a nation on the earth guilty of practices more shocking and blood filled than are the people of the United States, at this very hour.

           — Frederick Douglass, "What to the Slave Is the Fourth of July?"

CERTAIN TRAGEDIES are so immense, so numbly overwhelming that they seem impossible to get the mind around. The sheer breadth of their impact, the callous brazenness that led to their creation beggars the imagination. Words, language, fail you.

We confront the weight of self-inflicted tragedies like that with the quick fix of patriotism, the rationalization of something done in the National Interest. The Fourth of July is good for that. It’s conveniently difficult to recognize agony when fireworks and brass bands are blasting their way into your attention span. But some atrocities aren’t subject to interpretation and spin, some will not go quietly, some demand to be seen for what they are.

The evolving tragedies on the southern border of the United States claimed two more victims on June 23, when Salvadorean refugees Óscar Alberto Martínez Ramírez, 25, and his 23-month-old daughter, Valeria, drowned in the foul waters of the Rio Grande as they attempted to cross into the United States. Their bodies were found near Matamoros, Mexico.

NPR reported on June 26: “Ramírez's wife, Tania Vanessa Ávalos, says she watched from the shore as her husband and daughter were pulled away by a strong river current near the border crossing between Matamoros, Mexico, and Brownsville, Texas.”

Their needless deaths were only some of the fatalities discovered that day. NPR again: “On the same day Óscar Alberto and Valeria died, U.S. Border Patrol agents found four bodies along the Rio Grande in Texas’ Rio Grande Valley, about 55 miles west of Brownsville. In that case, three children — one toddler and two infants — died along with a 20-year-old woman.”

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IF YOU GO by the official pronouncements originating from the Office of the Presidential Asterisk, their deaths were all avoidable; they were collateral damage in our ongoing conflict with the hordes of drug couriers, mules and MS-13 chieftains seeking to infect the United States with untold evils and wickedness.

That is the presumed rationale for House Trump’s latest bid to weaponize poverty: the threatened raids on 2,000 migrants in the United States, raids conducted by Immigration and Customs Enforcement agents in 10 American cities beginning July 14. NBC and other news outlets reported that ICE attempted some raids the day before, in Sunset Park and Harlem, N.Y.

As a result, churches are offering migrants sanctuary from federal arrest. Lawmakers tweet information to their constituents telling them how to deal with ICE agents should they come knocking. And on Thursday, July 11, the vice president of the United States toured a migrant processing facility in Texas, looking like a Nazi minister surveying the fruits of his regime’s malignant labor: the beaten, desperate inhabitants of an American concentration camp.

This is one of the sites that are the epicenter of a new, ascendant American cruelty. NBC News reported about another one: “In May, the Department of Homeland Security's Office of Inspector General wrote an internal report stating that conditions were so bad at an El Paso, Texas, border facility, where about half the migrants in custody were sleeping outdoors, that agents there feared possible rioting.”

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Less than two weeks ago, the United States of America celebrated its 243rd birthday, with all the ritual exercises we’ve become accustomed to. If we as a nation aren’t careful, and aggressive and fiercely paying attention, what is happening in Texas, and what may happen this weekend in at least 10 American cities, is the brutal crafting of a new American ritual: the harassment and roundup of America’s most vulnerable residents, and the rampant moral relativism that makes that cruelty not just possible but inevitable.

Less than two weeks ago, the United States of America came face to face again with its central conundrum: resolving the lofty promise of this nation with its often corrosive reality, the reality that Frederick Douglass observed firsthand and related to an audience in Rochester, N.Y. in 1852.

Douglass was speaking of the status and condition of the American slave, but he may as well have been talking about life in this country at this very moment. Not enough has changed. Not enough is history. Too much of the past is the present, and likely to be the future.

This is America. This is not America.

Image credits: Óscar Alberto and Valeria: Julia Le Duc/Associated Press. Line drawing: American Academy of Pediatrics. Pence and officials: MSNBC.

Tuesday, July 9, 2019

Swalwell drops out

HE DID IT knowingly, if not willingly, and fully aware of the rhetorical snark that would come back to bite him. With his withdrawal from the 2020 presidential race on July 8, California Rep. Eric Swalwell has passed the torch, handed off that grand American aspiration to someone else — TBD.

If you saw the second presidential debate in Miami, you know Swalwell’s hijacking of that phrase by former vice president Joe Biden, Swalwell’s once-challenger for the nomination, was a club the young Californian tried to bash Biden with. It was Swalwell’s way of announcing — to the people at the Arsht Performing Arts Center and the world — that he was ready to lead the generational change he and others his age and younger have been calling for — to receive that torch as the 2020 nominee. It wasn’t to be.

“Today ends our presidential campaign, but it is the beginning of an opportunity in Congress,” Swalwell said in a news conference, as reported by the Los Angeles Times. Swalwell apparently crunched the numbers and came to a hard reality of how the numbers — static support in the polls, static or declining donations, a change in qualifications for the next debate  — were crunching him. “We wanted to be honest with ourselves and with our supporters,” he said.

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There’s good reasons why Swalwell never caught fire. Unlike longer-distance runners like Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, Vermont independent Sen. Bernie Sanders (who never really stopped running after 2016) of California Sen. Kamala Harris, Swalwell got in way late, too late to create any singular niche for himself in a field that was crowded when he jumped in back in April.

A former Alameda County prosecutor, Swalwell, who’s on both the House Intelligence and Judiciary Committees, probably had to contend with the part of the Democratic electorate that doesn’t warm to prosecutors, for a variety of reasons. Harris, formerly California Attorney General, has had to deal with the same thing herself.

Swalwell couldn’t get any traction in the candidates’ young phenom lane, already occupied by former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke and South Bend mayor Pete Buttigieg — that despite staking out gun violence as the issue that would be, sometimes poignantly, the centerpiece of his campaign, much the same way climate change is for Jay Inslee. Also, Swalwell ran for the presidency as a white male in a time and a political climate when that’s almost a liability; look at the growing appeal for a wider demographic palette, a desire confirmed in the 2018 congressional election.

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AND THEN there’s his age. At 38, Swalwell is young enough to be a viable contender for the White House in eight or 12 years, but it’s that fact that may have led people to think he doesn’t have enough experience for the job, right now.

He’s clearly a young man but he needn’t be in a hurry. Timing is on his side. His withdrawal from the race comes nine days before former Russia investigation special counsel Robert Mueller testifies before the House Judiciary and Intelligence Committees — and Swalwell’s a member of both of them. The credibility that eluded him on the campaign trail will come to rest visibly on his shoulders when Mueller testifies July 17.

And Swalwell also knows the value of strategic optics. It’s a very crowded field of contenders, and they’re each jostling for leverage that was never there for most of them in the first place. There’s a lot to be said for being the first one to leave the party, rather than the last.

Image credits: Swalwell: Justin Sullivan/Getty Images.

Wednesday, July 3, 2019

Kamala rising

WHAT A DIFFERENCE a debate makes. This time last week, California Sen. Kamala Harris was consistently positioned in fourth or fifth place in the more consequential opinion polls, part of the fab five that’s become the consensus of voting respondents ... but always clinging to that last rung of the ladder.

Former Obama vice president Joe Biden was the top of the pops in the polling by commanding margins, all but lapping the field. It’s been Biden and everyone else, with the former veep floating above the others by double digits.

But in politics, as in the physical world, defiance of gravity is a transient experience. You can pull it off for a while, but sooner or later, the glide path to a sure thing falls apart. Turbulence is the one thing that’s reliable.

Kamala Harris was there to capitalize — via her own hard work and Biden’s lack of the same — when that happened on June 27 in Miami. The result: four successive post-debate polls that, in total, redraw the presumptive roadmap to the 2020 Democratic presidential nomination, and invite a fresh look at a campaign whose current growing self-confidence really wasn’t hard to see coming. If we were paying attention to her.

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We knew her win in Miami was dramatic; just how dramatic became clear with the CNN/SRS poll, released on July 1. In that first of the post-debate surveys, Harris rocketed to second place (with 17 percent), right behind Biden, whose 22 percent polling reflects a drop of 10 points. Harris leapfrogged over Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren (15 percent) and Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders (14 percent).

It wasn’t a one-off. In Morning Consult’s first post-debates poll, on July 2, Harris gained six points to tie with Warren for third place, behind Biden and Sanders, reflecting the biggest percentage-point gain of all the top candidates.

The same day we got results from the HuffPost/YouGov poll, asking Democratic voters who was capable of beating Trump: Harris climbed into third place (with 39 percent), one point behind Warren (40 percent) in second. Also, the USA Today/Suffolk university poll from the same day found Harris shouldering her way into second place, behind Biden, in a survey of Iowa voters.

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IN THE POST-debate Quinnipiac College poll of black voters, Harris gave Biden all he could handle, coming in in second place, with 27 percent support (Biden had 31 percent) — and, interestingly, topping Sen. Cory Booker, the only viable black male candidate in the race.

She never broke through to a first-place finish in any of these surveys, but that’s not the real benchmark for success in this scenario. Since vaulting from fifth to second in one day was never considered a possibility for Harris before the debate, the fact that it happened ran contrary to the worldview of seers and analysts — the same ones who more or less ignored her for weeks before the debate.

Someone occupying the bottom of the middle of the pack was never expected to come within statistical whispers of the frontrunner. Harris did it, and she did it in more than one poll on more than one day. In a word, Harris is gaining momentum, and though it’s tempting to cite cause-and-effect from the end of the debate, she’s been gathering steam from before her campaign even started.

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Harris has a growing reputation as someone unafraid to confront Trump’s proxies and nominees — witness how she dealt with Supreme Court Justice and malt beverage enthusiast Brett Kavanaugh during last year’s confirmation hearings.

And so far, she’s been largely able to navigate her own professional past as a prosecutor through the rough water of Democrats’ sometimes inflexible sense of populism.

Black American voters, often allergic to candidates with histories as the people responsible for putting black Americans in prison and jail, have been warming to Harris’ message and an organic, full-throated identity as one of their own. The Quinnipiac survey of black voters seems to bear that out.

In 1867, Otto von Bismarck observed that “politics is the art of the possible,” and you’re free to dismiss the Prussian’s wisdom; after all, he never ran in the Iowa caucuses. But Harris’ campaign has embraced that idea and now communicates that principle more engagingly than any other candidate now running. If momentum, money and message can move in something approaching lock step, there’s less and less reason why Harris can’t take advantage of a corollary to Bismarck, one that worked for Donald Trump: Politics is also the art of making the possible out of the seemingly impossible.

Image credits: Polling results graphics, Harris at second candidates' debate: NBC News.
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