All In for Mayor Pete

Wherein I make an earlier-than-expected endorsement for President. 

Around the time the twelfth prominent Democrat announced their exploratory committee, I decided to spend 2019 in a permanent seat on the political fence.

My reasons for this weren’t lazy or apathetic: I follow politics more closely than most, and have a bevy of opinions on the candidates, the issues, and the erstwhile sport of electoral politics.  Rather, my benign neglect resulted from two equally important factors: so many of the candidates are just SO good, and would make SUCH good presidents;  I wanted to see how the fared in the early process of ramping up, building a national following, and articulating an election message that has broad enough appeal to defeat the sitting president next year.

Today, I’m setting that plan aside, and declaring my early support for Pete Buttigieg, the mayor of South Bend, Indiana.

Like most of the country, I had never heard of Mayor Pete until he started considering a run for the presidency.  South Bend may be a small town, but I have some personal ties: both my parents are Notre Dame alums (go Irish!),  my younger brother was born there, and my uncle still lives there.  It’s a great town, but won’t be confused with a metropolis.  Mayor Pete is an unlikely mayor, particularly in Indiana: he’s gay, married, and all of 37 years old, barely old enough to seek the presidency.

As a candidate, his strengths are immediately apparent as soon as he starts to speak.  He can speak to the “religious left,” a thing I did not previously know to exist.  He draws constant contrasts with Mike Pence, Indiana’s former governor and our current veep, in a plainspoken but intelligent way that shows Pence to be the cynical hypocrite that he is.

But most of all, Pete knows how to recruit quality staff.

This morning, I learned that my sister will be taking a leave of absence from her top-tier law firm to work for his campaign full-time, advising them on immigration policy.

I haven’t written much about my sister previously, so let me briefly make up for it here.  Elizabeth has one of the smartest, most incisive minds of anyone I know, and she has a moral drive that is downright inspiring.  When the travel ban took effect, she went to LaGuardia and advised members of congress, along with detainees, helping protect their rights.  When the border crisis began, she rushed down south to take cases reuniting small children with their families.  She worked as an asylum officer, and clerked for a federal judge.  She’s absolutely brilliant, and when she believes in a cause, she does everything she can to make a difference.

In short, my sister is a major inspiration to me, and is one of the very few people who can and does utterly sway my views about political topics, because I trust her instincts, and I trust her analysis.

If you had held a gun to my head yesterday and asked me who I would vote for in the primary, Mayor Pete would have had my vote, but I wasn’t ready to commit.  His decision to hire my sister helped.  Her decision to join the campaign sealed it.  If someone as inspiring, hard-working, and intelligent as my sister believes so strongly in this small-town mayor, then he’s the real deal, full stop.

It is going to take a lot of hard work for a politician with a last name I still have to google to spell correctly to win the nomination.  I’m going to need some time to reconcile that next week, I’ll be the same age as my preferred candidate for president.  I trust that both of us are up to the task.

And while we’re here: BOO-duh-jij.  I think.


Published in: on March 27, 2019 at 2:56 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Was Lincoln a Founder?

How we view the bones of American history may be a product of our own demographics. 

John Quincy Adams would be my test-answer delineation for where the “founding fathers” ended and the list of presidents-I memorized-once-but-know-little-else-about begins. The former I view as a group of problematic faves, where some of their ideas and accomplishments were awesome and inspiring and others, mostly having to do with their treatment of women, people of color, and the poor, were shocking and awful.  The latter is a group that kept the basic status quo of the founders chugging along, the same vices as before but none of the transformative evolution of society.

Then came Lincoln.  He stumbles into our history, with a war and tales of heroism and brutality that changed our country, and he does brave things that make us substantially better.  He frees the slaves. He saves the union. He acquires that mythos, that same granite veneer that makes him the face on the five, while history majors grumble about his impure motives.  

I’ve always thought of Lincoln as an anomalous figure in history.  The founding fathers came as a group, not as one individual dominating everyone around them.  The generals of the Civil War are pretty well-known, but that’s mostly because wars are interesting and people like writing about them.  They weren’t transforming the country, at least in a lasting way, the way Lincoln was. He had no peers, and even his vaunted “rivals” are of the sort where, if you hear their names, you say “oh yeah…sounds familiar.”  

So why isn’t he considered a parent of our nation?  This came up in a political speech I was watching a few weeks ago- this mild-mannered Colorado senator said, in a rhetorical valley during an otherwise fiery speech, that he considered Lincoln a founding father.  The idea struck me, so I started to think about it.

My initial instinct is “no,” because there’s something different about establishing the country and our system and making big changes to it later.  For twenty minutes, give or take, I was pretty solid on the idea that there’s a meaningful distinction to be drawn, and that Lincoln is plainly on the other side of the line.  We had been a country since 1776; you can’t found something that started four score and seven years before your contribution.

One idea was nagging at me, though.  The way I’m perceiving the country and its history is through a lens of demographically relating to the founders in very specific ways: I’m white, male, and educated.  For folks like that, the country really was founded in 1776. So when I ran the “privilege check” part of my totally-not-neurotic process for forming opinions about things, some red lights were going off.  

Hilariously, I realized- as I have on several other occasions, but just can’t seem to correct- that this group of founders I supposedly relate to have no actual kinship with me.  I’m a Jew, a descendent of early-20th-century imports. My only relationship to them is through a modern demographic lens, and I think that’s telling in the “defaults” we learn growing up.  I like to joke that as a Jew, I’m white in a bull economy.

But I would not have had an invitation to the convention in Philadelphia.

I think that the Ante-Quincy Adams crowd founded the country for white men.  I think Lincoln founded it for people of color, and so did King. I think Susan B. Anthony, Elizabeth Cady Stanton, and Lucretia Mott got royally cheated by our history books, since I never learned enough about them to even correctly spell their names without the aid of Google.  As someone who sought out history in school, drank it up and kept refilling the glass time and again, even to today, it’s only in the last three years or so that I’ve really learned anything about them.

And they founded the country, too.  

If we persist in claiming that our country is exceptional because it is an idea, or even an ideal, then we can’t let the tyranny of chronology dictate the bounds of who is considered a founder.  Designing systems of democracy is no more important than opening up those systems to more people.

As I read, daily it seems, about the travesty happening at our southern border, the menacing over-imprisonment of our citizenry, and the creeping racism and xenophobia of our nominal leadership, I realize that our grand experiment in democracy hasn’t really gotten underway; there are still empty seats at the table.  Perhaps our youngest founding fathers- even the term smacks of patriarchy- are yet to be born.


Published in: on March 12, 2019 at 7:32 am  Leave a Comment  

Repeal and Replace

It’s time to repeal the 2nd Amendment to the United States Constitution

Our Constitution’s 2nd Amendment, enacted in 1791, reads as follows:

“A well regulated Militia, being necessary to the security of a free State, the right of the people to keep and bear Arms, shall not be infringed.”

While there has been much legal wrangling over whether this right is individual or has something to do with militias, I believe the interpretation is clear, even if the wording is sloppy: under the 2nd Amendment, the government can’t infringe on people’s right to have arms.

At the time it was passed, the amendment was likely prompted by two motivating factors: to serve as a check on the power of the federal government, and in response to gun regulations imposed prior to independence by our formal colonial power, England.  The taste of revolution was still fresh in the mouths of the drafters, and there is probably some truth to the notion that the purpose of the amendment was to reserve to the people the power to, if need be, overthrow the government.

Many things have changed in the ensuing 227 years (eleven score and 7 years ago, if you want to be fancy).  For one, our government cannot be overthrown by armed civilians.  The military sciences have evolved to the point where governments are largely immune from direct attacks by their citizenry: it would take military cooperation for a new revolution to succeed.  In an age of nuclear weapons, air forces, and tanks, an armed citizenry wouldn’t stand a chance.

Moreover, the scope of “arms” has changed dramatically.  The muskets of our founding gave way to rifles, to machine guns, to assault weapons.  As pernicious as the much-maligned AR-15 may be in the media, people forget that it isn’t even an automatic weapon: it’s essentially a cosmetically-upgraded hunting rifle.  Our guns have gotten more powerful, and with our population density and the rise of mental illness, mass shootings have become commonplace.

I know that many people identify strongly with the right to own guns.  Blaming the NRA is foolish: contrary to popular belief, they don’t contribute very much money at all to politicians.  They are powerful because people support them.  A lot of people.  Many of them are motivated to vote based on gun rights, and see the waxing and waning cries for regulation as the opening salvos in an attempt to strip them of their legally-owned guns.

While the issue of liberty versus regulation may well be a zero-sum game- every regulation results in a corresponding decrease in gun ownership liberty- it’s not a binary choice.  There can be a middle ground, in which gun ownership is legal but highly regulated.  However, that middle ground is fundamentally inconsistent with the 2nd Amendment, which proscribes any infringement on gun ownership rights.

We need a full and unencumbered discussion on what gun ownership should look like in the 21st century.  I don’t know what the shape of that regime should look like; I personally hate and fear firearms, but don’t believe my personal views should be foisted upon everyone else.  I do think I should be given a voice, as should the other stakeholders- including, most especially, passionate and responsible gun owners.

In order to have that discussion, and implement substantial new regulations, we need to repeal the 2nd Amendment.  It’s presence guarantees a court battle over every rule, and if we’re reading it dispassionately, the plain language of the amendment is likely to invalidate any meaningful gun control or regulation as an infringement on the right to bear arms.

You hardly need me to recount the extent of the gun violence problem in the United States.  It’s unique to us, and it is unacceptable.  Our allegiance to liberal gun policies makes violence worse, and more widespread.  We simply cannot continue living with mass shootings as a regular occurrence.

The historic justifications for the 2nd Amendment have long since passed into history, and repealing that amendment does not mean taking away everyone’s guns.  It means lifting a broad prohibition on any meaningful gun control.  Gun owners should be licensed, tested, and safety-screened, as they are in other countries.  We can and must work together to accommodate the concerns of lawful gun owners with the concerns of the millions of us who will not accept routine mass shootings as a cost of living in the United States.

The time for repeal has come; perhaps our leaders can summon the courage to act before the anger of the populace sweeps them from office.



Published in: on February 19, 2018 at 12:40 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Even a Broken Clock

The decision to recognize Jerusalem as the capital of Israel was long-overdue.  

I am not a fan of our current president.  I’m sure that does not come as much of a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with my writing.  My political views place great value on open-mindedness, humility, civility, and the role of objective facts and analysis.  Consequently, I think the current occupant of the White House is unqualified and dangerous.

Due in large part to the self-selection of social media, geography, and real-life society, a vast majority of my friends share this view.  Unfortunately, many of us make the mistake of concluding that because the president is dangerous and unqualified, anything he says or does must be wrong.

Admittedly, that formula produces accurate results in the large majority of cases.  However, over the last month, the president did something that- while controversial- I believe was exactly the correct course of action to move the Middle East closer to peace.

He recognized Jerusalem as the capital of Israel.

Naturally, as soon as this decision was announced, it was decried as dangerous folly by my fellow Trump critics.  After all, failing to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital was a bipartisan norm for our chief executives.  Official recognition of Jerusalem, coupled with moving our embassy there, has been one of the largest carrots we have dangled in front of the Israelis for decades, in hopes of persuading them into making a lasting peace with the Palestinians.

In a sense, this policy shift reminds me of President Obama’s steps to de-isolate Cuba.  In that case, as now, a long-held, bipartisan foreign policy position was being forfeited by a new chief executive with limited governing experience.  The president’s critics- then and now- immediately proclaimed it a mistake.  Then, as now, those critics accused the president of giving up leverage and compromising our long-term strategic goals.

One persistent error in American foreign policy has been our failure to recognize when our policies are not working.  The Cuban embargo lasted for decades, and did nothing to resolve our tensions with their government.  Our refusal to recognize Jerusalem as Israel’s capital did not compel Israel to make hard concessions for peace over the decades.

There is no final peace agreement that does not include an Israeli capital in Jerusalem.  Our stubborn refusal to acknowledge that reality does nothing to bend Israel to our will.  If you telegraph so persistently- as we have- that you are going to give the horse the carrot eventually, no matter what, it ceases to serve as an effective incentive.  It did, however, provide Palestinians with the hope- however remote- that Israel would be forced to cede Jerusalem to some international body, or that the city might be a shared capital of both countries.

Our president’s move effectively takes this issue off the table.  The predicted violent uproar in response largely failed to materialize.  The Palestinians have announced that they are unwilling to continue working with the United States, but they must recognize even now that will be an untenable position in the long term, as only the United States has sufficient influence on Israel to facilitate a comprehensive settlement.

The idea that this compromises our perceived neutrality in the conflict ignores reality; we have been compromised since at least the 1980s.  No international observer truly believes that we are impartial in this dispute.  The United States has been and remains Israel’s closest ally in the world.  That is not a surprising revelation to anyone following the abortive peace efforts over the years, least of all to the Palestinians.

There is a more subtle aspect to this policy shift.  It represents, for the first time, the United States intervening to settle a disputed issue unilaterally.  Israel was quite pleased at this particular outcome, but they must surely realize that the next issue could go the other way, particularly with our volatile and unpredictable president at the helm.

Perhaps the United States will decide that large swaths of Israeli settlements must be demolished in the West Bank, or that a certain number of Palestinian refugees must be readmitted to Israel.  We have the leverage to force compliance, should we so choose.  Consequently, this new precedent of unilateral decision-making should give Israel pause.

The message sent by this policy shift is that the status quo cannot be indefinitely sustained.  The current Israeli leadership seems satisfied to remain in stalemate, and the Palestinians still have not consolidated the necessary collective will to make a meaningful peace.  This unilateral move undermines that status quo, and signals that the United States is committed to moving towards peace, with or without the participation of the primary governments involved.

I do not believe- and this may be my anti-Trump bias, but it’s based on his other governing decisions- that the president considered all of the implications of his decision before making the announcement.  I am not convinced that he is a leader who understands nuance, foreign policy, or long-term strategy.  More likely, he was convinced to make this announcement at the behest of one of his pro-Israel supporters or family members; perhaps the recently-disclosed financial arrangements between Israel and his son-in-law played a role.

Regardless of his motives, however, I do believe that in this case, the president got it right.  Jerusalem is the capital of Israel, and our refusal to recognize it as such was nothing more than a relic of a negotiating tactic that produced no results over the decades it had been our policy.  Just like the Cuba embargo, its time has passed, and we need to move on from ineffective foreign policy decisions.

To paraphrase an old saying, even a broken president is right twice a term.


Published in: on January 10, 2018 at 9:45 am  Comments (1)  
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Splitting Hairs

Wherein I learn to pick my battles. 

Over the past several years, I have become increasingly aware of the system of oppression and enabling that is broadly called rape culture.  A few weeks ago, if you had asked me how many women I know have been either assaulted or harassed, I probably would have guessed almost all of them.

Then, this past week, the “me too” movement hit social media.  I was and am dumbstruck to read so many stories and testimonials about the horrible experiences inflicted on women I know, women I love.  I am absolutely disgusted that harassment and assault are so widespread, and am beginning to understand why some women are mistrustful of men as a default.

The movement has also caused me to be introspective in two ways.  First, and most difficult, is examining and acknowledging the ways in which I, as a male, have contributed directly to rape culture.  I know I have made thousands of jokes or joking remarks that were insensitive, offensive, and even potentially traumatizing if the listener has abuse in their past.  I have advanced stereotypes that serve to protect the status quo, and reinforce oppressive gender roles.

The second introspection has been focused on what I can do to help fix this pervasive cultural problem.  Frankly, social media has been shit help with this.  Almost every day, I see some well-meaning dude getting piled on for responding to “me too” by expressing sympathy, clicking “like,” clicking “sad face,” asking victims for advice on how to do better, or a wide range of other engagements.  I’m not saying the criticism those men are receiving is off-base, but it is daunting to observe, and makes it feel risky to engage at all.

There isn’t any truly good guidance on what men should do, leaving me to extrapolate from the negative space around tried and objectionable approaches.  I saw one article that was moderately helpful, and shared it, in the hope that other men might find it useful.  One of its major takeaways was that men need to learn to say “not cool,” and “that’s inappropriate” as a response to sexist or oppressive comments.  I know this is an area where I have been personally lacking, so I resolved to keep those responses at the ready going forward.

In a completely separate train of thought, I have been long neglecting to get my hair cut, so today, I finally set some time aside around lunch and made my way to the barber shop near my office.  This particular barber shop is inexpensive, plays reruns of How I Met Your Mother on a loop, and generally gets my hair cut moderately well in about fifteen minutes.

Today, however, I had a new barber.  He told me he’s been there for a few months, but we hadn’t yet crossed paths.  I gave him his marching orders- No. 2 buzz on the sides and back, short scissor cut on top- and he got started.

Now, in my experience, barbers come in two flavors: those that like to do their work in silence, and talkers.  Most of the barbers in this shop speak primarily Russian, which is fine by me, as they leave me to my thoughts.  This guy, however, was a talker.  While I tried to appreciate Ted’s shenanigans on the small screen in front of me, he asked about my job, where I live, how often I come, all that stuff.  Then, he stumbled on a topic we could both engage on to some degree, sports.

Specifically, we talked about the recent injury of my favorite quarterback, Green Bay’s Aaron Rodgers, who is likely  out for the season with a broken collar bone.

New Barber Guy told me that he used to play basketball, and had been injured lots of times.  He asked if I could guess what injury hurt the worst.  I shrugged.

“My pinky got fractured, man.  That was the worst.  I cried like a little bitch.”

My eyes widened: I had my moment.

“Not cool.”

“Huh?  What’s not cool?”

“That’s inappropriate.”

“What are you talking about?”

“Saying you cried like a little bitch.  You shouldn’t say that.”

“Why not?”

I had reached the end of my rote script, and had to improv.

“Uh, well, two reasons.  You shouldn’t call women bitches, and also, you should say that women are weak and cry and stuff.”

I was not being particularly articulate, and won’t clean it up for this recounting.  For context, though, the barber to whom I was speaking had about a foot of height and at least 75 pounds on me.  He was also doing the edges of my beard with a straight razor.

There was a long silence.

“I dunno, man,” he finally said.  He proceeded to continue cutting my hair in complete silence.  I felt uncomfortable, but a quick glance at my watch told me that there was only about five minutes of hair cutting left.

That assumption was wildly off-base.  Unnamed Barber Guy took forty-five more minutes- for a total of nearly an hour- cutting my hair in awkward silence.  He didn’t say another word throughout it. When it was done, he pulled off my apron, and then pulled down a small mirror to show me the back.

I thanked him, overtipped, and went back to the office, my entire lunch break now squandered.  Later in the afternoon, catching a glimpse of myself in the bathroom mirror, I noticed that the front of my hair is completely wrong- he left a big poof where no big poof is supposed to be.  I have decided this was probably on purpose.

My first reaction to this was to say “well, next time pick your battles, don’t fuck with the barber, particularly while he’s cutting your hair!”

But it occurs to me that the little bit of discomfort that caused me pales in comparison to the constant oppression that the women in my life are going through every day because we have normalized shitty behavior.  It’s going to be uncomfortable from time to time, but that’s really no excuse when silence is complicity.

So yeah, pick your battles.  I’m gonna try to pick all of them.


Published in: on October 18, 2017 at 2:42 pm  Leave a Comment  
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How Can We Cure Our Chronic Illness of Police Murder?

The only thing new is our collective awareness of the problem. 

This week, two incidents of police violence are in the national spotlight.  The first, in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, involved a man, Alton Sterling, selling CDs outside a gas station.  Two police officers threw the man violently against the hood of a car, forced him to the ground, pinned him in a prone position, and then shot him several times in the chest.  He died.

Across the country, in Minnesota, a man, Philando Castille, was pulled over for an allegedly busted tail light.  He had his girlfriend and a four-year-old in the car with him.  He told the officer that he had a (legal) firearm, but was going to retrieve his ID from his pocket.  The officer shot him several times in the arm and chest.  He died.

Both men were black.  All police involved were not.

This week’s tragedies are the latest installment in an ongoing narrative about police violence against black men.  Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Dante Parker, Tamir Rice, Walter Scott. The list goes on.  Each time, there is outrage on social media, and the same tired choreography plays out in public: the authorities pledge to get to the bottom of things, usually in press conferences held by white leaders surrounding themselves with people of color.  Protesters chant and demand justice, remind us that black lives matter.  The right wing retorts that blue lives matter, or all lives matter.  There are investigations, sometimes charges are even brought, but more often they aren’t.  There are acquittals of those charged.  Rinse, repeat.

This parade of horribleness has been featured prominently in the culture these past few years, leading some- including me, at one time- to wonder: what’s changed?  Why is this happening now?

The sad truth is that nothing has changed.  This violence isn’t new.  What’s new is that we have become a society of camera-wielders.  We capture these deadly encounters.  Where a mere decade ago, Alton Sterling would be dismissed as another stupid criminal who pulled a gun on some cops and was killed, now we have evidence that directly, indisputably refutes the police account of his murder.  We have cell phone video from Minnesota, where we can see and hear the rabid, berserk police officer who had just killed Philando Castille, still inexplicably pointing his gun at the dying man and his girlfriend with a four year old child in the backseat.

The culture has changed.  People are aware, and with that awareness comes anger.  With that anger comes calls for accountability.  And as yet, there is no accountability.  Black teenagers are told that they must take great care not to provoke police, not to do anything that might be interpreted as threatening.  They get shot anyway.  Their very existence is perceived as a threat.  Police are not yet facing legal consequences.  Social consequences are ill-defined, trickier to employ.  George Zimmerman gained a following of idiots after shooting Trayvon Martin.  Society is sick.

I feel sick, watching this.  Sick, and helpless to make it right, or even to make it better.  Petitions and protests don’t seem to be working.  Spilled ink- or pixels, let’s update the metaphor- isn’t helping.  I’m a middle-class white male professional, full of privilege, and I can’t figure out how to leverage that privilege to stop this madness.  I want desperately to stand up and be counted as an ally, to affirm that black lives matter, but somehow my efforts seem at best futile, and at worst, appropriative of a movement and a mantle that isn’t mine to claim.

Thank you, Michael Heyliger, for your suggestion that would-be allies put pen to paper.  Expressing anger isn’t a solution, but it’s as good a first step as any.


Matt Santos Redux

Obama’s political team borrows a cliche, and ineffective, tactic from The West Wing.

For those of us who spent the earliest part of this century in disbelief at the election and re-election of George Bush, The West Wing was a refuge.  In Aaron Sorkin’s liberal fantasy, we could watch week-by-week as a brilliant president and his competent staff wrestled with political issues in an intelligent, thoughtful way, their decision based on public policy rather than monied interests and cynical political calculations.

Towards the end of the series, President Bartlet, portrayed by Martin Sheen, was termed out, and the show shifted its focus to the election battle between Republican candidate Arnold Vinick and Democratic candidate Matt Santos.  On election night, just as Santos was eking out a victory, his vice-presidential candidate, Leo McGarry (portrayed by the late John Spencer) died.  Typical Hollywood melodrama.

With his running mate dead, the president-elect had to select a new person to appoint.  Republicans threatened to make it a difficult confirmation process.  Santos decided to float the idea of nominating his former opponent, Arnold Vinick.  The two meet in the penultimate episode.

“I know your game,” Vinick says.  “Get me to say I’d consider it, then you have your people leak it to the press. You figure that’ll soften the Republicans and they’ll talk about a confirmation for Vinick.  Then you announce who you really want, which I assume is Baker. Then you put public pressure on the Senate to give the same speedy confirmation to Baker that they were gonna give to Vinick.”

This scene returned to my mind this week with the news that Obama is considering- just possibly- nominating Nevada Governor Brian Sandoval to the Supreme Court.  Sandoval, a moderate Republican, is very popular in his state, and was seen as a rising star in the party before its sudden and precipitous lurch to the right.

Of course, no formal vetting has taken place, and the president has not said a word about Sandoval, but the mere rumors have already led the media to ask pointedly of Senate Republicans, what would you do if it was a member of your team nominated to the bench?

So far, the Republicans haven’t bought it.  I am not aware of a single member of the caucus who has softened their position based on a prospective Sandoval nomination.  It’s a good thing, too: I do not believe President Obama has any intention of nominating Brian Sandoval.  This leak, which is surely coming from his administration, is designed to put the Republicans in an even more ridiculous posture than they have put themselves, arguing that they will not give hearings or consideration to a nominee well before a nominee has been named.

Based on their bizarre and foolhardy opening salvos in the nomination fight, one might forgive Obama for assuming that the Matt Santos tactic would catch at least a handful of Senate Republicans with promises of consideration for the nominee.  However, they- and we- have not been so easily fooled.

In the end, Matt Santos nominated Vinick as Secretary of State, choosing a more preferred candidate for the vice-presidency.  Obama will likely nominate one of his preferred candidates- the smart money is on Sri Srinavasan but I’m personally hoping for Loretta Lynch- to the Supreme Court.

The Brian Sandoval name-floating is nothing more than a political gamble.  It appears to have failed.


Careful What I Wish For

Hell has cold days, too.

As I watched the returns from the New Hampshire primary this week, I sat by with a very distinct division of reactions.  The Democratic results felt like a body blow, while those of the Republicans elated me.

As you might surmise from those twin responses, I am a supporter of Hillary Clinton, the erstwhile front-runner for the Democratic nomination.  I never expected her to win New Hampshire, but was shocked by the margin of loss.  It was as though she never competed there at all.

On the other hand, the prospect of a Republican campaign with Donald Trump at the helm makes me almost giddy.  I can’t imagine a more flawed, hopeless candidate on a national level than The Donald.

I imagine this as a dramatic if not inevitable result of the Republican party’s shift towards radicalism in its primary process, a shift that causes their candidates to run far right in pursuit of the nomination.  The result has been, for several cycles, candidates who then need to lurch back towards the center (shake that Etch-a-Sketch, Mitt!) in an attempt to relate to the often-pursued, always-elusive moderate voter.

Now, perhaps, a Trump candidacy in the general election will be the one that breaks the system.  Trump has shown little appetite nor inclination to moderate his views based on the electorate, and some of his more extreme policy positions and comments will be extraordinarily hard to walk back.

It’s unlikely he can appeal to moderate voters.

Consequently, I have found myself rooting for Donald Trump, not because I support him- far from it!- but because I believe his nomination is the most favorable for the hopes of his eventual Democratic opponent.

It occurred to me, though, that my support for Trump is in actuality a yuge risk  (we both see what I did there, reader, let’s just agree to ignore it).  Thus far, Trump’s candidacy has been a master class in proving pundits and common sense prognosticators wrong.

He was never supposed to register on the national polls, nor be able to recover from speaking gaffes that would have sunk any other candidate, any other cycle.  He was never supposed to get near the front of the pack, nor sustain a lead.  He was never supposed to place near the top of the caucuses, nor win any states.  Common sense dictates that he will crash and burn before posing any real threat to the presidential election process.

He sure as hell wasn’t supposed to be the front-runner in mid-February.

So I, as a Democrat, sit comfortably back and watch the increasing panic in the Republican Party as their presidential hopes seem destined to settle on the absurdly-coiffed head of The Donald.  Of course, I assume, common sense dictates that once he is nominated, he will be overwhelmed by the Democratic candidate, who will likely provide coattails to other office-seekers, resulting in a Democratic landslide….

…and then it hit me.  I’m basing my own peace of mind on the same common sense set of political prognostications that Donald Trump has made a political career out of defying.  If he is nominated by the Republicans, there is a very real possibility that the rest of the GOP will hold their noses and support him, some enthusiastically.  The Republican Party is more adept than average at rationalizing political decisions that I find repellent.  It is also a very real possibility that the average voters- let’s not fall into the trap of idealizing the mostly-apathetic majority of voters in this country- will vote for him in unexpectedly high numbers.

It is possible that he will be elected President.

Once I recovered from that realization, and the dry-heaving that accompanied it, I took some time to seriously reconsider my opinions.  Here is what I have decided: I still don’t think he can win.  I still think a Trump nomination, or a Cruz nomination, to be fair, would absolutely devastate the Republican hopes of retaking the White House, and could help down-ticket.

I’m going to dial back the giddiness, however, until November 8th, circa 11pm Eastern Standard Time.



Published in: on February 12, 2016 at 1:44 pm  Leave a Comment  
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Money Screams

Is money in politics an intractable problem?

Courtesy of my Aunt Mikki, I read a fascinating article today about Lawrence Lessig’s Quixotic quest to bring about an “atomic” change to campaign finance law.  His approach is to help elect candidates pledging to support reform, but as even he concedes, any laws restricting spending are likely to be struck down as unconstitutional.

In my view, the Supreme Court has truly made this an intractable problem.  The issue is very real: in order to secure election, a candidate needs to raise hundreds of thousands of dollars for every office.  Senate campaigns require millions.  Presidential races will soon be billion dollar enterprises.

This means, in practical terms, that our representatives are really only part-time public servants.  A large portion of their time must be spent courting donors and dialing for dollars.  This is an acknowledged problem, and a vast majority of us think it should be fixed.  A vast majority of us are also convinced that it won’t be.

Lessig is a great thinker; I most admire his effort to establish Creative Commons to address draconian copyright laws.  He is not a very savvy political operator, and from the narrative it appears the he reached too far, too fast.  Whether his efforts are ever met with success on the electoral front remains to be seen.

I want to address a more fundamental question: if we were able to reform campaign finance, what would the result look like?

After considering the problems and the extreme limitations on any effort at reform, I am most intrigued by a set of rules that would dramatically impair the right to use money on races outside one’s district or state of residence.  It would look something like this:

Only individuals (read: people, with flesh and blood, corporations and other entities excluded) can contribute to political campaigns.  There is no maximum limit on such contributions.  However, individuals can only contribute to races for seats that directly represent them in government, based on their actual residence.  All donations will be a matter of public record.  So-called “issue ads” are entirely permissible, but for nine months preceding an election, they may not use the name or likeness of a candidate.

Here is my reasoning: if we start from the premise that the Supreme Court treats monetary donations as a form of speech, we have to be very careful about restricting it.  Hence, no limit on individual expenditures.  The protections usually afforded by the option of anonymity in speech is in this case trumped by the compelling governmental interest in election transparency.

There is also legal precedent for restricting money-as-speech rights for outsiders.  We already restrict foreign citizens from contributing to our elections.  A restriction barring a Nevada resident from giving money to a Delaware senate race is a reasonable restriction to prevent Sheldon…ahem…said Nevada resident from exercising an undue amount of influence on an election for an office that does not represent him, er, them.

Similarly, these rules address the farcical distinction drawn by the Citizens United decision regarding “coordination” or “direct electoral appeals.”  First of all, I believe the constitutional concerns regarding association and speech are equally present in a rule forbidding “coordination,” if that rule has any real substance at all.  Isn’t engagement and association the backbone of democratic government?  Additionally, permitting ads saying “Senator Such and Such is a terrible human being, let him know!” while prohibiting ads saying “Vote against Senator Such and Such” makes little sense.  Both ads have comparable effects.

Prohibiting candidate names and likenesses while permitting issue ads means that only voters who actually know the issues on some level can be persuaded/manipulated by a high-dollar ad campaign.  The more aware a voter is, the less likely they are to be persuaded by crappy political advertisements.

There are, of course, several downsides to this approach. A billionaire activist could simply overwhelm his local house race under this rule, giving an unlimited amount of money directly to the campaign.  This concern is somewhat mitigated by the transparency rule.  Since the identity of the donor and the amount of the contributions are public, both the media and other concerned citizens could scrutinize these contributions and factor them in when casting their ballots.  “We all hate Mr. Moneybags, he has been a blight on our community, and he’s given a half million dollars to Senator Such and Such” would be an available line of attack, especially on a local level where the big contributors can be quickly identified and assessed.

In large statewide elections, the benefits are limited, and for the presidential election, they are virtually non-existent.  Electoral college reform merits its own full-length article, and would somewhat mitigate that problem.  The biggest impact would be felt in house races, which are already reaching monetary levels that seemed improbable even a decade ago.  This is crucial, because the House is designed to be a representative body for the people.

As I have previously discussed, our districts are too large, and should be made smaller and more responsive to constituent demands.  Fair and transparent elections, and our methods of funding and conducting them, are the foremost constituent demand.

Finally, prohibitions on corporate and entity-level contributions are currently held unconstitutional by the Supreme Court, but these donations are anathema to fair elections.  They permit an end-run around transparency laws, and allow the wealthy to funnel donations on a large and pervasive scale.  Simply put, this is a problem and needs to stop.  My hope is that the reforms described above, when considered as a whole, would pass constitutional muster.

I should probably conclude by cynically acknowledging that the likelihood of bringing this type of reform is almost zero.  The reason is that elected officials, with the powers and influence of incumbency, rely heavily on out-of-district and organizational/corporate donations to secure re-election. They are afraid to rely solely on the actual citizens they represent.

Which, when you consider it, is really the core of the problem.


Published in: on January 9, 2015 at 11:45 am  Leave a Comment  
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If My Thought-Dreams Could Be Seen

Discussing the guillotine lays bare some  uncomfortable truths about the death penalty.

Unlike most countries in the world, the United States sees capital punishment as a legitimate political choice.  32 of our 50 states have legalized the death penalty for some crimes, though some of those states seldom enforce it.

The death penalty has a long and troubling history in America. It has been with us since our founding, which is among the strongest arguments for its constitutionality.  However, squaring the practice with our founders’ intentions doesn’t resolve the fundamental question: is this an acceptable practice today?  There has also been a tremendous racial bias in its application, and black murderers are far more likely to be sentenced to death than their white counterparts, even today.

I submit that the methods of carrying out the death penalty betray a real problem in public perception of capital punishment: we are accepting of state-sanctioned murder, as long as we are not required to face the reality of the sentence we are imposing on the condemned.  Our death penalty practices are more about protecting the sensitivities of the observers and the public, and less about effectuating the sentence in the most humane ways possible.

For the purpose of this discussion, let’s focus on the three most common methods of execution: lethal injection, electrocution, and asphyxiation (gas chamber).

Lethal injection is by far the most prevalent means of capital punishment in the United States.  It is also the most sterile to the observers.  In their view, the prisoner is simply put to sleep, like a terminally-ill pet.  Of course, the real function of the first drugs in the “cocktail” is to paralyze the muscles, so that even if the condemned is in excruciating pain when their heart is chemically stopped, they cannot physically express it.

This form of punishment has made headlines recently for all the wrong reasons.  Other countries condemn the United States for what they term barbarism, and many have forbidden the sale of necessary chemicals to the United States for use in executions. The result has been new cocktails, some of which have been catastrophic failures, with inmates waking up and screaming during what was supposed to be a nice, quiet execution.

Electrocution, likewise, is designed to be sterile for the observer.  The prisoner has a hood placed over their head so that their agonized expression as they are exposed to lethal currents is hidden from the audience.  This form of punishment also focuses on stopping the heart, which anyone who has had a heart attack will tell you is an excruciatingly painful experience.  We hide the faces so that we don’t need to face the consequences of our political choices.

The gas chamber is similar in that it is not quick, it is not painless, but it is relatively mild from the perspective of the observer.  While this method has fallen into relative disuse, it is still the third most common form of execution in America, and once again, the black hood is employed to lessen the impact on the fragile viewing audience, who sees a hooded figure thrash a bit, and then slump forward.

Of course, one need not look far for a form of execution that is instant, painless, and effective.  The guillotine, infamous for its use during the reign of terror in France, operates by means of a large blade, and gravity.  The condemned has their head separated from their body in a fraction of a second, which causes instant death, some urban legends to the contrary notwithstanding.

There is absolutely no question this would be a more effective and less painful means of execution, a more humane way to perform the inherently inhumane act of murder.  So why is it completely ignored in America?

The answer lies in our real motivation for choosing methods of execution.  The goal is not to be humane, it is to be considerate of the public, and the observers.  True, the guillotine would be less ghastly than our currently-used methods of killing prisoners, but it would also be bloody, and graphic.  It would undeniably show that these are not people drifting gently off to sleep, they are being killed, by the state, on purpose.

For this reason, it will never be utilized.  There is zero chance that politicians would sign off on bringing back the guillotine for executions.  This fact should cause us to take a step back and consider, are we really behind this practice?  If we choose to countenance a death penalty, can we face the consequences of our actions?

Published in: on November 4, 2014 at 3:32 pm  Leave a Comment  
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