"As long as we are not chased from our words we have nothing to fear. As long as our utterances keep their sound we have a voice. As long as our words keep their sense we have a soul." -- Edmond Jabes, from The Book of Yukel, Return to the Book

Saturday, February 13, 2016

Twitter Essay: The #Obama legacy and the #democraticprimary

The Democratic debate has taken a predictable turn, though it is one not seen in generations. For the first time in my memory on the Democratic side, we have presidential candidates who are not seeking to distance themselves from the incumbent president.

While Hillary Clinton is using Bernie Sanders' words to imply that Sanders is not just critical of some of Obama's positions, but that his critiques amount to the same kind of attacks being launched by the Republicans. This is absurd, of course -- there is a difference both in tone and substance here that is important for Democratic voters to understand, and Clinton's elision of those differences is disingenuous -- though Sanders' response, that he has been a supporter of the president, is only partially true.

I started tweeting about this earlier today, tied to an article in The Washington Post that does a fairly good job looking at Sanders' tenuous connection to the president.

These tweets, I think, when taken together can serve as an essay outlining my thoughts. I do add some connective tissue between the tweets for clarification and expansion.

Sanders' is very much a realist on foreign policy, more dovish than Obama, and far more dovish than Clinton, but as this piece notes, he is not your average peacenik:
A President Sanders would govern more like a President Dwight Eisenhower, who refused to give in to the demands of the military-industrial complex even after the Russians launched Sputnik, and focused on nation-building at home rather than spending billions on unnecessary weapons systems. Or like Nixon, who cut defense spending dramatically and developed a health care plan more inclusive than Obamacare. Or like Obama, who not only reached out to Iran, but also has tried to reduce and eventually eliminate nuclear weapons, and who restored diplomatic relations with Cuba.
Sanders was right, of course, on Iraq and he is right about Henry Kissinger, but his approach is more complicated than simple typecasting would assume.
Clinton was the chief hawk in the Obama administration, according to numerous reports -- and, as such, might be viewed as the "big idea" candidate on foreign policy. On the domestic front, she is -- like Obama -- an incrementalist, and might be viewed as a realist.

This is a judgment on balance -- the balance sheet shows he has done more good than harm, making him the first president in memory to be in the black. Lyndon Johnson's Vietnam debacle pushed him into the red. Nixon, while doing some good, led by division and created the law-and-order politics that created the incarceration state. And Bill Clinton, while he oversaw economic growth, was responsible for a lot of noxious legislation -- DOMA, the crime bill, the repeal of Glass-Steagall, welfare reform. Reagan and the Bushes are not even worth discussing from a progressive perspective.
They need to discuss what was good and worth building upon, what isn't, what they would do in similar fashion and what they would do differently. That's what this primary fight is all about.
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Thursday, February 11, 2016

What's so super about 'super-delegates'?

Bernie Sanders won the New Hampshire primary in a landslide and he finished in a virtual tie with Hillary Clinton in Iowa and, yet, Clinton still leads in delegate count. What gives?

According to Bloomberg News, Clinton has 394 delegates, while Sanders has 44. Sanders, of course, has captured more of the popular and caucus vote -- when taken together -- than Clinton. The difference is that Clinton has the support of a large number of delegates who are not tied to the primary and caucus processes.

These are the super-delegates (who comprise about one fifth of all delegates during the nomination process) and their existence and potential impact on the primary process has some Sanders supporters up in arms, going so far as to call the system corrupt.

I certainly get the complaint. The notion that the will of voters might be hijacked by a group of establishment decision-makers is certainly appalling, but that's not what is actually happening. Remember, we are talking about a political party primary and not an open election. We have institutionalized them, to be sure, and have made efforts at opening them to the public and at making them more transparent, but they remain a tool of each political party. The party sets the rules with a few goals in mind, including creating flexibility in the case of changing circumstances, protecting down-ballot Democrats, and protecting the party as a whole. That is why the super-delegates were created. But that means that insurgent candidacies -- whether they are Bernie Sanders today or Gary Hart, or for that matter Barack Obama -- have built-in disadvantages. (The GOP has used variants of this "system rigging" -- the winner-take-all primaries in 2008 were supposed to result in a quick win for the establishment candidate.)

I'm not a big fan of the super-delegate system -- I tend to support systems that empower the grassroots -- but its existence is not a conspiracy, as we have been hearing from some. It also could prove damaging to Democrats if they cannot find some accommodations for party insiders and the insurgent Sanders people within the party.

I offered this analysis on Facebook, and I think it is worth repeating here (in edited form). The super-delegates
were designed as a firewall against insurgency. This came into play oi 2008, before Obama proved himself and shifted the landscape. It is coming into play now, though in this case there is a smaller likelihood that they'll be moving into Sanders' column. To me, this has been a dangerous time bomb for the Democrats akin to the disruptions of '68 and '72 when the party fractured along generational and racial lines and helped Nixon win twice. (Yes, McGovern proved a weak candidate, but he also was abandoned completely by party insiders.) There is nothing that can be done with it now, but it is something that any party committed to its grassroots should be concerned with.
The issue boils down to stability and party needs versus the desires of grassroots activists and new voters attracted to the primaries by the insurgent candidate -- Obama in 2008 and Sanders today.
There needs to be a balance, which occurred in 2008 and that I fear may not be possible this time out. I think the historical narratives that have come to explain 1968 and 1972 ignore this. In 1968, Humphrey was the establishment candidate (after LBJ dropped out and RFK, the only one who could have unified the party, was assassinated). There was an insurgency in play, though, which grew from the civil rights and anti-war movements and that made a lot of noise. The party establishment (I hate this word, but it seems the best one for this) aggressively shut out the insurgents, who then stayed home or voted for third-party candidates (there also was the right-wing, racist backlash that coalesced around Wallace). Humphrey then lost one of the closer elections in American history. Had the party recognized the insurgency and sought to bring them on board, unifying the party, one could argue, it might have been different. I'm not saying this re-unification could have happened, but the antipathy to the insurgents certainly damaged the party's prospects. The 1972 race was beset to a degree by similar factors. We all know that McGovern was a flawed candidate, but no one ever talks about the insider backlash against the insurgency that took a likely losing candidate (his weakness combined with Nixon's solid approval ratings) and turned it into a landslide. Somehow, the party -- any political party -- needs to find a way to allow for establishment and insurgent tendencies to co-exist and for some kind of unity to be constructed.

My fear, as I said, is that the rhetoric on the Democratic side could fracture the party. Sanders' supporters -- many of them, anyway -- already have signaled that they may not back Clinton in the general election if she wins the nomination. Many Clinton supporters are saying the same thing. Given the stakes -- as many as four Supreme Court justices are expected to retire within the next eight years, including two from the liberal wing, the fate of Social Security, the Affordable Care Act and the regulatory system -- that would be foolish. Balance, as I said, is needed.

As for the super-delegates, let's get rid of them, but let's also realize that doing so will not really empower the grassroots. The party, as an institution, will find other ways to protect its interest.

The issue, in my mind, is not party rules, but the larger electoral system. It was designed to moderate the electorate and tamp down inflamed passions -- i.e., political insurgencies. If we want to empower the grassroots, we are need to do more than change political party rules. We are going to have to open the system.

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Sunday, February 7, 2016

Trolling for conspiracies

I generally like and admire Glenn Greenwald's work. But his Jan. 31 piece in The Intercept on the so-called "Bernie-bro" phenomenon -- while largely on point -- is far from his best effort.

Let's start by saying that I agree with his take that attacks on Sanders supporters as sexist and misogynistic by their Clinton counterparts have been overblown. There no doubt are Bernie-bros -- young, white male Sanders supporters who act like entitled frat boys and have attacked mostly female Clinton-backers. But to say they represent a massive wave, a trend, or that they represent Sanders or the bulk of his supporters is absurd and reductive.

I also think he's correct that much of the pushback by Clinton supporters is political in nature – as is pretty much everything related to a presidential campaign. As Greenwald writes, the "last thing" supporters of the former Secretary of State should wish to discuss is "her record in helping to construct the supremely oppressive and racist U.S. penal state," or "how she’s drowning both personally and politically in Wall Street money."
You sure don’t want to talk about what her bombing campaign did to Libya, or the military risks that her no-fly zone in Syria would entail, or the great admiration and affection she proclaimed for Egyptian despot Hosni Mubarak, or revisit her steadfast advocacy of the greatest political crime of this generation, the invasion of Iraq. You don’t want to talk about her vile condemnation of “superpredators,” or her record on jobs-destroying trade agreements, or the fact that she changed her position from vehement opposition to support for marriage equality only after polls and most Democratic politicians switched sides.
Clinton is, from a progressive standpoint, an imperfect candidate (at best), well to the right of Sanders on most issues that matter to the left. She's a raging centrist and establishment to her core. Supporters argue that makes her better equipped to wrangle with a Republican Congress or more likely to win in November. I'm not convinced that's true -- but that's what the primary debate is about.

The Bernie-bro narrative, however, is something else entirely. It shifts attention away from these differences and centers the entire debate on gender, without actually addressing gender-dependent issues. It is built on an un-provable notion -- that anonymous social media trolls venting their spleen somehow can be said to stand in for the entirety of Sanders' backers. Logically, the argument just doesn't hold up. And that is Greenwald’s point.

Still, I have significant issues with his Intercept piece -- primarily with its tone and length (which are related issues), but also with its reliance on some of the same logical fallacies he decries.

First, the tone is overly strident, a result of both word choice (accusations of intention that cannot be proven) and repetition. Greenwald hits the same target over and over, well beyond what is necessary, creating the impression that his argument is personal and ultimately lessening its impact and causing the piece to be overly long.

As for the logical issues, he bases much of his argument on the “intention” of Clinton supporters. The assumption of intent on the part of others is a fallacy. We can only know what people say or do, not what they think, intend or feel in their hearts. In this case, Greenwald writes as though there is a broad conspiracy by a set of connected surrogates he describes as the Clinton press, whom he says are using attacks on the Bernie-brow to deflect from Clinton's flaws. His fears may be accurate -- perhaps it is a concerted effort that can be linked to Clinton on some level, but absent specific evidence we can’t know for sure. The “conspiracy” being implied here ultimately detracts from his legitimate critique -- that the Bernie-bro attacks on Sanders deflect attention from the real differences between the candidates and make it all about gender.

More troubling, I think, is his treatment of the abuse allegedly directed at Clinton supporters. He argues that the abuse is not so much about Clinton or Sanders as it is about the Internet. While it is true that the greater freedom of both speech and anonymity created by the web has made it easier for trolls to operate, blaming Consider this passage:
The reason pro-Clinton journalists are targeted with vile abuse online has nothing specifically to do with the Sanders campaign or its supporters. It has everything to do with the internet. There are literally no polarizing views one can advocate online — including criticizing Democratic Party leaders such as Clinton or Barack Obama — that will not subject one to a torrent of intense anger and vile abuse.
The Internet, as he says, has allowed this kind of behavior to prosper, but the behavior is not new, nor is it divorced from the context in which it happens. This is not random abuse, but targeted – it comes from someplace and is directed at specific targets. It should not be seen as a reflection of any of the candidates (Donald Trump is probably an exception because he courts these kinds of trolls both online and in person), but it cannot be completely divorced from the gender dynamics in play during this election (there remain far too many on both sides of the aisle who are uncomfortable with women in power), nor from the stakes faced mostly by Clinton and her supporters (losing likely ends her political career). The abuse has everything to do with the Internet AND with Clinton and Sanders.

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Saturday, February 6, 2016

Morning quote: Poetry edition

From C.D. Wright:

The Poet, the Lion, Talking Pictures, El Farolito, a Wedding in St. Roch, the Big Box Store, the Warp in the Mirror, Spring, Midnights, Fire & All, p. 70

Tuesday, January 26, 2016

Surprise! NY Post & Newsmax fail the sourcing test

The New York Post is reporting -- via Newsmax TV -- that Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton is about to be indicted on charges stemming from her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.

This is a bombshell that could rock the presidential campaign -- or it would be if the story wasnt something that would get an "F" from most any journalism professor I know.

Forget the partisan conspiracies -- I know there are those who will assume I am writing this because I'm a Clinton supporter (I'm not, just to be clear). My criticisms are not about politics, but about journalism.

Consider the first four paragraphs of the Post story:
The FBI is seeking an indictment of Hillary Clinton in the ever-growing email scandal that has dogged her Democratic presidential bid, according to a former US House majority leader. 
“I have friends that are in the FBI and they tell me they’re ready to indict [her],” former Texas Republican Congressman Tom DeLay told Newsmax TV. 
DeLay then clarified his statement, saying that if the Justice Department does not hand down an indictment, the FBI will revolt. 
“They’re ready to recommend an indictment and they also say that if the attorney general does not indict, they’re going public,” DeLay warned.
Let's start with the sourcing: Tom DeLay, a former Republican House majority leader who has no obvious ties to the Justice Department. DeLay's history is problematic -- he was indicted on and convicted of election law violations that were later overturned. But we could live with this. The problem is that he is relating information from unnamed "friends that are in the FBI" -- unverifiable hearsay that has no business serving as the primary sourcing for a story about the local dogcatcher, let alone one about a presidential candidate. If one of my reporters came to me with such a loosely soured story, I would have sent him back to do more work -- or I would have killed it outright.
There are other issues with this sorry -- the biased lede paragraph, which proclaims with certainty that an indictment is coming, and the choice of photos chief among them. Clinton is pictured in a "crazy-eye" photo, while DeLay gets a flattering headshot -- choices that leave the reader to assume one is unhinged and untrustworthy and the other is rational and believable.
I know that expecting more from the Post is asking a lot, but we should as a lot of our news sources.