Monday, January 25, 2016


Keep a light, hopeful heart. But ­expect the worst.

-- Joyce Carol Oates

This week's featured post is "Smearing Bernie, a preview". When the right-wing media starts painting Bernie red, will the charge stick? Will it throw him off his game?

This week everybody was talking about the weather

To me, the remarkable thing about Winter Storm Jonas -- other than the fact that New Hampshire was fine place to sit it out -- was how far in advance it was forecast, and how closely it matched those forecasts. Days before the storm hit, I knew it was coming and that the worst of it would be just west of Baltimore. I didn't expect 30 inches of snow at JFK Airport, but otherwise the meteorologists did pretty well.

and the Republican campaign starting to turn nasty

To be fair, if you are Hispanic or Muslim or female or gay, the Republican campaign has been nasty all along. But lately the candidates have started being nasty to each other.

Donald Trump actually used the word nasty to describe his closest rival, Ted Cruz.

He's a nasty guy. Nobody likes him. Nobody in Congress likes him. Nobody likes him anywhere once they get to know him. He's a very –- he's got an edge that's not good. You can't make deals with people like that and it's not a good thing.

Former Republican nominee Bob Dole agreed:

I don’t know how he’s going to deal with Congress. Nobody likes him.

That's an unusual thing to say about a sitting senator. The Senate has clubby aspect to it, and you can always find people in the opposing party to say (of somebody like Joe Biden or Orrin Hatch) "I disagree with him, but he's a good guy." In Cruz' case, it's a challenge to find a senator in his own party who will tell you he's a good guy.

And Cruz' college roommate won't either:

Ted Cruz is a nightmare of a human being. I have plenty of problems with his politics, but truthfully his personality is so awful that 99 percent of why I hate him is just his personality. If he agreed with me on every issue, I would hate him only one percent less.

So something odd is happening: For months, everyone has been predicting that the GOP establishment would unite against Trump. But if Cruz is the alternative, they'd rather unite against Cruz.

The NYT reform-conservative columnist Ross Douthat explains "The Way to Stop Trump". Abstract arguments about his personality or his unfaithfulness to conservative orthodoxy or his ignorance of important issues don't seem to shake Trump's supporters. But Trump's business success has left a trail of victims, many of whom are the white working-class "regular guys" Trump appeals to. Put them on camera, Douthat advises, and get people to empathize with them. Joe Sixpack types who cheer when Trump is nasty to Hispanics and Muslims might have second thoughts if they saw him being nasty to people like them. (Who's the loser now, chump?)

Tell people that he isn’t the incredible self-made genius that he plays on TV. Tell them about all the money he inherited from his daddy. Tell them about the bailouts that saved him from ruin. Tell them about all his cratered companies. Then find people who suffered from those fiascos — workers laid off following his bankruptcies, homeowners who bought through Trump Mortgage, people who ponied up for sham degrees from Trump University.

But Douthat doesn't seem to realize that there's a reason Trump's Republican rivals have been reluctant to go there: Empathy is a liberal emotion. Conservatives see empathy as weakness. (President Obama was ridiculed when he cited empathy as a reason for nominating Sonia Sotomayor to the Supreme Court. "President Obama clearly believes that you measure up to his empathy standard," Senator Grassley said during her confirmation hearing. "That worries me.")

Conversely, Republicans glorify strong leaders who can "make the tough decisions". Those decisions are "tough", not because they require personal risk or sacrifice, but because they require heartlessness: who to fire, whose benefits to cut, who to torture, how many innocent-bystander deaths are acceptable collateral damage, and so on.

One prior assumption of the Fox News Fantasy World is that conservative policies have no victims; anyone who gets hurt had it coming. So it enrages conservatives when you puncture their denial by finding actual victims and putting them on camera: the Sandy Hook parents, refugee kids, families thrown off food stamps, moms of dead soldiers, and so on. They think that's cheating. Ann Coulter once famously denounced the widows of 9-11 first-responders ("I have never seen people enjoying their husband’s death so much.") when they criticized the Bush administration. She saw "using their grief to make a political point" as a low blow.

So while I agree with Douthat that his strategy would work, I wonder if Trump's Republican rivals are willing to break the empathy taboo. Democrats will, though, and that's one reason Trump is a less formidable general-election candidate than current polls indicate.

Carly Fiorina has no chance of winning the nomination or being president, so I'm not going to cover her in any detail. But her talk in Hudson, NH Saturday morning was only a few minutes down the road, so I went. Maybe 125 people showed up, filling the local American Legion hall. The audience was polite and welcoming, but subdued.

I'm always interested to observe how a female candidate navigates the narrow passage between the Weak Little Girl and Cold Heartless Bitch stereotypes. (There's no similar dilemma for men, which is one reason male candidates it easier.) In the debates, Fiorina has tried a little too hard to look like a strong leader and ended up sounding strident to me, so I wondered if she'd seem warmer in person. She does.

Unsurprisingly, her talk assumed the Fox News Fantasy World: ObamaCare is failing, our military has been gutted, capital-G Government is strangling the economy, the world doesn't respect us any more, Christians are persecuted, government spending can be slashed without hurting anybody, Hillary doesn't care about the four Americans who died at Benghazi, climate change is not worth bringing up, and so on.

Here's what I found interesting: Carly is running primarily against Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton. (No other candidates were named.) She yoked them together as the two sides of "crony capitalism": Politicians like Clinton sell favors and businessmen like Trump buy them.

Sarah Palin's Trump endorsement had that unique Palin touch of incoherence, the kind that left Larry Wilmore asking, "Was she drunk?" (I don't think so, but I understand why he wonders.) I believe Sarah envies rappers, so she comes out with stuff like this:

We are mad
and we've been had.
They need to get used to it. ...
We're not gonna chill
In fact, it's time to drill, baby, drill
down and hold these folks accountable.
And we need to stop the self-sabotage and elect
new, independent, a candidate who represents that
and represents America first -- finally.

Common sense solutions
that he brings to the table.
Yes, the status quo
has got to go.
Otherwise we're just going to get more of the same.
And with their failed agenda
it can't be salvaged
it must be savaged.
And Donald Trump is the right one to do that.

Where is William Shatner when you need him? Or Vanilla Ice? Huffington Post's comedy editor published the notes for Sarah's speech. And Tina Fey brought back her Palin immitation.

and the Democratic race more contentious

The main topic of discussion this week was Bernie Sanders' single-payer healthcare plan, which the Clinton campaign presented as a threat to every healthcare advance since Medicare. Chelsea Clinton was the most explicit:

Sen. Sanders wants to dismantle Obamacare, dismantle the CHIP program, dismantle Medicare, and dismantle private insurance. ... I worry if we give Republicans Democratic permission to do that, we'll go back to an era -- before we had the Affordable Care Act -- that would strip millions and millions and millions of people off their health insurance.

Hillary herself said that Sanders would

take Medicare and Medicaid and the Children’s Health Insurance Program and the Affordable Care Act health-care insurance and private employer health insurance and he would take that all together and send health insurance to the states, turning over your and my health insurance to governors. and Politifact objected. Here's Politifact's judgment:

Under Sanders’ plan, Americans would lose their current health insurance. However, his proposal would replace their health insurance and cover the currently uninsured. The program would auto-enroll every citizen and legal resident, all of whom would be entitled to benefits. While the plan would give governors authority to administer health insurance within their states, it includes provisions to allow federal authorities to take over if the governors refuse to implement it.

It’s impossible to predict with certainty how Sanders’ plan would play out in real life. But Clinton’s statement makes it sound like Sanders’ plan would leave many people uninsured, which is antithetical to the goal of Sanders’ proposal: universal healthcare.

But while the Clinton campaign's charges are indeed misleading and raise too much fear, they do point to some genuine issues:

  • Allowing the states to implement single-payer gives Republican governors too much room to monkey-wrench the program, as we've seen them do with ObamaCare. It's hard to estimate how much damage a Scott Walker or Sam Brownback could do while still implementing enough of the program to keep the feds from taking over.
  • Sanders' plan still lacks important details. Ezra Klein explored this in "Bernie Sanders' single-payer plan isn't a plan at all", in which he described the proposal as "vague and unrealistic".
  • Politically, it's hard to imagine how the Sanders proposal could survive the FUD campaign the health insurance companies would undoubtedly launch. The central idea -- that the government is going to take away something that may be working well for you (your healthcare coverage, whether it's private or government-sponsored) and replace it with something better -- requires maintaining an unlikely level of public trust in the face of a money-is-no-object opposition campaign.

That last point deserves some elaboration: ObamaCare squeaked through Congress largely because Obama promised: "If you like your healthcare plan you can keep it." And even though that promise was kept for the vast majority (I know I kept my plan and my doctor), he paid a large political price for the cases where things turned out differently. Any new proposal that would force everyone to learn a new system and says "Trust me, it will be better" is going to run into trouble.

Making healthcare a human right is a core Democratic principle and should continue to be. But I don't think we can get there by asking the American people to take a leap of faith-in-government. More likely, progress will be like walking a heavy bookcase across a room: Lift one side and pivot, then rock to the other side and pivot again, always letting the floor bear most of the weight. At each major step towards universal healthcare, the majority should be able to keep what they have while a minority changes; through a series of such steps -- each fulfilling the promise that the changing minority betters its lot -- we can walk the public over to single payer. I wish we were strong enough to lift the bookcase and carry it to its best location, but we're not, and I can't imagine that we will be in my lifetime.

With that in mind, I'd like to see Democrats push to restore the public option that was taken out of ObamaCare, maybe by allowing people of any age to buy into Medicare. Over time, the greater efficiency of the public option might drive private plans out of the market, leaving us with the single-payer system Sanders (and most Democrats) ultimately want. (This is essentially the case Paul Krugman made last Monday.)

Polls were all over the map, and either side could find one to say it was winning. Nate Silver's model currently gives Clinton an 82% chance of winning Iowa and Sanders a 61% chance of winning New Hampshire. Nationally, the RCP national polling average has Clinton 51%, Sanders 38%.

and the Oregon occupation

They're still there, and if the federal government has any plans, it isn't sharing them. Oregon Public Broadcasting continues to be the best place to follow the story.

Oregon Governor Kate Brown seems to be losing patience with the FBI's inaction. She describes the situation as "intolerable" and says "This spectacle of lawlessness must end." We're also starting to hear from the real victims: the federal employees who can't do their jobs and may feel physically in danger. Also, the people who use the wildlife refuge for its intended purposes, like Oregon resident (and novelist) Ursula Le Guin.

The militia folks have started a "common law grand jury" to decide whether to indict local government officials for "multiple constitutional crimes". As with everything else they do, they're taking themselves incredibly seriously, warning reporters that it's a "felony" to pry into the grand jury's deliberative process.

OPB also offers a psychological analysis of the possible fault lines between the various leaders of the occupation.

My pure speculation about the federal strategy is that when they finally move, they want the public reaction to be "What took you so long?" Meanwhile, the occupiers keep posting evidence of their crimes online, making a prosecutor's job pretty easy.

and you might also be interested in

This week's guns-make-us-safer story comes from The Seattle Times: Thursday night, a man got drunk and took his (legal) concealed weapon to a showing of the Benghazi movie 13 Hours. He fumbled with it and it fired accidentally, wounding a woman he didn't know. But of course, think of all the terrorists who were prevented from attacking the theater that night, for fear of meeting such a formidable patriot.

A second story comes from Mississippi, where on Saturday the wife of the owner of a gun store got into an argument (over a $25 fee) with a customer picking up a repaired gun. One thing led to another, and then led to a shootout. The owner and his son are dead. The customer and his son were taken to the hospital with life-threatening injuries.

Here's a local view of the Flint water crisis.

The scientists at NOAA and NASA make it official: 2015 broke 2014's record as the hottest year on record. By a lot.

The LA Times talks to some white Republicans in an Iowa diner: They think immigration's a problem, but they don't want to round up and deport the local Hispanic immigrants, even if they're here illegally.

That rings with my memories of growing up in the rural Midwest: Folks are more extreme when they talk about abstractions than when they talk about people. There's how you feel about "homosexuality", and then there's how you feel about your lesbian niece. I'm not surprised something similar happens with immigrants.

Here's an insightful video about race, and the difference between being non-racist (easy) and anti-racist (hard).

and let's close with something cool

The Swincar E-Spider, a different kind of all-terrain vehicle.

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