Strange Bedfellows

This is the weirdest political campaign I can remember — weirder even than the awkward George H.W. Bush, Bill Clinton and Ross Perot fandango in 1992 — and yesterday it got even weirder with New Jersey Governor Chris Christie’s endorsement of Donald Trump.

Trump is supposed to be the anti-establishment outsider . . . but now he’s trotting out endorsements from establishment figures like sitting governors, like having credibility with the establishment means something?  It’s a very mixed message for the guy who supposedly doesn’t give a rat’s patootie for conventional politics.  And the timing of the Christie announcement seems pretty political, too.  Trump got trounced and humiliated in the Republican debate, there’s a lot of buzz and discussion of that fact . . . and then Trump trots out Christie to try to change that narrative.  It may be smart politics, but it’s also conventional politics.  Trump is playing the game, just like everybody else.  Will his supporters ever see that?

635852763638255334-josephIt’s also pretty laughable that pundits are saying that the Christie endorsement, and other, similar announcements that may be forthcoming, will “legitimize” Trump.  Really?  As far as I’m concerned, you could trot out hundreds of governors, senators, and mayors to praise Trump to the skies, and he would be no more “legitimate” than he is now.  Trump will be “legitimate” only when he takes the responsibilities of a presidential candidate seriously and starts actually learning something about the issues.  I don’t want a President who’s going to wing it, and endorsements aren’t a substitute for actual hard work.  Until Trump starts to do some studying and show some knowledge — which will happen on the 12th of Never — he’s just showing contempt for what is supposed to be an important exercise in democracy.

The Christie endorsement makes me lose a lot of respect for the news media, and for Chris Christie, too.  The media is Trump-obsessed, and the Christie endorsement just made all of the news channels give free air time to Trump so he can engage in his antics and belittle his adversaries.  They’re playing Trump’s game because he’s a polarizing figure who will make people tune in and drive up their ratings, and his outrageous statements provide daily news stories that make their jobs easier.  The press hasn’t exactly covered itself with glory this year.  And Christie has lost whatever claim he had to being a credible national figure.  Christie is no dummy; there’s no way he can legitimately believe Trump is best suited to sit in the Oval Office.  Christie obviously is betting on what he thinks will be the winning horse.  Maybe Christie just wants to be one of those unidentified “top men” the Trumpster is always talking about using to get things done if he becomes President.

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Time For A New Debate Format

Kish suggested we watch last night’s Republican debate.  Against my better judgment, I agreed.  I should have heeded my judgment, I think.

I’m not a fan of these sprawling debates for a lot of reasons, but the first one hit me as soon as the debate began:  I just don’t like the idea of the moderators picking one person to answer a question about a given topic, and I don’t like the candidates’ ability to not answer the question.  So when the moderator began the debate by asking Ted Cruz about the economy (why Cruz?) and Cruz launched instead into an obviously prepared speech about the ten American sailors captured by Iran, it set my teeth to grinding immediately.

GOP Presidential Candidates Debate In Myrtle BeachThis is a format destined for disaster on a stage with seven candidates hoping to get air time.  At first the candidates act politely and hold their fire as one of their competitors gets to address a juicy topic, but eventually they can’t help themselves and start talking very loudly so that they get to weigh in and get their faces on TV again.  There’s no meaningful way to discipline candidates who go off topic, either.  What are you going to do, tell one of them that they don’t get to respond for the rest of the debate because they didn’t answer a question?  If that rule had been applied last night, basically every candidate would have been silenced long before the debate’s official end.

If I had my choice, you’d start one of these pre-primary debates with opening statements by each of the candidates, so they could vent their canned speeches and you’d at learn about whatever topics were of most importance to them.  I’d establish the order by picking names out of a hat.  Then, once those preliminaries are out of the way, ask a question about a topic and have each candidate respond to the same question.  So long as the question dealt with an important topic, and was not of the “if you were a tree, what kind of tree would you want to be” variety, the candidates themselves would discipline each other to stick to the subject, the way Chris Christie did last night when neither Cruz nor Rubio answered a question about entitlements.  You couldn’t blow off an important topic without the next person in line immediately criticizing you for dodging it.

And I suppose time-limit buzzers are inevitable, especially when seven politicians are on one stage, but they give the debates an unfortunate game show quality.  And, as a candidate’s answer proceeds, I find myself anticipating the buzzer rather than paying much attention to the latter part of the candidate’s response.  The candidates blow right through the buzzers, anyway.  I’d rather have the moderator politely tell the candidate that their time has expired.

Who won last night’s debate?  Beats me.  I thought Trump really zinged Cruz on Cruz’s ill-advised dismissal of “New York values,” recalling how New Yorkers pulled together and moved forward after 9/11 and leaving Cruz to do nothing but keep a frozen smile on his face and no doubt think, inwardly, that he had just taken a self-inflicted wound.   I don’t think those kinds of point-scoring exchanges ultimately mean much in a multi-candidate field, but I do think that, with all the problems we are facing, we don’t need politicians who make cheap appeals to regionalism and pit one part of the country against another.  I was glad to see Cruz take a haymaker.

As for the rest of the debate, Trump obviously has no real substance behind the catch phrases and bloviating, but the other candidates can’t quite figure out how to deal with him.  It’s like they’re trying to climb over each other while hoping that some day, somebody will vote Trump off the island, while Trump stands at the center stage lectern, scowling.  They can’t figure out why people are going for Trump and I can’t, either.

Surprising Shrinkage

The Republican field in the presidential sweepstakes is shrinking.  Yesterday Scott Walker made a surprisingly quick exit from the race, following Rick Perry’s departure a few days earlier.

Walker’s exit was apparently due to the modern political trifecta of failure:  lack of money, falling poll numbers, and perceived gaffes.  Walker got into the race with high hopes, as a successful governor in a purple state whose budget and tax cutting efforts were applauded by many conservatives.  He did well for a while, but never really seemed to get much traction, his numbers fell as new candidates entered the race, and although he was in both of the “top half” Republican candidate debates he didn’t make much of an impression.  He left the race with a call for Republicans to back a candidate with an optimistic approach to the issues.

It’s hard to imagine that politics could get more front-loaded than it has been over the past few election cycles, but it evidently has.  This year we’re seeing serious candidates drop out after only a few glitzy debates, months before any actual voter has a say in a caucus or primary.  It seems crazy — but it just reaffirms the power of TV, polls, and campaign contributions.

The departure of Walker and Perry may say something about the mood of the electorate as well as the new reality of the political process.  Both Perry and Walker were successful governors of significant states.  Right now, however, voters seem taken with the non-politicians, with Donald Trump, Carly Fiorina, and Dr. Ben Carson leading the way.  If voters aren’t interested in electing someone with experience in governing, that’s not good news for John Kasich, Chris Christie, Bobby Jindal — or Jeb Bush.

Did Walker panic, or simply make a wise decision to pull the plug on a campaign that turned out to be a dud . . . or does it mean something more?  In any case, if this trend keeps up we’ll soon be able to squeeze all of the remaining Republican candidates into one debate.

The Republican Hair Club For Men

Say what you will about the Republican candidates for President, but you have to concede one thing:  they are displaying a fantastically diverse set of hairstyles.  With 16 men ranging from 40s to nearly 70 in the field and not a chrome domer in the bunch, the GOP guys have beaten the odds.  In fact, it’s so statistically improbable that you have to wonder if it isn’t random chance and instead was the a plan of a shadowy, secret organization . . . .

Chairman TRUMP:  OK, I’m calling this meeting of the Republican Hair Club for Men to order.  Gentlemen, congratulations on a good first debate.  Governor Bush, do you have a report for us?

Gov. BUSH:  Yes, Mr. Chairman.  As you all know, our plan was to subconsciously appeal to the deep-seated hair fantasies and vanities of the American male by presenting candidates who cover the broadest possible range of different coiffures short of outright baldness  And I’m pleased to say it has worked beyond our wildest dreams.  Our studies show that not only did that first Fox debate achieve record ratings, but the vast majority of men who tuned in really were just checking out our different stylings.

Sen. CRUZ:  And I’m betting a number of those viewers saw the benefits of Brylcreem, didn’t they?  The success of Mad Men made American men recognize that “a little dab’ll do ya” is a darn good look.  In fact, you might even say it’s slick.  Get it?

Chairman TRUMP (sighing):  Senator — we get it, we just don’t want it.  I’m from the “wet head is dead” school myself.  And I know Governor Bush prefers his distracted professor look, Governor Walker has the “boyish front, bald spot in back” ‘do covered, Dr. Carson’s strongly representing the short hair contingent, Senator Rubio and Governor Huckabee are displaying the benefits of a razor cut at both ends of the age spectrum . . . .

Sen. PAUL (interrupting):  And don’t forget us Kentuckians who want a haircut that reminds everyone of Davy Crockett and his coonskin cap!

Chairman TRUMP:  Still having a bad day, eh?  Yes, Governor Kasich?

Gov. KASICH:  To add to Governor Bush’s report, I wanted to note that the polling data is showing that my little surge in New Hampshire is almost entirely attributable to my coiffure.  I was going for a rumpled, devil-may-care look, but in the North Country where they hibernate for most of the winter, it’s been interpreted as “bed head.”  It just shows the political value of an ambiguous, multi-purpose styling that covers a number of bases.

Sen. RUBIO:  That’s an excellent point, Governor.  And it reminds me:  the barbers, hair stylists, and product manufacturers that have been of our strongest supporters have identified a gaping hole in our coverage of the spectrum of men’s hairstyles.

Dr. CARSON:  It’s the mullet, isn’t it?

Sen. RUBIO:  Precisely.  How about it, Governor Christie?  As the representative of the Garden State, you’re the logical choice, aren’t you?  Of course, you’d have to get a tattoo and maybe a piercing, too.

Gov. CHRISTIE:  I think you’re confused there, Senator.  I could see it if you were asking me to adopt a greasy or spiky Jersey Shore-type cut, but a mullet really is more of an Appalachian look, so I’ll have to defer to Senator Paul to take his tousled ‘do to the obvious next level.

Gov. WALKER:  Speaking of the next level, Mr. Chairman, when are you going to share with us your secret about how you hold that extravagant mane of yours — whatever it is — in place?  Is it a gel or cream?  Is it some kind of top-secret spray?  Lacquer?

Chairman TRUMP:  Sorry, boys — but that information is more classified than the email found on Hillary Clinton’s private server.

Gov. HUCKABEE:  It’s about time that someone talked about the opposition!  I suggest that each of you stop this orgy of self-congratulation and think for a minute about the Democratic front-runner.  Let’s face it:  Secretary Clinton, alone, has covered more hairdos than our entire group.  She’s had short cuts, long looks, hair flipped up at the end, hair curled under — I’m sure if I did enough internet research I could find an ’80s big hair coiff and maybe even a beehive in her past, too.  It’s incredibly impressive.  She’s just one woman, yet she’s managed to span virtually the entire spectrum of women’s hairstyles!

Chairman TRUMP (suddenly somber):  He’s right, men — we’ve definitely got our work cut out for us.  This meeting is now adjourned.  Senator Cruz, could you clean off the back of your chair before you go?

Debate Download

God help me, but I watched the Republican debate tonight.  UJ — who for some mysterious reason lacks a functioning TV — decided he wanted to come over and watch the debate, and Kish and  I watched it with him.

My thoughts?  The Trump balloon popped tonight.  The forever-frowning Donald looked like a self-mocking SNL skit up there.  He’s a pompous blowhard who obviously doesn’t know much about the issues at a granular level, and it shows.  When he talks about how his businesses are taking “advantage of the federal laws” he’s not exactly speaking to the lives of normal Americans.  I think we’ve seen the scowling, high water mark of the populist uncandidate.

As for the rest of the field, I thought Ben Carson was a clear loser until the last few questions, when he recovered somewhat.  I was surprised by how well John Kasich fared.  I thought Chris Christie and Marco Rubio did well, and I have to believe that the evangelical element poses clear upper limits for Mike Huckabee and Ted Cruz.  Jeb Bush seemed to flounder a bit, Scott Walker is Everyman, and Rand Paul looks likes he’s wears a wild animal pelt on his scalp.  Let’s see . . . have I forgotten anyone?

I’ll say this for the Republican debate tonight:  I’m not sure you’re getting much nuance and sophistication in answers that are limited to 1 minute — or in some cases 30 seconds — but it was fast-moving.  What does it mean?  I think nothing.

When Is A Politician’s Health “Fair Game”?

Karl Rove triggered a lot of comment recently when he raised questions about Hillary Clinton’s health and the concussion she suffered after a fall in 2012.  Many people criticized Rove’s statements, and Bill Clinton responded with an extended explanation of what happened in 2012 and how long it took for Hillary Clinton to recover from the incident.  Rove, of course, took Bill Clinton’s response as evidence that he was justified in raising the question of Hillary Clinton’s health in the first place.  In my view, he wasn’t.

Unfortunately, America is afflicted with a seemingly permanent group of “operatives,” of both parties, who served Presidents and other powerful figures in the past but have never fully gone away.  Now they make their livings by being provocative, getting attention from the media, raising money for “issue advocacy” groups and getting paid for speeches.  They’re part of the legions of tiresome talking heads who always get trotted out to address the ephemeral political issues of the day that most normal Americans couldn’t care less about.  Rove is one of them, and I’m sure he was quite satisfied with the largely critical reaction to his statements, because it kept his name in the press.

I’m of the old school that believes that a person’s health is their own business that they are entitled to keep private if they choose.  That changes when a person runs for President.  The physical and mental demands of the job are tremendous, and American voters are entitled to know whether a candidate’s health history raises issues about their ability to bear the strains.  But until someone declares that they are seeking the highest office in the land, their privacy should be respected and there should be no speculation about their health, whether the topic is Hillary Clinton’s concussion or Chris Christie’s weight.  Such an approach would restore some sense of decency and proportion to American politics — which is probably a futile exercise, but still one that should be attempted.

The pundits may view Hillary Clinton as the presumptive Democratic frontrunner, but right now she isn’t serving in public office, nor has she officially declared that she is running for President.  Until she does so, public chatter about her health should be off limits.

The Politics Of Whining

Yesterday the Sunday news shows were largely focused on New Jersey Governor Chris Christie and his staff’s decision to shut down lanes of the George Washington Bridge in order to exact some kind of political retribution on a New Jersey mayor.

Some conservatives reacted by counting how many minutes the shows devoted to the New Jersey story or by comparing how much air time and how many column inches have been devoted to “Bridgegate” as opposed to incidents like the Benghazi killings or the IRS targeting conservative organizations. They contend that the news media is biased and that Republican scandals always get more attention than Democratic scandals do.

This kind of reaction is just whining, and it’s neither attractive nor convincing. Both parties do it. When the news media was reporting every day on the disastrous rollout of healthcare.gov, Democrats were doing the same thing and arguing that the media was ignoring the positive things accomplished by the Affordable Care Act. It’s a juvenile response to the news media doing its job.

The amount of coverage a story receives is largely a function of factors that have nothing to do with politics. The George Washington bridge incident has all the elements of a great story — a powerful politician, venal and misbehaving staff members, an initial cover-up, and average Americans being inconvenienced by some crass political power play. There is footage of traffic jams to be shown, angry and easy-to-find people to be interviewed, and a contrite governor’s press conference to cover. The same is true with the Obamacare website story: there are good visuals, lots of individual stories to tell, and obvious story lines to follow, like how did this happen and how much did it cost and who screwed up. Ask yourself which story is easier to cover — the New Jersey bridge closure or the shootings in faraway and dangerous Libya — and you’ll get a good sense of which story will in fact get more coverage.

Modern politicians always seem to have an excuse and always look for someone else to blame. Whining about news coverage apparently is part of the playbook, but I can’t believe it works. Whining is pathetic, not persuasive.