I know that way too many news cycles have come and gone for me still to be fuming about the performance Senator Rand Paul turned in at the May 12 hearing of the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions; the one with the diss of Anthony Fauci -- “I don’t think you’re the end-all” -- that went, forgive me, viral.
It’s not that soundbite that’s sticking in my craw. It’s the rest of Paul’s five minutes, during which he threw a stronger one-two punch of arrogance and ignorance than some politicians achieve in a lifetime. More important, he both encapsulated and advanced a lethal misreading of all things COVID-19 that persists among way too many Americans with power over the course of this crisis, from the hydroxychloroquine-popper-in-chief to his civilian corps of faux-freedom rangers, willing to threaten anyone who stands between them and their imaginary constitutional right to in-restaurant dining.
In just 300 seconds, Paul spouted several factual inaccuracies about the COVID-19 situation in Sweden, in his home state of Kentucky and in rural America generally. He repeatedly discussed the pandemic in the past tense, as if the point of the hearing were to grade the government’s response to a bygone crisis rather than to help formulate its next moves amid an ongoing one. He treated statistical models as fixed bets to be placed, won or lost, rather than complex, dynamic projections that change depending on such variables as what policies come into play. He equated the adoption of a national strategy to fight coronavirus, for which many Americans have been clamoring, with the imposition of identical marching orders for all localities at all times, which no one has ever suggested. And he exhorted Fauci to have “humility” in the face of uncertainty while revealing that he himself has no idea what New England is.
Such ill-informed churlishness was by no means the norm among Republicans in attendance. Committee chair Lamar Alexander set a tone of collegial earnestness, reiterating his mantra that “all roads back to work and back to school run through testing.” Tim Scott spoke with such respect for the gravity of the pandemic, reverence for its dead, and regard for the ongoing safety of the front-line workers facing it that when he described South Carolina’s reopening strategy, Fauci said that he would like to clone it. Mitt Romney was a model of clarity and concision: blasting the Trump administration for its slow rollout of testing, lauding it for its swift moves toward vaccine development, and dropping his square jaw at the lack of decent real-time data out of the CDC while embracing the Congressional responsibility to ensure the remedy of that. So Paul definitely stood out.
It wasn’t just for his crabbiness and his quackery, either. It was for his air of authority. Because it was delivered with such confidence – and by a U.S. senator who is also a medical doctor -- his feckless rambling was easy to mistake for straight talk.
That is why it remains important to debunk, point by misbegotten point:
“We need to observe with an open mind what went on in Sweden, where the kids kept going to school. The mortality per capita in Sweden is actually less than France, less than Italy, less than Spain, less than Belgium, less than the Netherlands, about the same as Switzerland…”
Of course, one of the few amusing side effects of coronavirus is that it has caused some American right-wingers to fall suddenly in love with socialist Sweden for its having eschewed the degree of shutdown that has been embraced elsewhere. And who knows? It may turn out that, in the fullness of time, Sweden will have achieved such herd immunity that it withstands any “second wave” better than others, in which case it will indeed end up looking brilliant. As of now, though, Paul’s declarations about its death rate are just ludicrous. (Granted, since I am writing a full eleven days after the hearing, the numbers have placed Paul further in the wrong than he was in the moment. But that hardly helps his case.)
First, Sweden has had 396 deaths per million population. That’s notably more than the Netherlands (339) and about 45 percent more than Switzerland (220).
Belgium indeed has a very high rate (797), but that is because Belgium has adopted a much broader definition than other countries of what constitutes a coronavirus death.
Sweden does have a lower per capita death rate than Italy (541), Spain (613) and France (434), none of which is anybody’s idea of a success story. Then again, the first coronavirus deaths in France and Spain were reported in mid-February, and the first in Italy on February 22. The first coronavirus death in Sweden was announced in mid-March. So, adjusting for the time lag, Sweden is right up there (although not as far up there as the United Kingdom, which Paul did not mention but which started out with the same bring-on-the-herd-immunity approach before turning tail on it not long before its happily hand-shaking prime minister landed in the ICU.)
In other words, Paul is basically holding up a country which is jockeying for world number one in the most deaths per capita, and scolding those who fail to see that as a model.
“Basically, I don’t think there’s anybody arguing that what happened in Sweden was an unacceptable result.”
In order to equal Sweden’s death rate, the U.S. would have to have lost 99 more people per million by now. That is, about 32,500 more Americans would have to be dead – from something that did not exist in this country until a few months ago. Is “acceptable” really the word everybody would have for that?
Bizarre, too, is the rear-view mirror installed in that sentence: “…what happened; was; result,” as if the pandemic was all over but the congressional hearing, when there was and is every reason to believe that this virus is still lacing up its boots.
“We’re opening up a lot of economies around the U.S. I hope that people who are predicting doom and gloom and saying ‘oh we can’t do this, there’s going to be a surge,’ will admit that they were wrong if there isn’t a surge.”
As Paul spoke those words, the U.S. death toll was just cresting 80,000. Less than two weeks later, it is 98,705 and counting, begging the question of how many more corpses it will take for the senator to raise an eyebrow.
Then again, this comment isn’t so much about calculation. It’s about comeuppance. For Paul, this public-health emergency amounts to a fight between Americans who think that dire expert warnings should be heeded and Americans who think that they should be ignored, and once it’s clear how many have ended up dead, it will also be clear which side deserves to be humiliated.
The reality, of course, is going to be a lot messier. Though the very opposite of an expert myself, I’ll bet anything that when all is said and done, all these re-openings will turn out to have wreaked more havoc than expected in some places, less in others, and it won’t be entirely clear why. Also, between this moment and the saving stroke of vaccination, there will be an increase in treatments, such as plasma transfers or therapeutic drugs, that will render this contagion less deathly. On the other hand, given the number of people who will survive with permanent damage of some sort, it will reveal itself to be devastating in ways that the daily death counts are not communicating. For now, though, one has to do one’s best with the situation as it is.
By that standard, I will never regret taking the advice of specialists who spend their lives studying epidemics over that of politicians who routinely denigrate the idea of studying anything at all. And, no matter how lucky they may get this time, I will always consider it a bad idea for leaders to have greeted this epochal crisis with a great big cry of “everybody dive in head first and hope there’s water in the pool!”
“In rural states, we never really sort of reached any sort pandemic levels in Kentucky and other states We have less deaths in Kentucky than we have in an average flu season.”
Again, what’s with the past tense? Whatever else might be mysterious about this pandemic, it’s definitely still going on.
As for the old flu canard: In the worst flu season in memory – 2017-2018 – flu killed 333 of the senator’s constituents. So far, COVID-19 has killed 391 – more than half in the past month alone. And that was amid the very significant, often-attacked social-distancing orders of Gov. Andy Beshear.
As for the rest of rural America: On April 22, the death toll in Iowa was 90. As of May 22, it’s 433.
In Texas, over the same time span, the death toll went from 517 to 1512.
In Nebraska, it has risen from 38 to 147.
And that’s no surprise: “While non-metro areas currently have fewer coronavirus cases per capita,” stated a Kaiser Family Foundation report issued on April 30, “both cases and deaths are growing at a faster rate compared to metro counties.” Subsequent numbers have done nothing but bear that out.
Numbers aside, there is an obvious logical flaw to treating urban and rural America as such totally separate concepts: they often converge. Rural states have their cities. And even the least populated areas within those states do not consist of nothing but wide open spaces. Any store, restaurant, beauty salon, church, or, God knows, prison or meat-packing plant can function as a perfectly Gothamite contagion site.
“Outside of New England, we’ve had a relatively benign course for this virus nationwide.”
Wow. That line really stopped me cold, and not just because New England consists of Maine, Vermont, New Hampshire, Massachusetts, Rhode Island and Connecticut, and thus excludes the two states that have been hardest hit, New York and New Jersey.
Granting Paul a pass, and assuming that he meant to say “the northeast,” it’s still a breathtakingly asinine remark. How about Louisiana? Michigan? Illinois? Indiana? Pennsylvania?
Two-thirds of new coronavirus deaths are now occurring outside the northeast. If that’s the senator’s idea of “benign,” I’d hate to see his “malignant.”
“The history of this when we look back is going to be wrong prediction after wrong prediction after wrong prediction, starting with Ferguson in England.”
This appears to be a reference to Neil Ferguson, a mathematical epidemiologist at Imperial College London whose models predicted, as of mid-March, that in the absence of government intervention, the United Kingdom might suffer more than half a million deaths from COVID-19, and the U.S. some 2.2 million.
Of course, there’s no guaranteeing that had government leaders done nothing, the numbers would have been as dire as Ferguson and company predicted. But government leaders didn’t do nothing. With rare exception (good going, Taiwan!), they acted late, they acted imperfectly, but they acted, and thus caused the happy failure of reality to bear out the darkest prophecies.
So yes, thankfully, the modelers have turned out to be “wrong.” But should they thus be chastised? That depends. Would Senator Paul use a drop in lung-cancer deaths to discredit doctors who successfully warned their patients off smoking? Or denigrate homeland-security officials for acting on information that prompted the thwarting of terrorist threats on the grounds that those threats were never carried out?
Maybe he would. But in my view, the notion that professionals who reasonably predicted catastrophe in the absence of action should be ridiculed for producing the data that prompted the action that mitigated catastrophe is a whole lot more bonkers than the worst statistical model imaginable.
“And I think the one size fits all, that we’re going to have a national strategy of nobody is going to school, is kind of ridiculous.”
Yes, that would be ridiculous, which is why absolutely no one has proposed any such thing.
Back when it occurred, in April, the stupid scuffle between Andrew Cuomo and Bill De Blasio over who had the authority to close the New York City public schools seemed completely pointless. It does, however, now come in handy as a reminder that Democratic leaders within Democratic states aren’t even in lockstep on the details of shutting down and opening up. The idea that anybody is advocating for some kind of uniform and total national lockdown unless and until a vaccine is found does not exist anywhere except in the straw-man-building division of the Republican party.
Perhaps the senator could read a little something on World War II, in which the Allied forces did certain things in certain ways in Europe, and other things in other ways in the Pacific. But it was considered ideal to have a common mission, and at least some sense of who was doing what to achieve it.
“As much as I respect you, Dr. Fauci, I don’t think you’re the end-all. I don’t think you’re the one person who gets to make a decision.”
Neither, thank God, is Paul. But if it ever came down to the mild-mannered doctor from Brooklyn or the ungentlemanly gentleman from Kentucky, I know which one I’d pick.
Newsflash: Coronavirus is a really big deal.
With more than 80,000 Americans dead from COVID-19, you’d think that even President Trump would be painfully clear on this point. Then again, why should he be more rational than the bulk of his friends and fans?
From William Bennett to Laura Ingraham to Rush Limbaugh to Ben Shapiro and straight on down the list, so many right-wing talkers have demonstrated so much utter illogic in the face of global pandemic that it has become its own scary contagion. Like virus lingering on a half-washed hand, their echo chamber rings with the astounding contention that the infection currently ravaging the nation is nothing to get too hyped up about. No! It’s a wildly-overblown doom-and-gloom scenario spun up by public-health geeks and their liberal enablers. Bizarrely, the more scalding the evidence to the contrary that is poured on it, the more this misapprehension seems to replicate and spread.
I’ll leave it to epidemiologists and their demonizers to fight over whether X restriction-loosening will lead to Y public-health disaster, and further leave it up to cable-news luminaries to weigh in on whether that’d be better or worse than risking Z cases of financial ruin.
My only point here is one that I can’t believe still needs to be made. Purely based on what actually has happened, and is happening, in plain view, COVID-19 is a national catastrophe. Thankfully, polls suggest that most Americans understand this. But whether snarking at Anthony Fauci, swinging a noose at Gretchen Whitmer, or purring condescension about lefty hysteria across the airwaves, a significant and influential minority does not grasp it at all. It is far past time for their foolishness to be injected with Clorox, flooded with ultraviolet rays, and blasted straight out of the body politic.
With apologies to those conservatives who have met this moment with the seriousness it demands – I’m lookin’ at you, Mike DeWine -- let’s take a few of the standard minimizations one by one:
It’s just another flu.
Senator Rand Paul is the latest to float this falsehood. “We have less deaths in Kentucky than we have in an average flu season,” he said, by way of needling Fauci at Tuesday’s hearing before the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor and Pensions.
This despite wrenchingly irrefutable evidence that COVID-19 has already made the average American flu season look like a day at the beach, circa 2019.
Even accepting the most dire figures on the most dire flu season in recent memory – that some 80,000 Americans died of flu and its complications in 2017-18 -- COVID-19 has already killed more than that number in less than a third of the time. And if a recent Scientific American post by Jeremy Samuel Faust is to be credited, typically-cited CDC flu figures should be binned like yesterday’s PPE. Faust points out that such estimates are a model, rather than a tally. Counting real-time death by real-time death, the way that coronavirus fatalities are being tabulated, a terrible flu year claims something under 16,000 people. That’s less than two weeks in the life and deaths of COVID-19.
By the way, in that unusually-brutal flu season of 2017-2018, 333 Kentuckians died. Figuring the flu season to last from October through April, that works out to about 11 or 12 deaths per week. Since March 16, when its first death was announced in Senator Paul’s home state, COVID-19 has killed 321, which works out to about forty deaths per week. That seems like a lot more.
Think of all the traffic accidents we have every single year, and we don’t shut down the country for that.
As I type this, coronavirus has killed 44,625 more Americans than are estimated to have died in traffic accidents in the whole of 2019 (38,800). That’s more than a 2:1 COVID-to-car-death ratio. At its current daily death rate (1630), COVID-19 annualizes to 594,950 deaths per year, or a little over 15 times the rate of 2019 traffic deaths.
Of course, optimists will point out that the current daily death rate may do nothing but fall. And who doesn’t hope that they are right? But even if they are – even if, a year from now, every go-ahead-and-get-a-manicure governor is laughing in the face of everyone who voiced a doubt – it will still be true that comparing deaths from COVID-19 to those from traffic accidents has long since been rendered ridiculous.
Sure, it’s bad for old and/or sick people but they were about to die anyway.
The moral odiousness of this argument is the subject for a whole other head-banging.
For those who remember the painful birth of Obamacare, though, the political irony is to choke on. Back in 2009, anyone who dared to hint at the very high proportion of health-care resources that are expended to prolong clearly-soon-to-end lives was basically accused of murder. Now, as many of the same folks would have it, if you’re over 65 and/or diabetic, off you go!
In fairness, not everyone who decries the COVID-19 “overreaction” does so out of a cruel indifference to Grandma. Some insist that they are doing so, all the more to protect her. “The coronavirus danger is narrowly targeted at a very specific portion of the population: the elderly infirm. These individuals need to be intensely protected,” Manhattan Institute fellow Heather Mac Donald recently argued in a New York Post column that mostly blasted how “overfearful of coravirus we’ve become.”
That sounds great: Go all-out to safeguard the handful who could get really sick or die, and let everybody else get on with earning a living. It’s a win-win.
Indeed, in theory, if adopted nationally, forcefully, and very early on, some version of that approach might have made some sense. In practice, it’s not a tack that any American government could easily take, and the very antithesis of one that the current American government would remotely contemplate.
In order for a masterful, pre-emptive surgical strike to have had a snowball’s chance in hell of saving the economy from coronavirus, there would have had to have been a supremely masterful surgeon in charge, scalpel expertly aimed. To this day, our actual guy won’t even put a mask on.
Think back to late January, or early February. There are no known coronavirus cases, let alone deaths, anywhere in the U.S. In the midst of what Americans are experiencing as a complete non-event, President Trump gets an earful from global-intelligence and health experts, some of them “deep state” lifers like Fauci. Ignoring the objections of corporate titans and the Tea Party, he mandates the isolation of private as well as state-run nursing homes and everyone who passes through them. He exhorts Congress to fast-track emergency legislation requiring businesses to allow immunosuppressed employees to work from home; compensate those obliged to stay away from affected jobs; hyper-regulate the sanitation, social distancing, and virus-monitoring in essential businesses, on the grounds that they can’t shut down no matter what, and therefore safeguards need to be put in place for their workers. He calls all his favorite pastors to the White House and tells them that their church services are to be closed to everyone who either is -- or lives with anyone who is -- sick or over the age of sixty-five.
Maybe, just maybe, if the Trump administration had taken that and a host of other uncharacteristically wise and difficult actions, many lives and much of the economy would have been spared. But can anyone imagine him doing that? Or anyone in his posse urging him to do that?
Then again, even if Team Trump were capable of such action, “super-protect the super-vulnerable, hands off everybody else” is not the finger-snap solution it sounds like.
The whole formulation lowballs not only the proportion of non-ancient people who have seriously suffered or died from COVID-19, but also the degree to which the old and “sick” typically exist among everyone else, and therefore cannot so easily be cordoned off from the nation’s breadwinners. In many cases, such people are the nation’s breadwinners.
No question, the virus hits the oldest by far the hardest. But it’s simply not true that everybody else gets some kind of pass.
According to Michigan’s official numbers, for instance, one-quarter of its cases have been under age forty. Sixty per cent have been under age sixty.
Granted, “under sixty” does not exactly mean “young.” But given that the average age of retirement in this country is 62 – and the youngest our next president can possibly be on inauguration day is 74 -- it hardly equates to “elderly infirm,” either.
Meanwhile, the vast majority of older Americans -- about 95 per cent of those over 65, according to census data -- do not live in nursing homes. That goes for a sizable chunk of super-seniors, as well: In 2012, for example, Forbes noted that more than half of Americans aged ninety-five and above were still living in their own homes. And it’s not as if everybody who gives up the house goes straight to Shady Pines. In 2016, according to a Pew Research Center study, nearly one quarter of women over age 85 were living with their grown children – and thus, in many cases, grandchildren.
Then don’t forget the grandparents who babysit, some to the point of furnishing day care. That’s apart from the more drastic circumstances -- overseas deployments, opiods, incarceration – that call upon grandparents to rear their children’s children, full stop. No doubt, some of those grandparents are fortysomething triathletes. Some most certainly are not.
As for those with “underlying conditions,” they’re not so easy to bubble wrap, either. More than forty per cent of Americans qualify as obese. Some 23.5 million have an autoimmune disorder. At least 16 million live with chronic obstructive pulmonary disease. In any given year, more than a million are diagnosed with cancer.
This isn’t to suggest that most of America is fated to drop dead at the first hint of coronavirus. But it’s still an awful lot of elevated-risk people, functioning day in and day out at the center of American economic life – or, at the very least, living with people who function there. It’s not as if all concerned could be benched without affecting the game.
Striking, too, is the amount of geographic overlap between the prevalence of underlying conditions in a given state and the reluctance of that state’s leadership to treat coronavirus as a major threat. Go through the top ten states for chronic heart disease, chronic lung disease, adult asthma, diabetes and obesity, and you will not find the stomping grounds of Andrew Cuomo or Gavin Newsom. You will find one rural Republican state after another.
This brings us to another favorite pandemic-shrinking point:
COVID-19 may be a hammer to the heart of some major cities, but it’s barely a prick to the pinky of the heartland.
That’s the gist of Bret Stephens’ New York Times column for April 24: “The Whole Country Shouldn’t Have To Play By New York Rules.”
“Even now,” Stephens wrote, “it is stunning to contemplate the extent to which the country’s Covid-19 crisis is a New York crisis.”
Well, yes and no. Given its 66,000-plus people per square mile and their propensity to be crammed into high rises and subway cars, it is to be hoped that nowhere else gets hit nearly as hard as New York City. But to call this a “New York crisis” is a shrug too far.
To start with the present: On May 12, according to Worldometer, there were 1,630 new deaths recorded in the U.S., of which 172 (10.5%) belonged to New York. Add in New Jersey and Connecticut, and the total rises to 403 (about 24%.) In other words, three quarters of the COVID-19 deaths In America are now deaths outside the New York metropolitan area.
Not too long ago, those figures would have been flipped – which points to the odd fact that the places currently being portrayed as pretty darn safe from the virus are the very places where it is starting to kill more people.
Now, going back to the beginning: if one completely lops all of the New York COVID-19 deaths off the national total, one is left with 56,250. Lop off New Jersey and Connecticut, too, and one is left with 43,668. That means that, even accounting for the worst days in the Big Apple, more than half of American deaths from COVID-19 have taken place outside the New York metropolitan area. And it means that – apart from that metropolitan area – COVID-19 has already killed 4,868 more Americans than died in motor vehicles in 2019, about twenty times more than perished in Hurricane Katrina, and slightly more than died from opioid overdoses in the drug-devastated year of 2017.
In Wisconsin, in Indiana, in Iowa – let alone Illinois and Michigan – COVID-19 has taken much less time to kill many more people than the flu or car accidents, and it’s easily on track to surpass opiod deaths where it hasn’t already.
In short, regardless of what happens from this day forward, there has already been an awful lot of non-New-York dying to be blasé about.
Again, I’m in no position to predict what any of this bodes for the future. But anyone can see how it has played out thus far.
In state after state, government energy or apathy has either improved or worsened the COVID-19 odds relative to population density.
Brian Kemp’s Georgia has both a population density and an urbanized-population rate of roughly a third less than that of Gavin Newsom’s California. So far, Georgia has suffered about twice as many deaths per million as California has.
Mississippi, whose governor, Tate Reeves, resisted a statewide stay-at-home order until April 1, ranks 32nd in population density, 14th in deaths per million.
Conversely, Maryland, under the proactive leadership of Larry Hogan, ranks fifth in population density, but tenth in deaths per million. Ohio, one of the first to lock down under Mike DeWine, ranks tenth in population density, but 17th in deaths per million.
Of course, downstate New York and New Jersey are populated up the wazoo, and despite being governed by a pair of pearl-clutching Democrats, Andrew Cuomo and Phil Murphy, they’ve got far more fatalities than anywhere else. Looking back over the past few months, there’s certainly a case to be made that had Cuomo and Murphy taken swifter, even more sweeping action, the gravediggers of their states would have had a lot less work to do. But could anyone argue that if they had simply cordoned off the nursing homes, urged – but not mandated! -- the cessation of social gatherings, the curtailment of non-essential travel and the wearing of facial coverings by those who enjoy that feeling of snugness on their skin, they wouldn’t have had much more?
As it happens, yes. Many are making just that argument, and the more bodies pile up, the more they double down.
These folks may forever scorn the idea of placing masks over their noses and mouths. But could they please remove the blinds from their eyes?
Joe Biden is no kid, but folks! What a comeback!
As a forever-fan of Elizabeth Warren, I wish I were writing a Super-Tuesday-shocker piece about her. But let’s face it: Biden could not have done any more to shake up this race if he had vowed to run the rest of it in his jockeys.
Many, many strands of analysis remain to be pulled out of March 3. Here’s the first one that jumps out at me:
Bernie Sanders's race is far from over. But his rationale is dead and gone.
The central Sanders narrative is not about Medicare for All or free college or democratic socialism or any of that stuff. It is about the Bern itself, and himself. “Bernie is unique,” the story goes. “He is an iconoclast, a messiah, an exclusively-grass-roots-fed unicorn. Democrats need not concern themselves with attracting centrists or independents or anti-Trump Republicans or, say, the tens of thousands of nowhere-near-rich Pennsylvanians who happen to work in the insurance or fossil-fuel industries and who could be forgiven for wondering what they are going to get to eat down there in the dustbin of history. Democrats just need to nominate Bernie, and Bernie will attract so very very many totally-new voters that political math – and most likely mathematics itself – will transfigure, like Jesus on the mountain.”
That whole spiel is what’s in the dustbin now. Biden picked it up in Virginia, crumpled it up in Minnesota, ping-ponged it between his own two palms from North Carolina to Arkansas to Mississippi, and tossed it out in Texas.
In all the lead-up to the primaries, of course, Biden was seen, and acted, as the frontrunner. But once things got started, it was Sanders who had everything going for him. Sanders had much more money than Biden. He had a much better organization. He had a much less-crowded ideological lane, with zero self-funded billionaires directly drawing from him. He had solid showings in Iowa, New Hampshire and especially Nevada. He had a ton of positive press, at least in the sense of universal recognition that, after those first three contests, his was the clearest shot at the nomination. He undoubtedly had a major head start in Super Tuesday votes cast early, when everybody thought Uncle Joe was on life support and the only question was who’d pull the plug.
Meanwhile, as of a week ago, all Biden had gotten for being the candidate of “the Democratic Establishment” was grief for screwing it up so badly.
Of course, Sanders deserves a great deal of credit for building upon all his opening strengths, and Biden plenty of blame for squandering his. But, as the freshly-front-running son of Scranton might put it, here’s the deal:
Despite huge advantages, Sanders could not clean up among Democratic primary voters, the most liberal electorate in national politics. He went up against a gaffe-prone, cash-starved, #metoo-muddled, crime-bill-and-Iraq-War-saddled, Iowa-New-Hampshire-Nevada-losing oldster who was simultaneously fighting off a $60-billion gorilla after only very recently co-opting a troublesome pair of rivals -- and Sanders still got whacked from Richmond to Tulsa to Minneapolis. Who on earth can now argue that it’ll be Bernie who can drive up anti-Trump turnout in November, when the electorate will only expand to the right?
In fairness, it probably wasn’t Biden who really rocked the vote on Tuesday. It was Trump. The Democratic masses desperately want to beat Trump. Without benefit of Bloomberg’s shock-and-awe paid-media bombardments nor Sanders’s legendary field operation, millions of ordinary Americans got themselves to the polls to support the one they consider most capable of doing that.
Maybe this time, that’s what all the broad-based, grass-roots, down-with-the-people excitement will be about.
Maybe this time, turning away from Trump is all the revolution most Americans will crave.
Maybe this time, for all practical purposes, it's Biden who will be the Bernie.
First things first:
Donald Trump’s white nationalist rhetoric would be repulsively disqualifying if no one ever shot anyone.
Lunatics sometimes shoot out of left field, as the Dayton killer seems to have done, and it is the coldest possible comfort that he did so without ideological egging-on from the president of the United States.
The systemic availability of lethal firepower to fanatics demands redress, notwithstanding the particulars of what the fanaticism consists of.
Of course, there’s nothing new in any of the above. Other than dates, locations and casualty counts, there’s never anything new in any of it.
True to form, since yet two more mass shooters put yet two more cities on the ever-more-densely-dotted massacre map of America, most elected Republicans have offered thoughts, prayers and hand-wringing about evil without questioning the wisdom of super-arming those in the grip of evil. (No-longer-elected Republicans, such as John Kasich and Christine Todd Whitman, did stray far from that script.) Democrats have responded with the usual mix of anguish and data, seasoning the blood of shoppers, diners and toddlers with the predictable factoid litany: the expansive legal-carry laws of Texas did nothing to prevent the massacre in El Paso; the near-instant armed intervention of law enforcement still left nine people dead in Dayton; other countries have similar rates of mental illness, video gaming and even neo-fascism but much more gun control and thus much less carnage; no one hunts or games or guards the house with a weapon of war.
No question, I could not be in greater agreement with the whole latter riff. But for purposes of political efficacy, I do wish that Democrats would place much more emphasis on its most underplayed variation:
This is one of the Democratic Talking Points for Dummies that I outlined in my last post. The others are:
The gist of the list is that even as they woo the left, Democrats should hit Trump's GOP for abandoning so many of the core values traditionally championed by the right; values that have always benefited the American experiment as a whole, and that swing voters might like someone to mention.
Nowhere is this more urgently apparent than in the realm of law and order.
Especially since Vietnam, Republicans have routinely cast themselves as upstanding, church-going, rules-abiding Americans, in clean-cut contrast to those godless, pot-smoking, sloth-enabling, Establishment-spitting-upon Democrats. Part and parcel of this image has been the notion that right-wingers love the police, and will stand by them through thick and thin – unlike the lefties, who never met an anti-cop headline, protest or lawsuit they didn’t like.
It’s amazing how long this image has outlasted reality. And it’s chilling how much of it has come to emanate solely from the Republican allergy to the whole concept of Black Lives Matter.
It’s harsh to say but it’s true: at this point, with rare exception, Republicans can be reliably counted on to defend the police when and only when the police are accused of racist brutality. The rare police officer who shoots an unarmed black man in the back can count on his own back being had by the GOP. One example of a million: In 2018, an off-duty Dallas police officer mistakenly walked into the wrong apartment, then shot and killed the unarmed, minding-his-own-business African-American man who lived there. Then running for re-election to the U.S. Senate, Ted Cruz refused to “rush to judgment” on the question of whether that officer should lose her job – not her liberty, as could only properly be determined by a jury of her peers, but her job as an armed agent of the state. In a debate, Cruz actually upbraided his opponent, Beto O’Rourke, for agreeing with the man’s family that his loss of his life should automatically entail her loss of livelihood, as if that contention were somehow crazily anti-police.
Unfortunately, for all too many Republican officials – along with a small percentage of Democrats -- that sense of loyalty does not extend to police officers who manage to steer clear of such trouble. All those thousands of great men and women trying to “serve and protect,” week in and week out, with some sense of safety and authority? As far as Cruz and company are concerned, they can go straight to hell in a handbasket woven by the National Rifle Association.
Given a choice between the lives of our police and the lucre the gun lobby throws their way, almost every Republican has taken that lucre, almost every time.
This is not a new development, and evidence of it abounds. On gun-control issue after gun-control issue -- background checks, loophole closures, the renewal of the assault-weapons ban -- the lion’s share of law-enforcement organizations square off against the gun lobby. And the lion’s share of Republican lawmakers thus square off against law enforcement.
Just to save space, though, let’s make a quick example of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act of 2017 – which passed the Republican-led House of Representatives and enjoyed overwhelming, if slightly insufficient, Republican support in the Senate. (Cruz and John Cornyn have already introduced a somewhat-altered version in the current Congress.)
If passed, the 2017 law would have allowed any individual permitted to carry a concealed sidearm anywhere in the United States, to carry that sidearm everywhere in the United States. The number one priority of the NRA was to promote this measure. The number one priority of the International Association of Chiefs of Police, among many other law-enforcement organizations, was to thwart it. And they weren’t conflicted about it: “cockamamie” was the term then-Milwaukee police chief Edward Flynn applied to the idea; “insanity” that of New York City police commissioner James O’Neill. And it wasn’t just big-city chiefs in blue states: opposition came, too, from Tucson, Arizona and LaGrange, Georgia; Maplewood, Minnesota and Caribou, Maine.
Of course, any such idea makes a mockery of another once-operative GOP ideal, which was to place decision-making power as close to the local level --- what they like to call “the people” --- as possible. Under this act, the people of Chicago, Pittsburgh and Baltimore would have to subordinate their views of gun rights to the views of the people of Wyoming or Alaska. The will of residents who value stringent controls on the ability of ordinary citizens to carry firearms would be forced to bow to the will of visitors from places that value few such controls. One’s feeling of safety on one’s own streets would count for less than the convenience of the gun-toters passing through.
But I digress; the point here is the effect of this measure, and others like it, upon police. Echoing the sentiments of the two-thirds of Texas police chiefs who opposed the aforementioned 2015 liberalization of the concealed-carry laws in their state -- but foreshadowing the police chiefs nationwide who supported the background-checks measure recently passed by the Democratic House, then ignored by the Republican Senate -- the police strenuously argued that the effect of the Concealed Carry Reciprocity Act would be Bad. Those representing our men and women in blue argued that the NRA's favorite law would add stress to their already-stressful jobs– obliging officers to distinguish who was carrying legally from who was not, or more dramatically, in bloodbath scenarios such as those of last weekend, to distinguish the good ordinary guys shooting to save lives from the bad ordinary guys shooting to slaughter. It would potentially expose officers to personal liability on account of inevitable confusion. That’s wholly apart from the dim-witted cruelty of increasing the odds that an officer will confront lethal force in scenarios from traffic stops to barroom brawls to domestic-violence calls.
The Controlled Carry Reciprocity Act is just one measure, and for the moment, it’s dead. But it suffices to illustrate that the Republicans’ reputation as the “law and order party” does not deserve to live.
It is way past time for Democrats to take aim and shoot at that grossly undeserved image. Shoot it right between the eyes. Shoot it to kill.
I know we’re all supposed to be obsessed with who broke out and who broke down during the first Democratic debates last week. But I would like to interrupt this predictably-scheduled programming to make a general plea to all the candidates on behalf of everyone who desperately longs to defeat Donald Trump.
Please, please, please do not let a day go by without hitting at least one of the following points, and hitting it hard:
In the debates and elsewhere, it is true, Democratic candidates have been loud and clear on a number of key points:
Those are all good, indeed essential, arguments. No one should stop pounding them. But there’s an awful lot that this litany simply omits.
Long before the candidates took the stage in Florida, Democratic politics had become soggy with its saturation in the debate over whether victory lies in running way to the left or hewing to the left-of-center. Meanwhile, nobody seems to notice that in following Trump, the GOP has almost entirely abandoned its own side of the field.
It’s astonishing. Trump and company have applied scorched-earth savagery to almost everything that has historically made the GOP appeal to anyone outside the confines of a few distinct, if overlapping, groups: the Christian and/or white-nationalist right; the personality cult of Trump; and the anti-tax, anti-regulation absolutists who don’t care if U.S. governance becomes a Kim Jong-Un/Franklin Graham co-production as long as they get richer.
Free trade, free markets, individual rights, localized political control, global leadership, fiscal prudence, (true) religious liberty, law and order…Trump’s GOP has torched them all. In so doing, they have alienated some highly honorable Republican and recently-ex-Republican dissidents -- and a giant mass of not-so-left-leaning independents on whom this election will hinge.
So far, Democrats have been behaving as if there are only two ways to treat these folks: woo them by pre-diluting liberal ideals so as to compromise before anyone even gets near a table, or “stir the base” with big-government, identity-infused visions and hope that independents’ reservations about this will be drowned in a sea of anti-Trump disgust.
Just an aside here, I think that such reservations should be drowned in a sea of anti-Trump disgust. I find it wildly misguided to reason, as columnists such as David Brooks have been doing, along the lines of “I think it’s a bad idea to abolish private health insurance or super-tax the super-rich, so I might just sit back and facilitate the re-election of someone I do believe to be a dangerous lunatic. ” But I’ll accept that many Americans might reason just so.
Anyway, these folks might or might not be comforted by kind words about rich people or promises go halfsies on subsidized health care. But they certainly ought to be reminded:
This would not be true in virtually any other election, but it is very true of this one: If you are a good, sane, solid American whose politics lean right but not far right, Joe Biden is not the only Democratic candidate with whom you should feel greater affinity than you feel with Donald Trump. In fact, you should feel greater affinity with almost all the Democratic candidates than you feel with Trump--and not just because of his racism, sexism, cronyism, authoritarianism, impetuousness, ignorance, crudeness, and whatnot. It’s also his complete renunciation of many of your own values. After all:
Some candidates – Pete Buttigieg comes to mind – do talk in general terms about the need to address entirely new realities in entirely new, label-resistant ways. In his turn on Thursday night, Buttigieg actually stated, “tariffs are taxes.” But that should not be a throwaway line on a debate stage by this or that contender. It should be one of five simple, straightforward lines of attack, relentlessly pressed by all the contenders:
It’s all well and good to fight over whether Joe is too old and grabby, Bernie too old and crabby, Elizabeth too wonky, Kamala too prosecutorial and Pete too young and/or the right amount of gay. It’s fine to debate whether the standard ought to be “Medicare for All” or “Semi-Decent Health Care for Most;” “The Green New Deal” or “A Cyan-Colored Strategy That Treats Climate Change As Something Other Than A Chinese Hoax.” But wherever one comes down on those issues, these facts remain:
In future posts, I will flesh out each of these ideas. But for now, if you happen to be a Democrat running for President, please, please, please hit at least one of them, at least once a day.
It’s official: Beto O’Rourke has thrown his mop of hair into the ring.
No one knows whether O’Rourke the presidential candidate will be able to scale the magic of Beto the bane of Ted Cruz. But for purposes of defeating Donald Trump, Democrats should hope like hell that he can.
It’s not because he’s cool or "Kennedyesque" or so much better than – or, frankly, different from – most of his fellow Democrats on “the issues.”
It’s not because he’s a white man. (In fact, I’d be happier if he weren’t.)
It’s because Beto O’Rourke is from Texas, also known as the state with the second-highest number of electoral votes. So, of course, is Julian Castro – and if Castro should capture sufficient lightning (and funding) in months to come, the same argument certainly applies to him.
Yes, this is a simplistic way of looking at things – but then again, Democrats are busily thwarting themselves with sophisticated ones.
There’s the whole Rubik's cube of identity:
Would male voters turn out for a woman, or turn on her? Conversely, having had such bitter back-to-back defeats in the last two go-rounds, would women rally to yet another man? If so, does that man have to be black, Hispanic or gay? On the other hand, given the collective fear of Joe Six Pack, would he be allowed to be any of those? Supposing it’s Bernie or Biden, can anyone name a vice-presidential prospect sufficiently fresh to extend the expiration date on those guys?
And the Jacob's ladder of ideology/policy:
Do you have to be for the green new deal or Medicare for All? Is it smart to drop the occasional nice comment about this or that Republican, or is it suicidal? How do you navigate slavery reparations and #me too without coming across as either racist/sexist on the one hand or looney-lefty on the other?
Meanwhile, nobody seems to be looking at a map.
Whatever other qualities they may have to recommend them, Kirsten Gillebrand, Cory Booker, Kamala Harris, Elizabeth Warren, Bernie Sanders, Jay Inslee, Tulsi Gabbard, John Delaney, Andrew Yang, and Marianne Williamson all come from states that the Democratic candidate is almost certainly going to win in a walk.
Notwithstanding the positive buzz he has generated with one stellar performance after another, Pete Buttigieg comes from a state where Donald Trump is just as sure to rock out, and would do even if Mike Pence weren’t a native son. (Buttigieg 2036? Count me in!)
John Hickenlooper and Amy Klobuchar come from states where Hillary Clinton beat Trump, who has only been growing less popular in those places ever since.
By contrast, Beto O’Rourke has just come off building a massive grass-roots organization and one hundred per cent name recognition in a long-Republican state that Democrats have a real shot at taking, partly thanks to him.
Clearly, there are limits to this calculation. Trump lost his native New York and will lose it again, and there is no point of origin that can turn a loser of a candidate into a winner.
Coming off the high of his senate run, it will be quite easy for O’Rourke to come across as a loser. Straight out of the gate, he has only two options: dazzle or fizzle. If he fizzles, there’s no math that adds up for him.
If he dazzles, though…if he dazzles, Democrats should let everybody else fade in his glow. There is just no sense in peeling the shine off a candidate who stands the greatest chance of beating Trump where he most needs to win -- or failing that, can at least force the incumbent to spend a lot of time and money to secure himself where he ought to be safe.
He may or may not have been wearing Prada, but make no mistake: Howard Schultz is the devil.
Tuesday night, on the CNN Town Hall designed to introduce him to the nation, Schultz came across as intelligent, articulate, well-informed, well-intentioned. He had a compelling rags-to-riches life story and a modest but powerful way of telling it. You couldn’t see the horns hidden in his hair or the pitchfork he was holding, but they were there.
Schultz is not the devil because he is a centrist. Joe Biden is a centrist. Michael Bloomberg is a centrist. A number of the declared Democratic presidential candidates (Amy Klobuchar, Pete Buttigieg) will probably run as centrists. Despite decades of being pummeled from the right as some kind of Bay Area Bolshevik, Nancy Pelosi is a centrist. Not that anyone cares, but I am a centrist – by which I mean, I may be very liberal, but I recognize that many Americans are not, and that they count, too.
Centrists may be passé or short on star power or meh in the eyes of single-issue pressure groups or flat-out wrong. But centrists are not the devil.
Schultz is not the devil because he’s mega rich. Unlike the (supposed) billionaire in the White House, Schultz rose from nothing and has created tons of employment. At his town hall, he shrank from positing his business experience as a qualification for the presidency, but in key ways, it is one.
Of course, Schultz is the devil because if he mounts a third-party candidacy, he will bolster President Trump’s odds of re-election – but also, and importantly, because of the way he talks about the possibility of doing so.
As the CNN town hall made clear, that way is: he spins the oft-told, not-true tale that normal Americans can find no home in either of the major parties because both have gone equally crazy. Even when he wasn’t decrying it, Schultz was implying it: this vision of a “far left” and a “far right” and trapped between them a vast middle who just want – to use a favorite term of Schultz’s – “sensible” government.
Oh, please. There isn’t a horse on earth that would own up to producing that grade of manure.
In normal times, I’d react very differently. In normal times, when it comes to governance, I love “sensible” the way Abelard loved Heloise. I’m a common-ground, half-a-loaf-is-better-than-none, sounds-great-but-how-much-is-this-going-to-cost kind of gal. In normal times, I reject the idea that Democrats are, by definition and default, superior to Republicans for the steaming pile of garbage that such an idea normally is.
These are not normal times.
If the crucial line of distinction were ideological, as it is often mistaken to be, I would argue that the Democrats have not gone nearly as far left as the Republicans have gone right; at least not yet – and that if Schultz were really concerned about the party tilting too far left, he’d do much more to counter that by exerting his gazillion-dollar force from within, a la Bloomberg. But the crucial line of distinction is not ideological.
For decades, Republicans have gotten away with depicting themselves as the party of fiscal restraint while running up vertiginous levels of public debt. Now and with equal gusto, they are ridiculing Democrats for being delusional while merrily severing strand after strand of their own connection to reality.
No question, as currently formulated, such proposals as the Green New Deal, Medicare for All, a 70 per cent tax rate on the richest Americans, and tuition-free college may all be fantasy solutions. But at least they address real problems.
The GOP, by contrast, has dedicated itself to going hammer-and-tongs after fake ones. Especially with – but even without – Trump, it has become a phony-issue factory. Sometimes drawing raw material from actual challenges, other times working with thin air, the party of Lincoln has become scarily efficient at churning out crises that don’t exist but do resonate.
Clearly, there are real debates that need to be had in connection with every issue I am about to list, as well as many others. But as long as the Republicans keep going as they are, those debates cannot possibly be had, because their starting position on each rests upon some self-generated, ferociously-guarded fiction. Such as:
The fiction that that there is a crisis-level number of central Americans (not to mention Arabs), streaming across the southern border to terrorize Americans and steal their jobs.
That snow and ice constitute evidence against global warming.
That in the absence of an absolute ban on late-term abortions, it’s open season on newborns.
That no woman is safe in a public restroom unless transgender people are kicked out of the military and, ideally, existence.
One could go on.
It’s as if, delighted at the traction they were able to get by selling a “war on Christmas” even as the Yuletide season grew to encompass Labor Day through New Year’s, they’ve decided to try their luck at turning every issue upside down while screaming that it’s right side up.
There are constitutional fictions too, in connection with which Mitch McConnell deserves more Oscars than Meryl. Having acted as if Democratic presidents in the last year of their terms are not allowed to have their Supreme Court nominees voted up or down, McConnell more recently played – no, he truly inhabited the role of – a Senate Majority Leader convinced that he couldn’t possibly help shut down the shutdown because the legislature he runs is not allowed to pass a measure unless the president has already agreed to sign it.
And of course, the most darkly dazzling make-believe of all: that said president may have a few quirks for the liberal media to exaggerate, but nothing about him, in word or deed, need really worry anyone.
None of this is remotely true. One party has staked its life on pretending that it is, and the other party, though far from perfect, recognizes that it is not.
Who needs Russia? This time, just a semi-objective grasp of a few basic facts on the ground ought to be enough for the most “sensible” among us to go with the Democrats.
Expert though he is in all matters of coffee, Howard Schultz displays a highly questionable belief in America’s current desire to come together and try the decaf. In order for a third-party candidate to win in 2020, the national mood would have to be monumentally less partisan than it was when John Anderson, Ross Perot, Ralph Nader and Jill Stein tried the same thing. Not to mention, as the great Charlie Cook recently pointed out, the Electoral College would have to disappear like a cube of raw cane into a double-shot of espresso.
In 2020, then, the presidency will either go to Donald Trump or to the Democratic nominee. If Schultz runs, he will obviously and greatly enhance the hopes of the former. But he doesn’t even have to run to do real damage to the latter.
Over and over again on CNN, Schultz insisted that he would not do anything to re-elect Trump.
By daring to equate the party of reality with the party of reality television, he already is.
Considering the closeness of the race and the bizarrely-permissible tasking of her opponent with presiding over its results, Georgia gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams is all too well advised to do exactly what she is doing: forestall concession to recusal-resistant Secretary of State Brian Kemp until every last vote is counted. While she’s at it, though, there is something more that Abrams should do, and she owes it to herself and to Georgia to do it now.
Abrams should stand up, throw her head and shoulders back, and pull herself up like a great wall of rectitude. And in the strongest, clearest-possible voice she should declaim: “I call for a full investigation of the allegations recently made by Secretary Kemp that the Democratic Party had hacked into our state voter-registration system. I do not believe that there is any substance to these allegations. But the integrity of our elections is too important to leave to any one person or party. If there is a legitimate shadow to be cast on my own side of the aisle, let it be cast, so the system itself can shine clean and bright for all Georgians to see and believe.”
With that statement, Abrams would come across as – and, in fact, be – a champion of voting rights for all; more mindful of the sacred electoral process than of her own prospects in it; just as disturbed by any possible tampering with Kemp’s votes as by tampering with her own. More deliciously, she would also present Kemp with the problem of what to do with whatever conclusion such an investigation came to: Either he chose to ball up serious but unfounded allegations and throw them at Abrams for his own gain. Or – I'm guessing not, but who knows? -- the voter-registration system was indeed hacked, meaning that the system was hackable….on his watch.
Granted, none of this would do a thing to bring Kemp’s total below the 50-per-cent-plus-one threshold required to avoid a runoff. But on the off chance that such a runoff were to take place, it would make it a whole lot more interesting.
Does victory lie in an eleventh-hour strategy of nagging apathetic neighbors, relatives, Uber drivers and grocery-cart helpers-with; stress-eating entire Alps of Halloween candy, and ceaselessly toggling between taking heart in encouraging poll numbers and slapping oneself with the reminder of what a heinous howling horrendous mistake that was in 2016?
If so, I have wrought the blue wave all by myself.
If not, listen up children: Mommy is going to be someone to avoid tomorrow.
It’s literally sickening, how much is at stake in this election: not just control of the Congress and many powerful offices across the country, but, I'd give anything not to feel, the country itself. As of November 2016, it may have been (just about) possible to pretend, if you stood on one foot, squinted, and tilted your head just so, that Donald Trump would not govern as the crazy, bigoted ignoramus he ran as, or at least that responsible Republicans would check him if he tried. Today, no such delusions are possible. Long, long before today, in fact, it had become plain not only that Trump is precisely as he seemed, but that almost all of his party and a solid third of the nation wish only that there were more just like him.
Twelve hours from now, it will be much more clear than it is as I type whether America wants to stem this nativist, nihilist tide or ride it to God knows what end.
So very much hinges on the result, it seems crazy to focus on the things that don’t. But I’m going to focus on them anyway, because whether tomorrow finds people like me jumping for joy or curling ourselves into balls of woe, these things will be true, and they will matter.
Actually, maybe it’s more the things that have revealed themselves to be so absolutely untrue. In the past two years, so many political myths have been slain, they’re lying dead all over the place, like dragons after a run-in with St. George.
My top three:
Progressives aren’t patriots. For decades now – probably since Vietnam -- Republicans have depicted themselves as guardians of the American warrior, and Democrats as flag-burning traitors to the troops. This has always been absurd (see: Bob Kerrey, John Kerry, Jim Webb, Tammy Duckworth…) But with the help of meh Democratic messaging, the GOP had done a remarkable job of making it stick, to the point where their adored draft dodger draws lusty cheers for impugning the Americanism of kneeling football players, veterans or not. Back in March, it was nothing new when Pennsylvania special-election congressional candidate Rick Saccone blasted his Democratic opponent, Conor Lamb USMC, as someone who hated America. The twist was that Lamb trounced him. This was definitely the start of a trend; the question is, how large? Win or lose, though, Amy McGrath, Mikie Sherrill, M.J. Hegar, Jason Crow and so many more have served the nation yet again by destroying the notion of “liberalism” and “love of country” as a contradiction in terms.
Government is the work of Satan. It remains to be seen whether Republicans will succeed in pretending that they supported the super-popular provisions of the Affordable Care Act which they tried to gut. But Democrats should take pride in the pretending itself. This is truly a case of hypocrisy becoming a high form of flattery. Republicans realize that disaster lies in vowing to allow the private insurance market to do what it will with pre-existing conditions, let alone demonizing the idea that government has a role to play in such matters. That’s a major battle in the war of ideas, and no matter how their candidates do today, Democrats have won it.
Who cares about Harvard and Hollywood? Real people love Trump. Republicans have long used the existence of “limousine liberals” to deny the existence of liberals without limousines. Even Hillary Clinton’s decisive victory in the popular vote was disdained on the grounds that she had merely run up huge totals among the sushi hounds of New York and California, while losing the authentic, saturated-fat folk of the Rust Belt.
Today, it is anything but clear that America’s heartland belongs to Trump.
Look at the Senate, rightfully seen as the Democrats’ longest shot. As of 2016, Republicans were salivating over the possibility of taking Democratic-held Senate seats in Ohio, Wisconsin and Minnesota. Not anymore. Odds are looking at-least even that Democrats will hang on in West Virginia and Indiana.
Step back for a minute from the panting over whether Beto O’Rourke can pull off a stunning upset in Texas. Assuming he doesn’t, will anyone be able to deny that millions of Texans wanted him to? Missouri might or might not re-elect Claire McCaskill. But if she loses, it won’t be by much.
In fact, at high noon on election day, “flyover country” seems replete with places where Democrats were dead three years ago but now have real game. It’s not just that very un-Bannon candidates may rock out in Ohio, Michigan and Wisconsin. It’s that they’re in close contention for two out of four Congressional seats and the governorship of Kansas; within three points of catching the Republican running for governor of Oklahoma.
Wait, wait, all that is based on polls, and after 2016 (slap!) I don’t believe any polling numbers, ever. But unless all the polls – and the fundraising, and the floods of volunteers, and what people in the streets are telling reporters, and the yard signs – are off by an absolute ton, left-of-center (or at least anti-Trump) Americans can be found in large numbers all over this country. And they are at least as “real” as anyone in a MAGA hat.
Whatever happens today, don't forget: that will be true tomorrow.
If, tomorrow morning, Almighty God came down and whispered in my ear that Brett Kavanaugh had never come within a hundred miles of committing sexual assault, I would still believe that he has no business coming within a hundred miles of the Supreme Court.
This is not, I could swear to that same Almighty God on a stack of Bibles, because I am a liberal (which I am) out to avenge the Clintons (which I am not) in accordance with my hatred for white males (like my dad, my brothers, my husband, my son, and many of my friends). And it is only tangentially because of the foul mood and manners Kavanaugh displayed before the Senate Judiciary committee – no matter how patently obvious it may be that if any female nominee threw half that hissy-fit, she’d be chopped right up for fire wood.
As a matter of fact, I started out this scandal-cycle more than prepared to side with Kavanaugh.
In spite – no, because – of my default loathing of Trump, mourning of Garland, crediting of sexual-assault complaints, and dreading of an even further-right turn by the Supreme Court, I greeted the emergence of sexual-assault allegations with an instinctively cold shoulder. It wasn’t any assumption on my part that Christine Blasey Ford was lying. It was an acutely self-scrutinizing awareness of what was in it for me if she wasn’t.
It was a certain measure of deference, too, to the smooth velvet approval that Kavanaugh came cloaked in: the number of times he’d been vetted before; the glowing reviews he’d garnered from judicial sages, some of whom disagreed sharply with his politics.
Taking those cues, I’d already spent the weeks since Kavanaugh’s nomination shooting down my own objections with “true, but” bullets.
He’s sooo conservative…true, but who is this president going to pick that isn’t?
He’s a son of such privilege…True, but anyone who counts that a demerit had better be ready to disavow FDR and the Kennedys.
He’s claiming a second seat for the far right when the last one should have gone to an Obama moderate…. really, really true, but with zero Republican senators losing a wink of sleep over it, sadly irrelevant.
Once Blasey Ford arrived on the scene, I felt the usual disgust at the usual characterizations of the accuser as some sort of liar-lunatic-conspirator mongrel. At the same time, however, I just couldn’t get into the baying for Kavanaugh’s blood. It isn’t often that I find myself nodding in agreement with Kellyanne Conway, but the line she was soon taking –that with all due regard for the pent-up anger of the #MeToo movement, it could be wrong to unleash it on this one man -- struck me as valid. Especially for liberals, traditionally so consumed with the rights of the accused, the current imperative to “believe the women” instantly, completely and permanently ought to be a problematic one. That is not to question the fact that sexual assault happens to women seismically more often than false accusation happens to men. But fairness demands an allowance that in any given case, it can happen.
And Democrats, it must be said, did not seem the slightest bit concerned that it might be happening here. Days before the hearing, the cameras found Senator Kirsten Gillibrand, sparkling with certainty like a guillotine in the sun: “I believe Dr. Ford because she is telling the truth!” she declaimed.
“Really, senator?” I snapped at the T.V.. “Will you be turning your decoder ring to the weather and Wall Street, too?”
Meanwhile, back in the weeds of the matter in question, there lay the apparent impossibility of proving anything one way or the other. So, while continuing to find Kavanaugh ideologically distressing, I felt myself coming down on the side of giving him a moral and intellectual pass.
It was as I watched the nominee on Fox News that I felt my apprehensions stir and start to shift. Gradually, beginning with that interview, I began to feel less disturbed by Democratic hints of Robespierre, and more disturbed by the degree to which Team Kavanaugh had gone full Gertrude. Talk about “doth protest too much.”
Not content with categorical denial that their Brett committed the egregious acts in question, his defenders – himself chief among them -- leapt to the position that he had never done anything wrong, ever. Certainly nothing in the shitfaced-misogyny department!
This gave me a real, creeping, gut-level sense that there was something rotten in Bethesda: Kavanaugh’s desperation to depict himself – and his coterie’s desperation to depict him -- as having sprung into the world fully and perfectly formed, like Athena from the head of Zeus. If, in the highly sympathetic setting of that Fox interview, Kavanaugh had taken the opportunity to draw any sort of picture of how he had matured through making mistakes, I would have likely found it human, reflective, the very opposite of disqualifying. But he sprinted the other way. By his lights, he had never done anything worse than "on occasion" drink a little too much legally-obtained-in-Maryland-at-the-time beer! He had always treated women with dignity and respect! He had a letter signed by 65 female friends from high school, for Chrissakes!
Now think about that for a second: Do you know 65 people who could truly attest to the content of your character? I don’t. Cut out one entire gender and anyone I met after high school, and I really don’t.
Maybe I am just a fool for flawed people. But even before Blasey Ford waded carefully and credibly through her testimony and Kavanaugh wigged out during his, that insistence that there were not, nor had their every been, any chinks in his armor bothered me. Then I realized he’d been a year ahead of me at Yale, where he belonged to two of its most notoriously, um, louche ‘n’ liquid brotherhoods, and I thought “he’s lying.”
Then, just before falling into the rush of general opprobrium, I caught myself on the twig of ‘probably’: “He’s probably lying. But you never know: it could come out in the next couple of days that Brett was always the designated driver or the guy who really liked his frat brothers, but sat out, even tried to steer them away from, their uglier antics. There are those kids, too.” But then came one very convincingly-told tale after another that portrayed this particular DKE as your basic Eli booze hound, and that twig snapped.
To be clear: Short of an actual crime, I could not give a rat’s boola boola if Brett Kavanaugh spent the first 25 years of his life boozing, boofing, barfing and devil’s-triangulating to his frat-boy heart’s content, provided he spent the next 25 doing better things. But that is not Kavanaugh’s account of himself. Kavanaugh’s account of himself is one of ceaseless rectitude with a touch of thirst, and it differs wildly from many others’ first-hand accounts of him. Thus, the current fixation on the follies of his younger days is not, as widely fretted, an ominous example of extreme vetting gone wild. It is an acceptance of Kavanaugh’s own, unfathomably ill-advised invitation to hold the reality of his younger self against the image he has chosen to wave at America much more purposefully than he could possibly have waved his genitalia in the face of Deborah Ramirez. It is as if he has flung open the door of his old dorm room and defied everyone not to pronounce it immaculate. It’s not our fault if, now that we’re here, the rest of us can’t help but notice the empty beer cans under the bed and the stolen-bra flag over it.
Oh, those beer cans, and kegs, and pitchers, and steins. Once the time came for him finally to speak for himself before the Senate judiciary committee, Kavanaugh didn’t speak so much as sneer, shriek and snort with derision at Democratic senators’ attempts to quantify just how much ‘ski he was wont to swill. Oddly for such an eminent jurist, he failed to grasp – or pretended that he failed to grasp – that this issue goes straight to the heart of the quandary at hand. It offers at least something of a plausible basis for the sense, which many Republicans professed to have, that neither he nor his main accuser was lying. Before and after his testimony, Kavanaugh has been plausibly described as a frequent drunk, a belligerent drunk, a stumbling drunk – but he was never, ever, his champions proclaim without possibly knowing, a blackout drunk.
Of course, I have no idea whether Kavanaugh is any kind of alcoholic. But in his testimony, there is no delicate way to say, he certainly acted like one. I know that seems like a cheap shot to take, not just at Kavanaugh but at anyone with alcoholism -- but think about it: He depicted beer as nectar, and also as the essence of bonding. He distinguished between passing out and “falling asleep” from drinking. He seemed absolutely gobsmacked that Sheldon Whitehouse did not know how to play quarters. When challenged by others – senators! In a hearing! to determine his personal fitness to serve! – about his drinking, he challenged them right back about what and how much they drank. Honest to God, after a few of those exchanges, I wanted Grassley and Feinstein to stage an intervention.
Then again, when you think of Churchill the lush and Trump the teetotaler, you remember the limits of abstemiousness as a mark of civic virtue. But regardless of his own habits, Kavanaugh displayed a shockingly backward conception of the chemical dependency that, in one form or another, has so many Americans in its grip, including at least one of his best high-school buddies. If he had said “look, I realize that the nature of addiction is such that my denying it and my friends’ denying it doesn’t necessarily mean anything, but what else can I do?” I’d have ceded him that point. What got me is, this guy really, really seemed to regard “I was the captain of the varsity basketball team!” as proof that he couldn’t possibly have had a substance-abuse problem.
Even if Kavanaugh never did anything sodden or lewd his life, I found this whole "I-couldn't-have-been-a-drunk-I-was-a-star!" business troubling. He kept equating sterling credentials with sterling character; kept stressing that he couldn’t have done these awful things, because he just wasn’t that kind of guy.
Now, critics retort that he was precisely that kind of guy, to which defenders retort "nuh-uh, he remembers everything, and it was almost all studying, lifting weights and going to church!" and so goes the shouting match that can’t be won. But isn’t it clear by now that Kavanaugh most likely is, or has been, both kinds of guy? A choirboy and a carouser? An overachiever with an underbelly? In the current New Yorker, a Yale suitemate describes college Brett as someone who was, at times, “quiet, studious” and at other times, when drunk, mean and aggressive. Based on everything out there, that sounds right to me. But even if Kavanaugh does not have more than one side to him, the world is full of people who do. Since he is a judge and will probably be a justice, let's hope he was only pretending not to know this.
In any event, Kavanaugh clearly feels rage and resentment at any notion that anything he might have done as a young man should affect his chances now, and that reminded me of another two-sided split, this one in society. For all practical – and most certainly legal -- purposes, there are certain youths for whom rule-breaking is a rite of passage, and other kinds of youths for whom it is a fall through a trap door.
Republicans from Mitch McConnell on down have been having a grand old time ridiculing, for example, the unearthing of an old police report revealing that an undergraduate Kavanaugh, somehow involved in a barfight in New Haven, threw ice in someone’s face.
OK, I get it: college guys drink, college guys say and do dumb things, (most) college guys (supposedly) grow out of it. But amid all the joshing and towel-snapping, I could not – cannot -- help but think of the countless American kids who aren’t captain of this or anywhere near the top ten of that, who screw up to the same level in their milieux that Kavanaugh did in his. But they’ll never find themselves fighting to get from the almost-top of the American ladder to the tippy-tippy-top, as Kavanaugh is, let alone feel free to throw a tantrum if they feel unfairly held down. For their sins, those kids fall into society’s basement, and had best act grateful for any chance they get to climb out.
Kavanaugh could also use a little brushing-up on his conspiracy theory.
I refer, of course, to what is perhaps the most self-damning passage of his testimony, which -- incredibly -- was included in his prepared statement:
"This whole two-week effort has been a calculated and orchestrated political hit fueled with apparent pent-up anger about President Trump and the 2016 election, fear that has been unfairly stoked about my judicial record, revenge on behalf of the Clintons and millions of dollars in money from outside left-wing opposition groups."
Many have correctly cited these remarks as evidence that Kavanaugh is far too vituperatively partisan to serve on the Supreme Court. When it came to the revenge stuff, he also sounded…dumb.
At this point, how can any sentient person be under the impression that there is any significant cohort of the Democratic Party vowing to avenge the Clintons? These days, of course, one is much more likely to find Democrats disavowing them, whether it’s the Bernie folks who approach Trumpian levels of hatred for Hillary, the armchair strategists who are still grousing about how little time she spent in Wisconsin or whatever, and most crucially in terms of the Kavanaugh fight, the #MeToo movers and shakers – Gillibrand, for instance – for whom Bill has become a total albatross. It is true that many still do wish that Hillary had been elected -- and given Trump, who can blame them? But to the degree that vengeance is motivating anti-Kavanaugh Democrats, it's vengeance on behalf of Merrick Garland -- a factor omitted from Kavanaugh's screed, presumably because he knows it reeks.
It’s Republicans who are obsessed with the Clintons, and no Republican more so than the one in the White House. Once it was clear, from early in his testimony, that Kavanaugh was going all-out wingnut, I found myself asking the same question about him that I am always asking about Trump: is he really a crazy person, or is he just playing one on T.V.?
"Does Kavanaugh really consider himself the victim of a purposeful partisan hit job which he truly believes that he can fight only by telling all these obvious, stupid, unnecessary lies?" I asked myself. "Or is he choosing to portray himself that way, so as to appeal to the one viewer who could pull the plug on his nomination but who, precisely because of this ranting and raving, won’t?"
And I came to the same conclusion for the judge as I do for the president: Either way, it’s catastrophic.
For very different reasons, Republicans and Democrats have both taken to observing that the Kavanaugh-Blasey Ford hearings failed to yield much in the way of new information. Not so. Remember back in the halcyon days of this confirmation fight, when even the most politically-neutral analysts wondered whether Kavanaugh’s expansive view of the power of the executive might hint at an over-willingness to dance to the tune called by this executive? Now we know.
Here's what else I know:
I know that in the unlikely event that Kavanaugh is withdrawn or voted down, another, perhaps even more conservative, figure will make it to the Supreme Court. I know that that scenario could very well do Democrats more harm than good in the mid-terms. And I know that notwithstanding those concerns, the question to answer is the question at hand.
Is Brett Kavanaugh fit to serve on the United States Supreme Court?