Roundtable: The State of the Race and the Question of the Status Quo

by Cinzia Croce and Alex Knepper

After a month off, we’re back and ready for an unforgettable general election season. Our ’roundtable discussion’ format was well-received last month when we discussed the Pence VP nomination, so we’ve decided to use it again as we dissect the state of the race…

AK: So, the race always goes into a bit of a lull period between the conventions and the debates, but it appears that there is not going to be any ‘pivot,’ and a Hillary landslide looks more likely than a Trump victory at all, at this point. I see you being a good soldier for Trump when you debate, but — I’ve gotta wonder: are you resigning yourself to defeat? Do you see a way for Trump to turn it around, given what we know about his MO?

CC: As far as I am concerned, the Trump candidacy is a win no matter what happens on election day. He has changed the debate within the Republican Party, and I don’t see the party going back to the Bushes or the same stale policy prescriptions that were so soundly defeated during the primary. Besides, while I understand your eagerness to call the race in August, I think it is premature. I believe Trump is probably 4 or 5 points behind, and that is not insurmountable. The race is in Trump’s hands; he needs to demonstrate that he can be disciplined, that he is serious, and that he has the temperament to be president. If he does, he wins. If questions about his temperament continue to dominate the news, he loses.
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AK: How many chances at-bat does he get? We’re under 3 months away from the election. It seems to me that the debates are the only chance he has now to make up for it — he’s not going to stop being who he is; he has to demonstrate he can meet the moment in a high-stakes atmosphere. But every time he tries to ‘pivot,’ he ends up sticking his foot in his mouth 48 hours later. I think what we’re seeing really is his temperament, he’s a 70-year-old man, he’s been successful with this approach all his life — why would he change now? It’s not in Trump’s character. He is who he is. Then again, it wasn’t in his character to pick Pence. Pence at least provides Trump supporters a ray of hope insofar as he indicates that Trump is willing to buck his gut if he thinks the moment calls for it.

CC: Actually, it is not that hard for Trump to avoid “sticking his foot in his mouth”. All he needs to do is follow Hillary’s script: deliver a scripted speech every 2 or 3 days, avoid interviews, press conference and leave Twitter to the professionals. Freelancing at rallies is what gets him in trouble. He likes to have fun with the crowd, he likes to entertain. But the time for fun is over. He has to show a level of seriousness that can only be delivered through set policy pieces.

AK: He can’t help lashing out at his critics, though. He loves causing a stir, there’s no shortage of people talking about him, and it’s not only fun for him, but habitual. Everything in his life has taught him that it pays off to remain on offense and that no critic should be allowed to get away with being ‘unfair’ to him. It’s not that he can’t deliver solid attacks on Hillary or that he can’t deliver policy proposals, but that he can’t not mouth off. It’s in his nature. And that is why I have said since from the beginning — if Trump gets the nomination, the election is going to end up being about Trump and whether he’s fit for the presidency, because his behavior is not in any meaningful sense an act, as much as some people want to believe it is.

CC: Above all, I think Trump likes to win. It is clear from the polling that his usual tactics are not working. We will find out whether an old dog can learn new tricks.

AK: I think he wants to win the election, but not actually govern. I think he wants it to be close enough that he can claim the election was stolen from him. If he loses in a landslide then he looks like a loser, but if he loses by a few points, then he can talk his supporters into thinking he lost only because of fraud.

CC: I don’t believe we have a legitimate process, and I felt this way long before Trump came on the scene. We have the appearance of democracy, but the reality is that the deck is very much stacked in favor of maintaining the status quo. All Trump has done is shine the light on the unfair process and made more people aware. As far as Trump not wanting to govern, I think there are few issues he cares about like trade and that he would genuinely would like to renegotiate NAFTA and other agreements if for no other reason to prove himself as the greatest deal-maker in history.

AK: Who in the history of politics has ever arranged a system to work against their desires? Of course the deck is stacked in favor of the status quo. Trump supporters’ beef isn’t the stacked deck — it’s with the nature of the status quo. As with everything in Trumpworld, ‘fairness’ is clearly determined by whether you like it. Which is fine — that’s how a lot of politics goes, after all. But Trump’s character says to me that he’s not a guy who tries to un-rig systems but rather a guy who tries to re-rig systems for the benefit of him and his friends.

CC: Yes, Trump supporters are unhappy with the status quo and want to change it. When do we get the opportunity to discuss policies and the record of the status quo? Look at the so-called “national security experts” who have endorsed Hillary. Do they talk about their failed record? Of course not, they talk about Trump’s temperament or lack of knowledge. Their expertise certainly has not produced a safer America or world. But they don’t want to be held accountable so they have invented the issue of Trump not having the proper temperament. Who gets to define what is the proper temperament? The status quo. Very convenient.

Melania Meets the Media

by Cinzia Croce

Although Melania Trump’s convention speech was initially met with universal praise, the pundits quickly began to breathlessly report that potential First Lady Melania Trump’s speech contained two paragraphs that were strikingly similar to a speech current First Lady Michelle Obama delivered during the 2008 Democratic Party Convention. Steve Schmidt, former McCain campaign manager and current MSNBC contributor, declared “Now you have brought scandal to a potential First Lady.” Scandal? Plagiarizing Deval Patrick certainly did not impede Barack Obama from reaching the White House. It didn’t even hurt his reputation as a thoughtful wordsmith and orator. But we live in a world where if President Obama borrows lines, it is an unfortunate coincidence, but if anyone else does the same it is a crippling “scandal” — even when the person in question is not even seeking elective office.

It must be very difficult, if not impossible, to write an original speech for the wife of a candidate who cannot engage in a long discussion of policy proposals. That would be too reminiscent of Bill and Hillary’s “two for the price of one” approach, which was a complete failure. It turns out that the American public is not a fan of ‘co-presidencies’ or the sharing of any public office. But once policy is off the table, the topics a wife can touch upon are limited to praising her husband; speaking about his softer side that is hidden from the public; charity work, children, and values. Notions of passing along what we’ve worked for to the next generation, the value of hard work and keeping your word, and the importance of treating people with respect are common bromides that have filled countless political speeches. If pundits really cared to be honest in their criticism, they would acknowledge that we have been hearing the same basic political speech for the last several decades — talking about the greatness of America, the need to come together, providing opportunity to all Americans, and offering a better future to the next generation. In Democratic speeches, references to social justice are peppered throughout, while in Republican speeches the references are to Reagan and traditional values. Every election is “the most important election in a lifetime” that presents “a stark choice” to the voters. Our politicians have been reading from the same script for a very long time, and the first candidate who went off it, Donald Trump, is assailed every day by the media for being undisciplined. Continue reading

Donald and the Dead Weight

by Cinzia Croce

Donald Trump owes Jeb Bush an apology. After mocking him for his “low energy” at a time when the country needs spirit, Trump has selected a veritable cadaver to be his vice president — and just like that, the Trump Train has been derailed. It is still possible to put it  back on track, but it is severely damaged. Instead of barreling to the finish lines, Trump and his dead weight — sorry, running mate — may straggle across it.

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A few hours after Trump confirmed his selection via Twitter, Mike Pence made his first media appearance, on Fox’s Sean Hannity Show. He delivered a respectful, albeit extremely laid back, performance — laid back to the point that I frequently wondered if he had pulse. Pence was a little shaky addressing Trump’s controversies, such as the temporary ban on Muslim migration, which he had previously denounced as “offensive and unconstitutional.” The next day, both Trump and Pence appeared together for the formal introduction of the ticket. It was a no-frills event — one that did not even include any signage featuring both candidates’ last names. Pence delivered the standard conservative stump speech with the requisite homages to Ronald Reagan and nods to fiscal discipline, strong defense and traditional values. He showed some signs of energy — but one can imagine fast-paced, mile-a-minute New Yorker Trump pushing Pence to pick up his pace a little.

But the real problem was written all over Trump’s face. He came across like a trapped man, and for the first time since the night he lost the Iowa Caucuses, he looked unhappy. The only time he seemed to enjoy himself was while dancing on the grave of the failed #NeverTrump effort, which failed to force a floor vote to plunge the convention into chaos. This, combined with Trump’s admission that he chose Pence to unify the party, lends credence to the speculation that the ticket was a backroom deal. The GOP establishment would deliver a drama-free convention, a united party, and donors with open checkbooks — and in return, they’d get their man on the ticket. But Trump has never struck me as the type of personality that is willing to accept a situation not to his liking for very long. He is an intelligent man, and must know that the GOP establishment is not interested in helping him get elected. All they care about is maintaining their majorities in Congress. Their hope is that once Trump is gone, they put the populist wave that swept through the primaries behind them — and go back to their old, comfortable ways. I would not be surprised at all if Trump is already plotting ways to dump Pence after Cleveland.

“The Male Sarah Palin”: A Roundtable Discussion on Pence

by Cinzia Croce and Alex Knepper

Donald Trump’s announcement of Indiana Gov. and former Congressman Mike Pence — a Tea Partier before there was a Tea Party — as his running-mate has left us a little stunned. We’ve decided to try out a ’roundtable discussion’ format to hash out this topic:

Cinzia Croce (CC): I was really hoping until the bitter end that the news reports were wrong.

Alex Knepper (AK): I am confused. Some reports are claiming Ivanka probably vetoed a Christie selection owing to his prosecution of her father-in-law, but if not him — why Pence, of all people? Did he really have so few options? The Pence selection goes against everything we know about Trump: the premium he places on loyalty, his penchant for boldness and theatricality, his aversion toward attaching himself to religious-right concerns, etc. Pence endorsed Ted Cruz just two months ago — when it counted, right before the Indiana primary. Trump barely even knows Pence and is already dominating among every demographic group Pence helps shore up. I don’t get it.

CC: I am devastated. For the third time in a row, the GOP veers right for its VP pick. McCain did it with Palin, Romney did it with Ryan, and now Trump has done the same with Pence. Just like Palin undermined McCain’s strongest argument against Obama, which was his lack of experience, Pence undercuts Trump’s appeal — which was to marginalize social issues like abortion and homosexuality in order to propose new policy positions on trade and immigration. Pence is also not very articulate or quick on his feet. He will be the male version of Palin. Trump needs to improve his margins with women and moderates. Pence doesn’t help and he may actually harm Trump with said voting blocs. Maybe Indiana is in play? But if that’s the case, then the election is already over. Hillary will be the next POTUS.

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On the Labyrinth of Race-Relations

by Alex Knepper

I recoil at discussing race relations because I am generally pessimistic about America’s ability to resolve the issue in a satisfactory manner. The divisions are so deeply entrenched, the history so ugly and raw, the various sides so unwilling to talk to each other with charity and openness — and there is an understandable abhorrence toward the idea of compromise on an issue that seems to admit of none that is not tantamount to making a deal with the devil. Eric Holder seems to have been right: we all claim to want to have a conversation about race, but at the end of the day we are usually too cowardly to do that. So the floor has been ceded to the loudest and angriest voices.

Still, this means there is a special responsibility for moderate voices to speak out. I lean somewhat to the left on the question of police brutality, insofar as it is connected to my broader concerns with the state of criminal justice — but, as with all other civil rights causes, little of consequence will be accomplished unless leaders emerge whose aim is to persuade rather than to agitate. It is easy to understand why some black people feel the need to agitate — if someone’s boot is on your face, the last thing you want to do is engage in a logical argument: you want the damn boot off of your face, and you want it off now. Yet, if the only way to remove the boot from one’s face is to persuade the person wearing it to remove it — then there is no alternative. (And those who reject the notion that the black community even has a boot in its face must come up with a better rationale for that rejection than the red herring of ‘black-on-black’ crime statistics.)

Most white people seem to want to respond to the assertion that ‘black lives matter’ by proclaiming that ‘all lives matter.’ This is very often driven by willful ignorance of the intent behind the phrase. Many good analogies and metaphors have been floating around social media to attempt to explain — for instance: say a family is having dinner, but Bob’s plate is somehow empty. Someone sitting next to him says ‘Bob needs food,’ which elicits a reply from someone else that ‘Everyone needs food’ — which is literally true but misses the point to an insulting degree — and then everyone continues to eat while ignoring Bob’s empty plate.

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That is a reasonable explanation. Yet I don’t think this approach will be persuasive to white people. People of any race naturally feel insulted and resentful when others try to get them to affirm some chant or slogan as a substitute for argument — especially when the question at hand is so raw, complex, and full of emotional minefields. People surely don’t like having it implied to them that they think other people’s lives don’t matter — especially when some of the major allegations of police brutality taken up as causes by the movement are not quite as open-and-shut as others.

There is and always has been a problem with police brutality toward black people — and especially black men, who are intuitively perceived by many if not most white people as being threatening. The extent of the problem is up for debate, but a neutral observer would find it difficult to deny its existence — and given our racial history it would be far more shocking if it did not exist. Part of the problem owes to the fact that many of the poor black neighborhoods in which these incidents typically take place are so plagued by violent crime that police almost cannot help but learn to be overly suspicious and hyper-vigilant. Too many progressives simply do not appreciate the degree of risk some cops live with, and why some might be driven to make terrible decisions in the heat of the moment — usually out of fear, that most unruly of passions. We also are an extraordinarily large and populous nation, so disturbing events are going to seem more common than they are when every one of them is broadcast on the national news.

And yet, the reactions from so many white conservatives seem utterly callous: dismissing the dead as ‘thugs’ (the new ‘n-word’), pointing to a criminal record or past charges as if it constituted proof that the people in question deserved execution, or maliciously demanding total perfection in conduct among black people — again, as if any deviation is a justification for someone’s death. Would white conservatives ever think it appropriate for black people to talk about white people in this way?

Most strikingly, it seems like the same people line up on the same sides of the argument every time there’s an allegation of police brutality. I seldom hear anyone say ‘This case is stronger than this one, this one looks cut-and-dry, maybe this one’s more ambiguous…’ — and this is what makes me most pessimistic. If we can’t honestly assess the individual cases on their merits — if we insist on standing on the same side every time — then we are not going to come any closer to a clear-minded livable resolution to this issue.

What can be done? There is no convenient or comfortable solution. But if there is ever to be one, it can only begin with genuine conversation: white and black Americans leaving their bubbles, seeking out alternative points of view, listening with openness and charity rather than with the aim of lecturing. This is not to suggest moral equivalence — again, I do tilt left on this issue. It is simply a recognition of the fact that we have to find a way to make it possible for all of us to live together in a satisfactory, stable manner. This issue simply cannot persist indefinitely without degrading America’s greatness.

A Coda to the Hillary Clinton Server Saga

by Alex Knepper

Some of my Facebook debate-club friends have been assailing me in recent days, owing to my repeated defenses of Hillary Clinton in light of the FBI’s highly unorthodox and surprisingly harsh public assessment of her server-related behavior. Because I wish never to speak of this psychologically-draining topic ever again, I will say my piece here — so, I say: this post is what ye shall forever refer to, should the desire emerge to examine my opinion on this matter.

My slightly-embarrassing real motive for being so defensive of Hillary over the server situation on social media — despite also having gone farther than any supporter I know in criticizing her over it! — is not so much my loyalty to her — I am a loyal person, after all, so it is natural that people would assume this — but rather that I think that what she did is really not that big of a deal. If it would disqualify her from being president in certain people’s eyes if she were negligent (in a denotative sense, not a legal one) about a few classified documents — I think it shouldn’t. And if this would land someone else in jail — someone lower down the ladder — I think it shouldn’t! I have grave and well-documented reservations about our nation’s attitude toward to-the-letter punishment and the urge to see someone be turned into an example —  especially with regard to our holiest of idols, like ‘privacy,’ and the endless parade of nonsense and delusion surrounding it. Some have shown me cases of people who were fired and had their lives ruined for their mistakes. But for the most part, I don’t think that should have happened to them, either.

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Some of my favorite Republican interlocutors tell me I appear to have ‘gone off the rails’ with regard to this situation, because I am insisting on defending her when I could simply choose to remain silent or defer to the easy argument that she’s simply superior to Donald Trump. But I have been supporting her for 15 months — not just since it became a binary choice between her and Trump. No: I know exactly what I am arguing — I know exactly what my motives are for supporting her — I know exactly how I feel about our society’s lust for by-the-book punishment, even when the violation in question ultimately amounts to little of consequence — and if I stand alone on this matter, so be it: I really don’t give a damn about her server, because at the end of the day the presidency is a political post and I want to accomplish certain objectives, and they matter more to me than her or any other nominee’s innermost motives and her supposedly ‘crooked’ behavior — and I know a lot of voters secretly feel the same way. Besides: if we are going to take James Comey seriously, then what Clinton did is simply not something the government prosecutes. People have gotten fired for similar mistakes — but only once in the last century has anyone been prosecuted under the Espionage Act for gross negligence, under far less ambiguous circumstances. To prosecute her would constitute special treatment — not to let her go. The presidency is a political post:let the voters decide if she is disqualified from the presidency.

I support the politicians I do because I see them as vehicles for accomplishing certain tangible goals, especially when it comes to war and peace and the big-picture direction of our culture — and I believe that leaders who produce good results are remembered as good leaders. Nobody honestly gives a damn about who the ethically cleanest president was. They want to know who won the Civil War and preserved our union — who led us through World War II — who restored American confidence in a time of doubt. And in a generation, people will want to know who handled the situation in the Middle East in a realistic way — who showed the resolve and vision necessary to achieve our objectives. Virtually none of the people insisting the server situation should disqualify her from the presidency would be voting for her even if she were ethically spotless! — So let us dispense with the notion that the right’s call for punishment is driven by a love for the law rather than loathing toward Hillary. But we don’t hear much about policy lately from Republicans, given that their nominee probably cannot even locate Syria on a world map.

Finally, a word on cybersecurity: People who think there is any such thing as truly secure cybersecurity — are simply ignorant. I am certain that people would be horrified if they knew how non-secure our federal government’s servers really are against attacks from hostile nations like Russia and China. Just last year the State Department’s own supposedly state-of-the-art security technology was subject to what it called its ‘worst ever‘ hack. This is why my only concern with Clinton’s server has been whether it was as secure as the State Department’s. (This would still leave her vulnerable to an attack!) — Otherwise, I really don’t give a damn about by-the-book rule-following required from a career bureaucrat — certainly not from a political candidate for a political post.

To be clear: she certainly did something irresponsible and imprudent. — What? How can I say this is not a big deal in one breath — and then say she was irresponsible and imprudent? Because: while the immediate and policy-related practical consequences here are meager, the political and civic consequences are quite serious, and she has put the country through a lot of unnecessary drama and anger — for her own convenience, likely for her own political convenience. That is the real case against her, here. She should have known this situation would unfold in a manner resembling this. The worst part about her conduct throughout this situation has been her pathetic and meager defense, her petty lies about the scope of her conduct, and the ugly, drudging mess she forced her supporters to endure. Let’s resist the urge to punish, but let’s hope we never see this again. At the end of the day, people need to feel their president doesn’t have such bad judgment.

Farage Laughs; Cameron and Obama Frown After Britain’s Populist Triumph

by Cinzia Croce

As the evening began on Friday, Nigel Farage was staring at another defeat. His old chums at The City told him that polls conducted on behalf of financial firms showed that Remain would win the night and his dream of seeing the United Kingdom leave the European Union would be shattered.

Then, the results from Sunderland were announced, showing Leave outperforming expectations. It was the first indication that Farage’s gloom was premature — and soon, it became clear that the polls were wrong, yet again, and that the Leave vote would prevail, and not just by a squeaker, either. As dawn broke, a triumphant Farage delivered a rollicking victory speech full of the passion of a man who has been vindicated. Some were critical of his tone, deeming it inappropriate for a deeply divided country that must find a way to come together. But no one could reproach him for it: for over a quarter of a century, Farage toiled in the obscure corners of British politics, enduring indifference –- at first –- followed by ridicule, which then escalated to a sustained media campaign to portray him as a racist, a bigot, and a xenophobe. But without Farage, there would never have been a referendum in the first place. It was his night, and everyone knew it. Continue reading