Trickle-Down Election Disarmament

Those who’ve been reading my work for a while know that up until the September 11th terrorist attacks in 2001, I was largely agnostic when it came to American politics. I didn’t follow most issues carefully. I didn’t really understand the fundamentals of conservatism and liberalism (outside of their pop-culture caricatures). I didn’t even vote in the first two presidential elections I was eligible to.

I’m by no means proud of my past disengagement and the squandering of my voice in our representative democracy, but I’m also not terribly ashamed of it. I think it’s a natural thing to be more focused on navigating through our free society than working to defend or bring change to it. In fact, I think that’s how most Americans, even now, view our political system.

That might be a tough statement for many to subscribe to these days, considering how political themes have seeped their way into just about every facet of our culture, but the reality is that most people in this country don’t follow or grasp politics the way pretty much everyone who will read this column does. That doesn’t mean, however, that these people aren’t affected and influenced by our politics. They clearly are, and not just in terms of policy.

The demeanor of our political leaders also plays a role — a more significant one than a lot of partisan warriors would like to admit. Though even the political tribes recognize the cultural strain of certain types of behavior and rhetoric, they tend to only worry about it when it comes from the other side. When it’s coming from inside the house, it’s largely written off or even defended as a necessary means to an end.

Lost on many in both major political camps these days is the influence and societal good that can come from positive traits such as poise and empathy. When displayed by our elected leaders, they absolutely can have a healing, trickle-down effect on society.

While policies will often divide people, leaders don’t necessarily have to. And contrary to today’s conventional wisdom, I don’t think a massive terrorist attack on our homeland is required to ease our political hostilities.

Like I said, I may have been politically aloof before 9/11, but I do recall how divided our nation was from the 2000 election. That was when an underdog Republican presidential nominee lost the popular vote, but took back the White House with an electoral college win after eight years of Democratic occupancy. I remember the many hard feelings that followed, including the very legitimacy of the election’s outcome being questioned and challenged repeatedly… not just by partisans and people in the media, but also by the losing candidate.

Sounds a bit familiar, doesn’t it?

Anyway, I remember something else from back then, a few months after that new president was sworn in. One night, my politically agnostic former self was hanging out in my then girlfriend’s apartment. There was a television on in the living room, mostly serving as background noise. At some point, the evening news began, and a clip was shown of that new president walking with one of his aides across the South Lawn of the White House toward Marine One (the president’s helicopter).

The news anchor was reporting on whatever the president was doing that day. I don’t recall the specifics, but I do remember that it was raining. I remember this because, as the news anchor was talking, the president (one of the most powerful people on the planet) was shown holding a large envelope or folder horizontally above his aide’s head, as they walked, to protect that aide from the rain.

It was an authentic, very simple display of selfless personal concern that compelled me (again, a politically disinterested person at the time) to turn to my girlfriend (now my wife of 17 years) and say to her, “This guy’s good for America.”

It wasn’t just that one incident, of course, that served as a testament to President George W. Bush’s dignity and decency. There were other things, pre 9/11, that I believe helped heal our divided electorate, including Bush’s humbleness in victory, his unwillingness to go low against political opponents, and his work to build relationships with people on the other side of the aisle (even as they trashed him in public).

People will of course point out that Bush ended his presidency 8 years later on a very low note, but it’s also worth remembering that he enjoyed an above-water approval rating from the day he took office until well into the Iraq War, which became a policy-based political liability. Many opponents of the war certainly demonized Bush over the policy, but the policy was the root of the objection… not the man. Not to most people, anyway.

What stands out for me about the Marine One event is that — at the time — it was an example of what Americans really needed to see from our leaders. And it was representative of who our president was. It was a show of genuine character and simple compassion, not politics. It was disarming. And to someone not particularly political, it was also inviting.

Today’s politics are uninviting. They turn people off. They’re predictably mean-spirited and incessantly tribal.

Case in point, journalist Cokie Roberts passed away this week, and our current president couldn’t even manage to pay his condolences without getting in a dig at her. Needlessly disrespecting people (including the dead) is of course indicative of the Trump presidency, along with several other character defects. Hence, we have a situation in which a president presiding over a historically great economy, without a major military conflict, is disapproved of by most Americans (and has been since the day he took office).

And on the other side, we have a host of Democratic presidential nominees trying to end a Supreme Court justice’s career over a completely discredited accusation…simply because they hope it will give them a competitive political edge. The recklessness goes well beyond that, of course, whether they’re attacking the other side with obligatory charges of racism or comparisons to murderous regimes.

This country desperately needs our leaders to start acting like adults, and govern with something other than the fear, resentment, and trolling that we used to only hear from the political fringes. If done at the top, the change will — at least to a degree — trickle down to the electorate…just as it has in the past.

Even if you’re of the belief that one can’t win a campaign without resorting to such tactics (a mistaken belief, in my opinion), we — as these people’s employers — must insist on something better once they’re in office…for the sake of us all.

Sure, many people will continue to argue that the increasingly hostile political environment of the past 20 years calls for political conflicts to be fought like wars. And like in other wars, there’s not a lot of room for decency or compassion. Just loyalty, dedication, and combat…no matter how much damage is caused to the battlefield.

Sorry, but I just don’t buy that narrative. And if we elected better people, few would.




Are We Living with Hillary Clinton’s Legacy After All?

I sometimes hear from lefties (both in my life and online) who insist that the Democratic base isn’t nearly as far to the left as the unhinged rhetoric on cable news and social media would suggest. Believe it or not, I’m sometimes even inclined to believe them.

Most of my Democratic friends, after all, are self-made people who aren’t out there advocating for socialist policies. Also, Joe Biden (who most people consider to be a traditional Democrat) took a significant lead in the polls over his more liberal competitors the moment he entered the 2020 race.

But one only has to have watched last week’s Democratic primaries, and listened to the words of almost all 20 candidates on stage, to derive that the crowd those individuals are speaking to is indeed very far-left.

Public funding of abortion (including late-term)? Government health insurance for all (including non-citizens)? Decriminalizing illegal border crossings? Free college tuition for all? Amnesty on student loans? These would have been considered fringe positions just a few years ago. Now, they’re right at the heart of the Democratic party.

So what happened, exactly? What drove the party so far to the left in a relatively short period of time?

And while we’re at it, what’s behind the similarly stark transformation of the Republican party?

Just a few short years ago, fiscal conservatism, free markets, stern foreign policy, government accountability, and personal responsibility were core beliefs of the Republican base. Now, Republicans shrug their shoulders at even higher levels of government spending than under Obama. They defend unprecedented trade intervention in foreign markets, along with the taxpayer bailouts spawned from it. They make excuses for our president’s fawning over murderous dictators, his diminishing of the work of our intelligence agencies, and pretty much everything else that comes out of his mouth. And they do all of this largely in the interest of tribal cohesiveness.

Democrats and Republicans have embraced populism to an extent not seen in my lifetime. And in a rather brilliant piece the other day, conservative writer Jonah Goldberg identified a single political figure who was instrumental in pushing both of the parties in the directions they’ve taken.

No, it wasn’t Donald Trump. Nor was it Barack Obama or even Bernie Sanders.

According to Goldberg, it was Hillary Clinton. And he lays out a very good case for her historical significance in this respect.

Goldberg points out that most people on the right agree that Donald Trump’s 2016 victory had a lot to do with Hillary Clinton. Where they disagree is how.

Always quick to point out the losses of John McCain and Mitt Romney against Barack Obama, Trump fans tend to believe that only someone as bombastic and unscrupulous as Trump could have taken back the presidency from the Democrats and the Democratic establishment (including the mainstream media). And because Trump was victorious, these folks view him as a savior of sorts, worthy of their unconditional loyalty.

Others (including me) have a different view — one that Goldberg described in his column:

“It wasn’t so much that Trump was the one person who could beat Hillary, but that she was the one candidate he could beat. In other words, it was only thanks to the fact that she was so unpopular that Trump had a chance. Trump-reluctant Republicans and independents could be persuaded by the fact that he was better than Hillary when presented with a binary choice.”

It’s worth remembering that poll after poll during the election (the same national polls that predicted the actual voting outcome months later) showed that both Clinton and Trump were very unpopular with the American people. Their main competitors in their respective primaries were viewed more favorably among the general electorate. In fact, a number of polls showed that Trump was one of the few Republican candidates that Hillary could actually beat.

Goldberg explains that “Trump didn’t have to convince those voters that Clinton was unlikable and a little scary; he simply had to exploit their preexisting opinion of her. Indeed, Trump’s continued obsession with bashing Hillary points to how central she is to his identity.”

I think he’s right, and this also explains the conservative media’s continued obsession with Hillary, years after her political relevance expired.

The Left hasn’t forgotten about Hillary either, though they’re much less vocal about it. Liberals look back at her in much the same way that many Republicans do McCain and Romney: as an acceptable choice at the time, but an unenthusiastic and ultimately ineffective candidate.

There were of course additional problems with Hillary, and not just her aforementioned unlikability. She was perceived (with good reason) as corrupt, and she commanded a sense of entitlement in regard to her White House aspirations.

Goldberg describes why these were significant factors in the election:

“[Bernie Sanders] came way closer to beating Clinton in the primaries than most people thought he would by tapping into the passion of the base and the frustrations of other Democrats who didn’t relish a Clinton dynasty and disliked both Hillary personally and the corrupt practices of the establishment she represented. She ran on the implied claim that it was simply her ‘turn’ to be president — a poisonous framing in a populist moment (just ask Jeb Bush). In retrospect, not being Hillary was almost as big a boon to Sanders as it was for Trump.

If the Clinton machine had not scared away more talented and resourceful politicians from running in 2016, it’s possible that someone other than Sanders would have captured the passion of the party — just as Obama did when he toppled Hillary as the inevitable nominee in 2008.”

Goldberg argues that because Clinton lost to Trump, the Democratic base got the message that “Sanders-style socialist populism was the key to success just as the GOP has concluded that Trump-style nationalist populism is the future of the right.”

Again, I think he’s right. And this is important because it illustrates just how reliant our politics have become on personalities and personas, and how disconnected they are from serious issues and common sensibilities. Desperation hatched from defeat has compelled both parties to conflate personal identity with political proclivity.

It’s like a domino effect of perpetual misreadings and misunderstandings — the kind that could have given the writers of Three’s Company a few extra seasons worth of material.

But this isn’t a sitcom, where the characters straighten things out by the end of the episode. It’s today’s politics… where identity itself is the script. And for that reason, the script will continue to be followed, no matter how absurd the story becomes.





What We Can Learn From the Old Republican Guard

As the nation says goodbye to a true patriot in George H.W. Bush, political figures and media commentators from both sides of the aisle have been championing the stories and qualities that made the former president such an honorable man and admired public servant. Words like grace, integrity, decency, and humbleness have been used in abundance this week, and it has been heartening to hear so many people speak glowingly of the man who worked hard to inspire those qualities in others.

We heard similar sentiments expressed earlier this year after the passing of other iconic figures from the political right, including Barbara Bush, John McCain, and Charles Krauthammer. It’s a reminder of how tough of a year it has been for the old Republican guard.

What makes the losses even harder, at least for me, is when you take into account how many of the same observers, who’ve been publicly praising Bush and the others in death, have been insisting over the past few years that the traits that made those individuals special are emblematic of weakness and defeatism in today’s political culture.

It’s no secret that the era of Trump has altered the mindsets of a lot of people — especially those on the right. Many righties now argue that the political culture has so significantly eroded since the days of George H.W. Bush’s tenure in the White House, that to compete within today’s uglier framework, the Right must embrace the worst inclinations of the Left.

Instead of calling for a “kinder, gentler nation,” and trying to build good-faith relationships, the key to success is to demagogue endlessly, play fast and loose with the truth, attach the worst possible motivations to your opponents, and fight, fight, fight!

And there’s certainly evidence to suggest that it’s the correct strategy. After all, Donald J. Trump was elected president, after the “Mr. Nice Guy” candidacies of John McCain and Mitt Romney were failures.

Author, filmmaker, and noted Trump enthusiast Dinesh D’Souza weighed in on this theme the other day on Twitter:

While it’s a bit hard to take seriously a metaphor in which a guy who enlisted in the military at age 18 to become a combat pilot is Mother Teresa, and a guy who sought five war deferments (include one for bone spurs) is Dirty Harry, D’Souza’s point isn’t hard to follow.

Of course, one can also challenge the notion that bare-knuckled scorched-earth politics are now the necessary means by which the Republican party and the presidency can survive, legislate, and govern. I’ve been issuing that challenge in my commentary for quite some time, because I think a lot of the lessons Republican voters learned from 2016 were bad ones, and built upon flawed premises.

I think, despite his unexpected appeal to certain sectors of the electorate, Trump won primarily because of how absolutely terrible of a candidate Hillary Clinton was. I suspect about half of the bloated field of Republican primary candidates would have also defeated Clinton in the general election. And since taking office, I don’t believe President Trump’s combative nature has helped him govern one bit. In fact, I think it’s been nothing but a liability. What Republicans and conservatives recognize as Trump’s defining achievements would have come just as easily (probably more so) if he espoused the same traits as George H.W. Bush. He’d also likely have more wins under his belt.

Additionally, if Trump were more like Bush, I don’t believe the Republicans would have lost nearly as many House seats, governorships, and local offices as they did in the midterms, regardless of how hard the media was pummeling him. People weren’t voting against Trump’s policies. They were voting against Trump.

Many Trump supporters have been quick to point out that it is historically quite normal for the party in charge to lose seats in the midterms. That’s absolutely true. It’s also historically normal for the opposition party to take back control of the White House after a two-term presidency (as we saw in 2008), and then hold the presidency for a second term (as we saw in 2012). Yet, the Republican base largely attributed those losses to the GOP nominees being too nice.

What’s not historically normal is the sheer number of seats that were lost by the Republicans last month, and the rapid pace at which voters are abandoning the party (most notably in the suburbs). It’s also not normal how willing people have been to turn their backs on principles and common decencies they had long ascribed to, for the sake of partisan loyalty to a politician.

Over the past few years, we on the right have been conditioned to believe (at the insistence of many on cable news and talk radio), that in this day and age, Trump’s way is the only way forward for Republicans and the nation. I think that’s exactly wrong.

What the party and country so desperately need right now is some of that compassion, humility, and lightheartedness that George H.W. Bush (and others from that era) so famously exhibited. I’m under no illusion that we’ll actually see it from today’s political leaders, but we can hopefully channel it from some past ones, and lead by example in our own lives.

If it’s true — as the saying goes — that culture is upstream from politics, we are in a better position to change the political culture than we think. As a political outsider, Trump was undeniably elevated by the ugliness and divisiveness that had marred our culture (including our politics) for quite some time. We can’t hope for that culture to suddenly get any better without taking the reins and changing the direction ourselves.




No Culpability in Spreading Bad Info?

I typically don’t write columns based on Twitter conversations, but there was one yesterday involving CNN’s Jake Tapper that I think is worthy of some discussion in regard to the spreading of media disinformation.

A little background first:

Last Sunday, Tapper interviewed Republican Senator Ben Sasse, who has a new book out entitled, “Them: Why We Hate Each Other – And How to Heal.” The book focuses heavily on the national division caused by our increasingly tribal political culture, so Tapper asked Sasse to weigh in on President Trump’s recent praise for Republican Congressman Greg Gianforte over his physical assault on a reporter (a crime Gianforte was convicted for).

USA Today summed up Sasse’s response later that day with this headline: “Sen. Ben Sasse: Trump was being ‘playful’ in praising congressman’s assault of reporter.”

The piece’s writer, William Cummings, further described Sasse’s comments in the first paragraph:

“President Donald Trump was being ‘playful’ when he celebrated a congressman’s 2017 assault of a reporter, Sen. Ben Sasse said Sunday – but he added that he did not think the rhetoric was ‘OK.'”

Sasse’s a frequent critic of President Trump (a rarity within the Republican Party), so it seemed a bit out of character for him to describe such rhetoric as “playful.” And there’s a reason for that: he didn’t.

Here is what Sasse actually said:

“I think what you hear from a lot of Nebraskans, who also I think tune out most of the rallies, is there’s sort of short-term/long-term thing going on, and people feel like the president’s rhetoric is kind of short-term playful. I don’t think it’s okay, but I do think most people tune most of it out.”

Sasse clearly stated that he believed other people interpreted what Trump said as “playful.” But just in case there was any confusion, Tapper followed up on Sasse’s response:

Tapper: “But, it’s not playful to joke about assault, is it?”

Sasse: “No. The guy was convicted of a crime.”

Needless to say, USA Today framed Sasse’s comments completely wrong. And anyone who didn’t watch the video, and relied solely on Mr. Cummings’ account of what was said, was very much misled.

Was it intentional? It’s hard to see how it wasn’t. Sasse was awfully straight forward in his contention that he did not view Trump’s remarks as “playful.” That’s why it was surprising, the next day, to see Jake Tapper share the USA Today piece on Twitter (with his nearly 2 million followers) — verbatim headline and all — without commenting on its clearly false context:

A number of Tapper’s followers drew the natural conclusion. Here is just a few of their responses (some of the nicer ones):

Some people, including me, who’d watched the interview or had read the transcript, knew that USA Today had gotten it dead wrong. We asked Tapper why he would share the piece’s default headline without comment:

I agree with Mr. Bell in his assessment that Tapper is normally fair. In fact, I view him as a respected journalist who makes a disciplined effort to get things right. And to Tapper’s credit, he replied to some of our tweets:

Tapper is right in that he didn’t create the false narrative. But he did choose to share it, as-is, without addressing its glaring inaccuracy (something he could have very easily done). That is… unless Tapper somehow, in some strange way, felt the headline was indeed accurate…

Isn’t inaccurate? Give me a break. The context was presented as Sasse’s view, when it clearly wasn’t. I pressed Tapper on his defense of the headline, and he responded:

Kind of a bummer that addressing our concerns was a time consumer, but it was certainly enlightening.

Again, the criticism isn’t that Tapper created false information. It’s that he shared it without correction. Does that distinction let him off the hook? I don’t think so. In fact, this is something that many in the news media often (and rightfully) criticize President Trump (and his supporters over): passing along junk.

To use an admittedly exaggerated comparison, Trump didn’t come up with the ridiculous theme that Ted Cruz’s father was somehow involved with the JFK assassination. A tabloid did that. But Trump spread it, and therefore lent it legitimacy. And he was rightfully raked over the coals at the time for doing so.

It seems to me that a respected journalist, especially one whose interview was clearly misrepresented, would choose not to parrot false information from that interview. So while USA Today deserves the brunt of the criticism here, Tapper deserves some too. Their readers and followers were done a disservice.

I suspect, by now, that Tapper probably realizes he screwed up. But since he never deleted the original tweet, I could be wrong.




John McCain’s Funeral Invitations Are None of Our Business

Editor’s Note:

John Daly is taking over the featured spot with a column on the death of John McCain — and the people who didn’t like him when he was alive … and still don’t.  

Bernie

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Over the years, we’ve heard the term “derangement syndrome” used to describe the bombastic rhetoric often employed by vocal opponents of U.S. presidents. This began back in 2003, when the late Charles Krauthammer coined the phrase Bush Derangement Syndrome, describing it as “the acute onset of paranoia in otherwise normal people in reaction to the policies, the presidency—nay—the very existence of George W. Bush.”

For those who remember how much the Left absolutely loathed Bush back then (especially at the height of the Iraq War), it’s safe to say that Krauthammer nailed the diagnosis.

More recently, Trump Derangement Syndrome has been used by some to describe our current president’s fiercest detractors. But as any political writer could tell you, another prominent U.S. politician, who was met with more than his fair share of derangement, was Senator John McCain.

McCain was unique in that he somehow managed to draw out the very worst from both sides of the political aisle. Whenever I wrote a piece on McCain (or simply posted something about him on social media), my thoughts were almost immediately assaulted with vile, disparaging comments about the senator, usually involving some mockery of his war record or POW status, or a reference to the long-ago debunked conspiracy theory that his military recklessness led to over a hundred U.S. sailors dying.

And that was just from his fellow Republicans/conservatives!

By the way, if you think these trolls represent only a tiny contingent of the base, keep in mind that Trump’s poll numbers shot up dramatically during the GOP primary, right after he mocked McCain over his war-time capture.

Of course there was some overlap from the lefties, but liberals more often went the route of calling McCain a “neocon” and a “warmonger” (which some righties did as well).

Regardless, one would have hoped that the visceral ugliness would lessened sharply after McCain’s death, but sadly it hasn’t (as anyone who’s been following political discussions on social media over the past few days can attest to). In fact, there’s one story in particular that partisans have latched onto in an attempt to stoke one last anti-McCain narrative. And sadly, it involves the senator’s funeral.

We learned back in May, after the severity of McCain’s brain cancer was made public, that the senator did not want President Trump to attend his funeral. This shouldn’t have surprised anyone based the two’s history and McCain’s often expressed low opinion of our president.

By any reasonable measure, the decision made perfect sense. After all, if I had suffered five years of brutal capture and unimaginable torture in service of our country, I wouldn’t want a guy who mocked that experience attending my funeral either (president or not). And I can’t imagine many people seeing it differently.

Additionally, there are few things more personal than a funeral service. If the person being laid to rest has some requests for how it should be conducted, those requests should be respected.

Unsurprisingly, that wasn’t the case with McCain. Trump partisans slammed the senator, framing him as a bitter old man who was disrespecting the office of the presidency. This despite the fact that McCain requested the previous two U.S. presidents (both of whom he’d lost to when he ran for president) to speak at his service.

The narrative returned earlier this week when it was reported that McCain’s 2008 presidential running-mate, Sarah Palin, was not invited to his funeral. According to some reports, she was asked by intermediaries not to come.

McCain’s detractors were quick to pounce:

The people above (along with many others) were responding to a Breitbart piece that focused heavily on Palin’s loyalty to McCain, with the implication being that she deserved an invitation.

Of course, in political terms, loyalty is defined merely by withholding public criticism of someone. And in the case of Palin and McCain, one could fairly say that both of them were politically loyal. Neither spoke ill of the other following their unsuccessful campaign from 10 years ago.

What isn’t mentioned in the column is that the two were never particularly close before or after the campaign, and probably saw very little of each other over the past decade. Who knows what their non-public relationship was like?

Also not mentioned what that a number a longtime McCain staffers, including other prominent members of his past campaigns, weren’t invited either.

The fact is, we don’t know how the invitation list was decided. We don’t know (other than in the case with Trump) who made the final decisions, and what rationale he, she, or they used. But what we should know — and this is important — is that this isn’t a public policy or representation issue. Thus, it’s absolutely none of our business.

It strikes me as odd that people who were not part of McCain’s inner-circle (and in some cases couldn’t even stand the man) feel qualified to decide who has earned the right to be at his funeral service. That seems awfully arrogant to me. I mean, if I died, and people had the audacity to trash me and my grieving family over not inviting an old co-worker to my funeral service, I would hope someone would have the common decency to stand up and put those folks in their place.

Don’t get me wrong. I understand why this is a story. Palin will forever be identified with John McCain, having become an overnight celebrity when he picked her to be his running mate. She was a favorite media punching-bag back then, and she still is. So any perceived slight of her — especially from her own side of the aisle — is going to generate headlines.

But that doesn’t mean we need to buy into the media narrative. And it doesn’t mean we should add to the disparagement of an American war hero (along with his family), who gave more of his life to this country than probably anyone any of us will ever meet.

A patriot’s family should, at minimum, be afforded the grace of honoring that patriot in whatever way they see fit. Let’s give them that grace… without the judgment.