Beyond ‘court packing’: Repairing the Supreme Court in an era of minority rule

Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Last spring I warned that the media might seek out dubious issues to even things up if former Vice President Joe Biden built a substantial lead over President Donald Trump. So far we haven’t seen much of that. But Biden’s reluctance to say whether he would try to expand the size of the Supreme Court has proved to be something of a speed bump for the Biden-Harris campaign.

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Cape Cod Canal bike path

Great ride today on the south side of the Cape Cod Canal bike path, almost exactly a year after we rode the north side. We had to make our way through a stiff headwind on the way back, but otherwise it was a beautiful day with lots to see.

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A creepy look at Judge Barrett’s secretive religious organization

White House photo by Shealah Craighead.

From the moment President Trump appointed Judge Amy Coney Barrett to the Supreme Court, the right has responded with the bogus allegation that opposition to her confirmation was grounded in anti-Catholicism. In fact, it is her right-wing views on reproductive rights and LGBTQ issues, and her membership in another organization, that has attracted notice.

On Thursday, The New York Times published an in-depth look at People of Praise, a religious group to which Barrett’s family has belonged for many years. I urge you to read it, because it strikes me that People of Praise fits at least a few of the definitions that cult expert Steven Hassan identified in his book “Combatting Cult Mind Control” some years back.

The two that come to mind are the group’s secrecy — to this day, Barrett has never confirmed her membership, although it seems pretty well established — and its method of keeping members in line by having others watch over them in what sounds like a pretty suffocating manner. Indeed, Barrett was at one time listed as a “handmaid,” in charge of keeping tabs on others, although the group has since dropped that unfortunate label.

“It wasn’t sinister, but there was a strong sense of membership, of being ‘You’re in or you’re out,’” a disillusioned would-be member named Annie Reed told the Times. “It made me wary.”

It’s hard to know what to make of this, and we shouldn’t get carried away. But if Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell insists on moving ahead with confirmation hearings before the election, we need to get a thorough airing of People of Praise and exactly how it has shaped Barrett’s beliefs.

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Harris needed to come across as a plausible president. She succeeded.

A few minutes before the vice presidential debate started, it occurred to me that Mike Pence might not be all that broken up if President Trump loses. Rather than being trapped by the whims of a dictatorial incumbent, Pence could begin his 2024 presidential campaign.

I’m not saying that Pence tanked it Wednesday night. He made most of the points that he needed to make, and he did it more effectively than Trump did last week — which is to say that Pence didn’t suffer a meltdown on national television. But he struck me as lethargic and semi-engaged. He also looked terrible, with an unexplained red eye that was the talk of Twitter. It was almost as if he’d been around people with COVID-19. When was his last test?

I thought Kamala Harris was very good, especially in the first half-hour, when she dismantled the Trump’s administration’s horrendous record on the pandemic. She was also effective in calling out Pence for mansplaining and for disregarding the time limits. The debate probably won’t have much effect on the race, although Harris, as a newcomer and a woman of color, had to come across as a plausible president. And she did. A CNN instant poll showed that respondents thought Harris won by a margin of 59% to 38%, which is pretty much in line with Trump’s disastrous polling in recent days.

One area in which Pence had a clear advantage was in lying, according to David Leonhardt, who writes The New York Times’ morning newsletter. Leonhardt has a list. From taxes to health care, from climate change to mail-in voting, Pence lied about Trump’s record and Biden’s positions in a way that went well beyond what’s considered “normal” in political rhetoric, Leonhardt says.

The problem with such a blizzard of lies is that no candidate can call out all of them, and even when she does, the viewers’ takeaway is that they’re both lying.

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The most important veep debate ever, played out in the midst of a national crisis

Previously published at GBH News.

If, as James Nance Garner once said, the vice presidency “isn’t worth a bucket of warm spit” (and, uh, no, he probably didn’t quite put it that way), then the quadrennial vice presidential debate falls below even that low bar. The memorable moments over the years, such as they were, can be summarized as “You’re no Jack Kennedy,” “Who am I? Why am I here? ” and Sarah Palin winking at the camera.

But given the gerontological cast of the two presidential candidates, tonight’s encounter between Vice President Mike Pence and his Democratic challenger, Sen. Kamala Harris, promises to be more significant than usual. Pence’s boss, President Donald Trump, is 74 and is currently recovering from COVID-19. The top of the Democratic ticket, former Vice President Joe Biden, is 77, and though his health seems fine, he would be the oldest person by far to be elected president. Thus Pence and Harris both give new meaning to the phrase “a heartbeat away from the presidency.”

The presidential campaign itself has been marked by more improbable twists and turns than a self-published mystery novel — from impeachment to stunning revelations about Trump’s taxes, from a worldwide pandemic to economic collapse. In recent days, though, with early voting already under way, it’s begun to seem like the final plot developments are slipping into place.

First, Trump’s catching COVID seems like a metaphor for his entire horrendous response to a disease that has now killed more than 210,000 of his fellow Americans. Just as with the country as a whole, he has shown blatant disregard for those in his immediate circle, resulting in what amounts to a mini-pandemic ripping through the White House and among top Senate Republicans.

He held indoor and outdoor events for his Supreme Court nominee, Judge Amy Coney Barrett, at which few people wore masks. Because of characteristic obfuscation and lying by him and his staff, we don’t know exactly when he was diagnosed or how sick he really is. He put his own Secret Service agents at risk by cruising around Walter Reed Hospital.

And let’s face it. Even though no decent person wants Trump to become seriously ill, it sent a terrible message to the country for him to announce, as he did on Monday after being discharged from the hospital, “Feeling really good! Don’t be afraid of COVID. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Not only is that an insult to the dead and those still struggling with the after-effects of the virus, but it’s also not the way to encourage mask-wearing and social-distancing.

Second, Biden may be on his way to a decisive if not overwhelming victory. Among media observers, the narrative in place since March has been that if Trump loses, it will be because of COVID and the economy. Don’t you believe it.

According to the RealClearPolitics polling average, Biden has held a steady lead over Trump since October 2019, which makes sense given that Trump is a historically unpopular president. That lead has been widening in recent days, with a Wall Street Journal/NBC News poll conducted after the first chaotic debate putting Biden ahead by a margin of 53% to 39%.

Of course, it’s not over till it’s over. Biden’s lead in the handful of states that will determine whether he can win an Electoral College victory is narrower than it is in the national polls, and we still don’t know how Republican efforts to suppress the vote will play out, or if with Russian propaganda will have an effect.

The most likely scenario, though, is that we’ll find ourselves looking back after the votes are tallied and see that our belief that Trump would somehow pull one last, ginormous trick out of a hat was grounded more on flashbacks to 2016 than on the last four years. Many of us have watched in amazement as Trump’s approval rating has never dipped much below 40%. The corollary, of course, is that it’s never risen much above that, either. Almost from the day he was inaugurated, more than half the country has has disapproved of Trump’s performance as president. And between now and Nov. 3, they can register that disapproval at the polls.

But first comes the encounter between Pence and Harris. Pence is easily caricatured as the ultimate Trump suck-up whose base doesn’t extend much beyond the evangelical vote. Four years ago, though, Hillary Clinton’s running mate, Sen. Tim Kaine, couldn’t put a dent in him. Pence is better at this sort of thing than his detractors imagine.

Fortunately for the Democrats, Harris is a considerably more nimble debater than the hapless Kaine. At one time I thought she might be her party’s strongest presidential candidate, but her uneven campaign took her out of contention. Despite that, she is a first-rate political talent, smart, personable and — the key, given Biden’s age — credible as a possible president.

Given that Biden, if he wins, would be 82 by the time his first term ends, it seems more than likely that both Harris and Pence will be running for president four years from now. Look at tonight as a rehearsal for 2024 — played out in the midst of one of the worst crises our country has experienced.

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No more debates? Following Tuesday’s fiasco, some call for just that.

Not an image from Tuesday night’s Biden-Trump debate.

Previously published at GBH News.

This morning, the day after what was surely the worst presidential debate in our unhappy nation’s history, I have the task of making sense of it through the eyes of the media. What can I say? We all saw what we saw, and if you didn’t see it, count yourself among the fortunate.

I could quote commentary after commentary calling out President Donald Trump for his unhinged performance, in which he lied promiscuously and constantly shouted over former Vice President Joe Biden and moderator Chris Wallace.

But I doubt anyone is going to top the presidential historian Jon Meacham, a Biden supporter, who tweeted during the close minutes that “the incumbent’s behavior this evening is the lowest moment in the history of the presidency since Andrew Johnson’s racist state papers.”

Meacham appeared to be referring specifically to Trump’s refusal to denounce white supremacists. But it could be applied just as accurately to the entire hour-and-a-half fiasco.

The most consistent theme that’s emerged following the debate is that we shouldn’t have any more. On CNN, Wolf Blitzer raised that possibility as soon as it ended, as did former Democratic strategist James Carville on MSNBC.

“I never thought I’d say this, but Vice President Biden is going to have to think long and hard whether they want to put the country through this again,” said Carville, according to an account at the pro-Trump website Breitbart. “This accomplished nothing for Trump, and I think Biden did fine. But it was not a very good night for American democracy at all.”

Blitzer and Carville were far from alone. At The Bulwark, Never Trump conservative William Kristol called Trump’s behavior a “disgrace” and “sickening,”and wrote that Biden “should not put the nation through another ordeal like that.” Added liberal columnist Frank Bruni of The New York Times, “I wasn’t in the crowd of people who believed Joe Biden shouldn’t deign to debate President Trump, but put me in the crowd that believes he shouldn’t debate him again.”

Will the remaining debates be canceled? It seems unlikely. The Biden campaign put out the word Tuesday night that the former vice president would stick to the schedule. And one of the headlines at the aforementioned Breitbart this morning was “Media Push Biden to Cancel Future Debates,” an indication of the pounding Biden would take if he says he’s had enough.

Still, the Commission on Presidential Debates needs to take a hard look at what, if anything, can be done to put the next encounter back on track — or if it’s even possible.

A few other observations:

• Wallace, the Fox News anchor who only recently earned praise for a tough interview with Trump, got called out on multiple fronts for failing to keep the proceedings under control. For instance, New York Times columnist Michelle Goldberg wrote, “Chris Wallace was utterly disgraceful as a moderator, constantly letting Trump interrupt Biden and allowing him to spout gross and anti-democratic lies about the legitimacy of the election.”

Of course, we wouldn’t want to ignore the alternative-reality crowd. Noted Mar-a-Lago Club member Howie Carr, writing at the currently homeless Boston Herald, accused Wallace of teaming up with Biden. “Two on one is Democrat fun,” Carr sneered, “and that’s what the president was up against last night.”

I’m usually pretty hard on moderators, but I thought Wallace did as well as anyone could given that Trump was completely out of control. Wallace was perhaps a bit too passive early on, but, starting about halfway through, he repeatedly called out Trump for his abusive behavior. You have to ask yourself: What could Wallace have done other than walk off?

• Biden’s performance came in for some criticism as well, and not just from the Trumpist right. The Boston Globe’s James Pindell gave Biden a “C” (and Trump a well-deserved “F”), writing, “Biden wasn’t able to instill confidence that he is up for the job…. While he didn’t get rattled, the former vice president often struggled to find his own lines throughout the debate. He seemed tired and unsure what to do. He was not crisp.”

At The Atlantic, David A. Graham, a harsh Trump critic, was nevertheless underwhelmed with the former vice president, writing that “tonight saw the return of the Biden who stumbled his way through debates in the Democratic primaries. Answers took left turns, then right turns, then U-turns, feinting in several directions and ending nowhere.”

But given that Biden constantly had to talk over Trump and keep his train of thought, it seemed to me that he had a pretty good debate. So I’m with Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo, who put it this way: “Biden did fine. Not great. But fine. I’d say he had a B performance with some B+ or even A- minus moments. But for him that’s fine. He’s ahead. He’s not running as best debater. He’s not running as most dynamic figure. He’s not competing for most unstable affect. He’s running as the guy who will end the nightmare. If that’s the goal he turned in just the right performance.”

Besides, Biden managed to get off the line of the night: “Will you shut up, man? This is so unpresidential.”

• Finally, we shouldn’t forget that debates don’t matter. Polls showed that viewers thought Hillary Clinton won all three of her debates against Trump four year ago, and that John Kerry bested George W. Bush in 2004. CBS News reported that its snap poll of Tuesday’s proceedings gave the edge to Biden, 48% to 41%, which seems to be nothing more than a reflection of his and Trump’s standings in national polls.

And in certain far reaches of Trumpland, the president did just fine. At the Washington Examiner, Rob Crilly quoted several pro-Trump observers and ended with this: “During the event, he may have lacked Biden’s crafted zingers, but he knew exactly what he wanted to say.” The Wall Street Journal editorial page called the debate a “depressing spectacle,” but called out Biden as much as Trump. At least Michael Goodwin of the New York Post — like the Journal, a Murdoch property — was honest enough to admit that Trump’s “boorish” behavior undermined his cause.

We witnessed something truly awful Tuesday night, and yet little has changed.

“Much like the Trump presidency, it was a national embarrassment,” wrote Boston Globe columnist Renée Graham. Yes, and we have two more presidential debates to go, plus a vice presidential debate next week.

The fundamental dynamic remains intact. Biden has led consistently since January. Trump supporters support Trump, which means he’s going to make it close and create post-election chaos if it appears that he has lost.

God help us all.

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What would Northeastern journalism students ask the candidates?

I asked students in my Ethics and Issues class this morning to come up with questions for the candidates in five broad areas at tonight’s first presidential debate. Because my students are wicked smart, I thought I’d share them with you.

  • Ethics: What do you think the role of executive power and executive actions should be, and how would you utilize them as president?
  • COVID: After failed diagnoses, treatments and political drama, how are you going to get Americans to trust science again? Is that important?
  • Black Lives Matter: Do you have plans to reform the training and educational requirements used in vetting and hiring for law enforcement? Would your plans contribute to combating institutional systemic racism?
  • The economy: Besides re-opening, what economic issues are most important for your recovery plans?
  • Climate change: What is your plan for the next four years to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 2040?

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Boston’s looming mayoral campaign illustrates the value of ranked-choice voting

Two smart progressive women who serve on the Boston City Council will challenge Mayor Marty Walsh next year, assuming Walsh seeks re-election. I’m not sure I can remember a time that candidates who are the caliber of Michelle Wu and Andrea Campbell have taken on an incumbent.

Their candidacies are yet another reason that you should vote “yes” this fall on Question 2, which would create a system of ranked-choice voting. I’m not exactly making an intuitive argument — RCV, which I wrote about recently for GBH News, wouldn’t apply to the Boston mayoral race. But hear me out.

If municipal elections in Massachusetts were partisan, then Walsh, Wu and Campbell would all run in a Democratic primary, with the winner facing a Republican in the fall. Presumably it would help Walsh enormously to have Wu and Campbell split the anti-Walsh vote.

But that’s not how it works. All three (and perhaps others) will run in a preliminary election, and the top two finishers will face off in November. You could accomplish the same thing with RCV. The point is that Wu and Campbell supporters will be able to vote for their favorite knowing that Walsh will have to face one of them (or someone else depending on who else runs) in a head-to-head contest.

Walsh has been a popular mayor, so I’m certainly not predicting his defeat. But whoever wins will need to get more than 50% of the vote in a one-on-one election. That’s what democracy looks like.

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Contrary to James Fallows’ lament, political coverage really is better this time

James Fallows. Photo (cc) 2019 by the Brookings Institution.

Previously published at GBH News.

Strictly speaking, there is nothing actually wrong in James Fallows’ 4,000-word takedown of the political press, which has been the talk of liberal Twitter since it was published by The Atlantic earlier this month.

The sins he documents are real: reflexively balancing coverage between “both sides,” even when one side lies repeatedly; dwelling on the horse-race aspects of the contest; and wallowing in the spectacle, as we did in 2016, when then-candidate Donald Trump’s unhinged rallies proved to be far more entertaining than anything Hillary Clinton could offer.

But to argue, as Fallows does, that we’re doing it all over again, and that Joe Biden is falling victim to the same irresponsible coverage that befell Clinton four years ago, is to misunderstand the moment. To put a new twist on an old phrase, Fallows is missing the trees for the forest. His grasp of the big picture is solid. What he doesn’t see is that the 2020 campaign is being covered very differently compared to 2016.

“Many of our most influential editors and reporters are acting as if the rules that prevailed under previous American presidents are still in effect,” Fallows writes. “But this president is different; the rules are different; and if it doesn’t adapt, fast, the press will stand as yet another institution that failed in a moment of crucial pressure.”

So far, so good. But his contention that we’re dealing with a “Groundhog Day” universe, in which the campaign is playing out just like it did in 2016, doesn’t hold up to scrutiny. It’s no exaggeration to say that, four years ago, large segments of the political press had hated the Clintons for the previous quarter century. Hillary Clinton had to deal with her husband’s legacy, sexism, the bogus email story and the exaggerated Benghazi aftermath.

Biden surely has enemies, but they are fewer in number and softer of voice. Of course, he’s also campaigning in the midst of the worst pandemic since 1918-’19, so he hasn’t been scrutinized in quite as up-close-and-personal a manner as he otherwise would have been. Still, there is every reason to think that the vitriol directed toward Hillary Clinton was unique — that is, uniquely intense, uniquely awful and uniquely unfair.

Rather than deal with Fallows’ critique point by point, I want to bring up three stories that he doesn’t mention — the dogs that didn’t bark. They’re important because they demonstrate that it’s really not Groundhog Day. Any one of these stories would have been covered relentlessly four years ago regardless of their merits, and could have done great damage to the Biden campaign if given that kind of oxygen. Instead, all three have been relegated to the background. Yes, they could re-emerge, possibly at the debates. But the campaign will be over in a few weeks, and early voting has already begun.

• The Tara Reade story. Remember her? She was the former Senate staff member who stepped forward last spring and claimed that, years ago, Biden had pinned her to a wall and sexually assaulted her in the corridor of a Capitol Hill office building. The claim was shocking and seemed contrary to what we knew about Biden. But, at least at first, the media did not dismiss her charges. How could they? She was there, we weren’t, and she deserved to have a chance to tell her story.

Soon, though, Reade’s narrative unraveled. The two big blows came when the “PBS NewsHour,” in an exhaustively detailed report, found no evidence that Biden had ever been accused of sexual assault by anyone other than Reade — and that the logistics of the assault as she described them were literally impossible. Simultaneously, Politico reported that Reade had spent much of her adult life lying and cheating people out of money, and had never been heard to say anything negative about Biden.

That should have been the end of it — and, against all odds, it was, though in earlier campaign cycles it might have kept right on spinning. I do think the media made a mistake in not continuing to pursue the story to find out who, if anyone, was paying Reade. Still, it was a rare instance of a scandal being debunked and staying debunked.

• The Hunter Biden story. Who would have imagined that a salacious Rudy Giuliani-fueled tale of corrupt intrigue in Ukraine would have faded away? But it did, and despite occasional squeaks from the Trumpist right, it has remained on the fringes.

In case you’ve forgotten, Joe Biden’s son Hunter was wildly overpaid to serve on the board of a Ukrainian energy company called Burisma. Joe Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to remove the prosecutor general who had been investigating Burisma. That sounds pretty bad. But it turned out the prosecutor general was himself a corrupt hack, and Joe Biden had merely been acting at the behest of the entire international community.

There was more to it than that, but the bottom line is that there was no scandal. The media got off to a bad start, but soon realized they were being led down a rat hole and backed off. The last time I heard it mentioned was at the Republican National Convention, when former Florida attorney general Pam Bondi brought it up rather ineffectually.

• The dementia story. Now here’s one that the more mindless elements of the media really could have sunk their teeth into. All you have to do is remember the endless speculation after Hillary Clinton stumbled out of a car and then was diagnosed with pneumonia to understand how hard it is for the press to resist a story about a supposed medical cover-up.

In Biden’s case, the accusation coming out of the fever swamps is that Biden is suffering from dementia and that he is the mere puppet of the Democratic left, personified by his running mate, Kamala Harris, notwithstanding the fact that she’s never been a favorite of the left. The Trumpist right has been touting a Zogby poll that found more than half of respondents supposedly believe Biden “is in the early stages of dementia.”

For the most part, though, the media have ignored this foolishness. They see what everyone sees — that, at 77, Biden comes across as less energetic than he used to, but with no loss of mental acuity. The gaffes roll right off him; after all, he has been putting his foot in his mouth for his entire career. Besides, his opponent is Trump, who’s only a few years younger and can’t put together a coherent sentence.

“It’s rarely the new issues that most bedevil us,” Fallows writes. “It’s the same old problems and failures and blind spots and biases, again and again and again.” He’s right. But Biden enjoys significant advantages in terms of media coverage compared to Clinton four years ago. Perhaps the biggest of those advantages is one I haven’t even mentioned: The press now understands that Trump can win, and he’s turned out to be an even scarier threat to democracy than he appeared to be in 2016.

The final few weeks of the campaign are going to be incredibly ugly, especially now that the legacy of Ruth Bader Ginsburg and the politics of a vacant Supreme Court seat have been added to the mix. But Biden, unlike Hillary Clinton, is well-liked and has benefited from the media’s refusal thus far to wallow in phony scandals.

Political coverage of presidential campaigns can be and often is a catastrophe. This time around, though, it really is better.

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What’s next following the death of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg

Ruth Bader Ginsburg meets President Jimmy Carter in 1980. Photo in the public domain.

On this day of national mourning, do yourself a favor and read Linda Greenhouse’s magnificent obituary of Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg in The New York Times. The accompanying video is outstanding as well.

So where do we go from here? During the Democratic primary campaign, Pete Buttigieg called for expanding the size of the Supreme Court as retribution for Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell’s refusal even to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Obama’s choice to replace the late Antonin Scalia.

Buttigieg’s idea gained no traction then. But Joe Biden and the Democratic congressional leadership should go to McConnell immediately and make it clear that expanding the size of the Supreme Court from nine to 11 is exactly what they’ll do if he moves ahead with his grotesquely hypocritical plan to fill Ginsburg’s seat before Jan. 3, when the next Congress is sworn in.

Of course, they will then have to go out and win the White House and Senate and hold onto the House. Otherwise, even if McConnell agrees, he’ll turn around and ram through President Trump’s choice during the lame-duck session.

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