Zap! Pow! The debates need to move beyond conflict, time limits and fringe candidates

The good old days: Abraham Lincoln debates Stephen Douglas in 1858.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Here we go again.

Four years ago the media gave an enormous boost to Donald Trump by making him the star of their multi-candidate Republican presidential debates. Despite his racist demagoguery and his utter lack of qualifications, Trump was moved to center stage and allowed to talk longer than anyone else because of his poll numbers and his salutary effect on TV ratings.

This time, at least, the Democratic candidates getting the center-stage treatment are reasonably plausible future presidents. But during CNN’s two-night extravaganza this week, and at the NBC debates last month, the same flaws were on display: an emphasis on combat over substance, a ridiculous adherence to time limits (at least NBC let Kamala Harris and Joe Biden go at it), and the elevation of fringe candidates who really have no business being there.

As the historian Kevin Kruse put it:

Although the moderators could have done a better job (I’ll get to that in a bit), the format itself is the real problem. CNN deserves credit for holding one-hour, one-candidate town halls with many of the contenders earlier this year. But how many viewers can make that sort of time commitment? The debates are what truly matter, and they are broken.

One alternative would be to schedule six hours of prime time over three nights for 15-minute interviews. You could actually accommodate all 24 candidates, and it would be a vast improvement over 15-second responses. Another idea comes from my former Northeastern colleague Alan Schroeder, an expert on presidential debates: bring in groups of two or three candidates for 15-minute rounds and have an open discussion. “The point is,” he said on Twitter, “there are much better ways to distribute the precious airtime.”

Even within the ridiculous constraints of the multi-candidate format, though, the moderators could have done better. In the first round, Chuck Todd took a lot of well-deserved heat with his demand for one-word answers to complicated policy questions (grunt once for “yes,” twice for “no”). This time, critics have targeted Jake Tapper for tossing undiluted Republican talking points at the Democrats and for all but encouraging the candidates to verbally assault each other. Tom Jones, who writes the newly renamed Poynter Report (and who, oddly enough, is a fan of Todd’s moderating style), described it this way:

“Tapper’s moderating strategy appeared to be nothing more than antagonizing the candidates into disagreeing with one another. Many of his questions were a version of, ‘Why is (such-and-such candidate) wrong?’

“That’s different than the approaches of fellow moderators Dana Bash and Don Lemon. Bash was the star of the night, asking candidates to state and defend their policy ideas — which is the point of a debate when voters are still trying to figure out who everyone is and who they might support. Lemon, meanwhile, started many of his questions with a very solid, ‘Tell us why you’re the best candidate to …’

“It’s not Tapper’s job to make the candidates look good or bad, but the leaders of the Democratic party could not have been happy that the tone of the debate was so nasty and that nastiness was often a direct result of Tapper’s questions.”

Or as the pollster Matt McDermott put it (via The Washington Post): “Imagine CNN asking in a Republican debate: ‘Democrats want to ensure health care for all Americans. You want to kill people. Care to respond?’”

So who won? I have no novel observations. Like just about everyone, I thought Elizabeth Warren was the week’s clear winner on both substance and style. They say you shouldn’t punch down, but her evisceration of some guy named John Delaney was one for the ages. Biden was OK, and much better than he was in June, even though he screwed a few things up and is already getting roasted for being disingenuous about his past and for not knowing the difference between a website and a text message. He was energetic, fought back, and launched a few attacks of his own. If Biden is going to drop in the polls, I’d say it won’t be quite yet.

Harris, who strikes many people (including me) as uniquely positioned to unite the progressive and moderate wings of the party, took a big step back from her breakthrough moment during the first round of debates. She blew it in several ways, including substance: she seemed utterly incapable of explaining her new health-care proposal coherently. That was a lost opportunity given the reservations people have over a pure single-payer Medicare for All plan on the one hand and the reluctance to simply nibble at the edges of Obamacare on the other.

Pete Buttigieg, Julián Castro, and especially Cory Booker all did well and probably deserve one more shot. But honestly, at this point it’s hard to imagine that the nominee will be anyone other than one of the frontrunners — Biden, Warren, Harris, and Bernie Sanders. We deserve to hear from the four of them directly. The others can be relegated to undercards and other events.

What do the media owe us in televised debates? Substance, focus, and seriousness of purpose. It’s a cliché, of course, to say that this is the most important election of our lifetime. But the stakes may be nothing less than a recommitment to democracy versus a continued slide into authoritarianism.

Grunt once if you agree, twice if you disagree.

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Better campaign coverage: More substance, less horse race — and holding Trump to account

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Nineteen days ago, the journalist and advice columnist E. Jean Carroll leveled a credible accusation of rape against President Trump. Carroll’s claim that Trump violently assaulted her during an encounter in the 1990s created a brief stir of outrage — then all but disappeared. Meanwhile, Trump’s lies and falsehoods mount, the abuse of children at the southern border continues, and his contempt for lawful subpoenas and even Supreme Court decisions grows. The press covers all of this, of course, but with an increasingly perfunctory, what-else-is-new tone of resignation.

Compare that with the second Democratic presidential debate, at which Sen. Kamala Harris reinvigorated her campaign by challenging former Vice President Joe Biden on race and by taking a stand in favor of Medicare for all. Here we are nearly two weeks later, and we’re still discussing whether Harris was being disingenuous given her own nuanced position on the use of busing to desegregate public schools and her shifting views on private insurance. Is Harris slippery? Is she electable? Was she too tough on poor old Joe? (And — gasp! — several of the candidates attempted a little Spanish, proving, of course, that they are hopeless panderers.)

Media coverage of the 2020 presidential campaign is shaping up to be the same depressing spectacle that it always is. With few exceptions, the press focuses on polls, fundraising, who’s up, who’s down, and who made a gaffe. Two and a half years after Hillary Clinton was denied the White House despite winning nearly 3 million more votes than Trump, there’s also a lot of dangerously silly talk about whether Americans are willing to elect a woman.

On Twitter, Washington Post political reporter Dave Weigel took a shot at acknowledging legitimate questions about Harris’ shifting views while placing them within a larger Trumpian context. “The question about Harris’s debate win is if she can shake off the problem that sapped her momentum before: Twisting into a pretzel when pressed on a policy question. So far…,” Weigel tweeted. “And yes, this is another area where Trump gets to play by different rules.”

The overarching problem is the same one that defined the 2016 campaign. As Weigel noted, the media hold Trump to a different standard than the Democratic candidates. The Democrats are treated as serious political players who should be held accountable for their policy positions and for what they say. Trump is presumed to be a lying imbecile, and is therefore not covered as though his words matter.

There was at least some justification for that in the last campaign, when media organizations assumed they could exploit the Trump phenomenon for ratings and profits, safe in the knowledge that, you know, he would not actually be elected. Now there are no excuses. But the press, like the rest of us, appears to be suffering from Trump fatigue, covering the president’s latest outbursts but then dropping them almost immediately in order to chase the next shiny object.

What would better coverage look like?

First, even though Trump will be all but uncontested for the Republican nomination (sorry, Bill Weld), reporters need to understand how crucial it is that he be held accountable in exactly the same way the Democratic candidates are. That seems unlikely to happen. But at a minimum we should avoid a repeat performance of 2016, when the media feasted on emails that had been stolen from the Clinton campaign, making themselves unwitting (and witting) accomplices of Russian efforts on Trump’s behalf.

Second, the media need to stop covering politics as a sporting event and focus on what really matters. Sen. Elizabeth Warren has emerged as a leading candidate on the strength of her in-depth policy proposals on issues such as income inequality, student debt relief, and health care. But a candidate’s background, experience, character, and leadership skills are at least as important as policy. Those tend to be the subject of lengthy chin-strokers early in the campaign, supplanted by the horse race once things heat up. It shouldn’t be that way — such stories are essential, and they should be at the center of any serious news organization’s coverage right up until Election Day. On a related note: Chuck Todd of NBC News should be banned from future debates for demanding one-word answers to complex, important questions.

Third, the press should stop trying to “define the narrative.” The narrative, such as it is, is what emerges, and shouldn’t be used as a mnemonic device to make it easier for journalists to do their jobs. Yes, there are serious questions about Sen. Amy Klobuchar’s temperament. But she had long been considered a real contender, and media overkill pretty much derailed her candidacy before it could begin. Warren was described as having missed her best chance by not challenging Clinton in 2016, but here she is. Harris opened strongly! stumbled! and now is back in it! These are normal ups and downs; the press errs by taking them too seriously.

There have been some positive signs. CNN’s one-hour town halls with the Democratic candidates have encouraged thoughtfulness and depth. Unfortunately, they demand too much from all but the most committed viewers. The 10-candidate “debates” on NBC were far too superficial. How about a series of 15-minute interviews, eight a night for three nights? That should be enough time to get into some substance.

As I wrap this up, Yahoo News is reporting that the Seth Rich conspiracy madness — the false tale that the Clintonistas ordered the 2016 murder of a young Democratic operative in order to cover up their own corrupt acts — originated with Russian intelligence. This bit of toxic fakery was not taken seriously by the mainstream media, but it was promoted by Sean Hannity on Fox News and, later, by the Trump White House itself. In other words, it got wide distribution and polluted our discourse even though actual news organizations handled it responsibly.

Which brings me to my final observation. Even if political reporters can improve on their efforts to hold Trump to account, to focus more on substance and less on the horse race, and to let the larger narrative emerge rather than trying to define it for us, there are few signs that they are prepared to deal with the new media world of foreign actors, Facebook fakery, and disinformation in which we are now immersed.

That world, as much as anything, got Trump elected in 2016. If the media aren’t prepared to identify and expose such efforts in 2020, it could happen again.

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Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren are the class of the Democratic field

I’m in Toronto at a conference, so I missed the first hour of Wednesday’s debate and the first half-hour of Thursday’s. This is impressionistic, and what seems obvious this morning may look wrong in a day or two. But I thought Kamala Harris and Elizabeth Warren established themselves as the class of the Democratic field, while Joe Biden seriously wounded himself in his “states’ rights” exchange over desegregation with Harris.

I’ve thought for a while that a Harris-Warren or Warren-Harris ticket might be the Democrats’ best bet, but I’ve been frustrated with Harris’ fuzzy I’ll-have-to-look-into-that responses. On Thursday, she was prepared, offering compelling personal stories about herself and others in response to questions that could have prompted wonky responses.

As for the rest, Cory Booker and Julián Castro elevated their candidacies. Pete Buttigieg was poised and articulate, as he always is. And there at least a dozen candidates I hope we never see again.

The format, needless to say, was absurd. A series of much smaller debates, 20-minute one-on-ones — anything but two-hour shoutfests among 10 candidates with Chuck Todd constantly interrupting because they weren’t complying with his idiotic demands for one-word answers.

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Long-overdue calls to abolish the Electoral College are finally being heard

What do Benjamin Harrison, George W. Bush and Donald Trump have in common?

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

The movement to get rid of the Electoral College is having a moment. For the past several weeks, pundits and politicians alike have renewed calls to do away with this 18th-century anachronism and award the presidency to the candidate who wins the most votes.

With Attorney General William Barr’s summary of the Mueller Report dealing a powerful blow to the always-unlikely scenario that Congress would impeach President Trump and remove him from office, the call for Electoral College abolition is likely to grow louder. Democratic presidential candidate Elizabeth Warren has made it a centerpiece of her campaign. Her competitors Beto O’Rourke and Pete Buttigieg agree, while Kamala Harris is leaning in that direction as well.

Buttigieg wrote in a recent commentary for CNN.com that “we need to re-evaluate the role of the Electoral College, which has — in my short lifetime — overruled the popular vote twice. It should be a commonsense position that the person who gets the most votes is the person who wins the presidency.”

New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie has been especially thoughtful on the topic, nothing that former Maine governor Paul LePage had it exactly right when he complained recently that doing away with the Electoral College would diminish the power of white supremacy. (OK, the notoriously racist LePage didn’t put it quite that way.)

As Bouie argued, and as I wrote here more than two years ago, the Electoral College came about as a way to grant disproportionate power to the slave states of the South so that they would agree to ratify the Constitution. How? Let’s look at the numbers. Each state gets an electoral vote for every House member, plus two bonus votes for their senators. Before the Civil War, the slave states received an artificial — and morally reprehensible — boost in House and Electoral College representation because each slave counted as three-fifths of a person for the purpose of determining the number of that state’s House seats. That advantage disappeared after the Civil War, but the two extra votes for senators continue to give states with the lowest population disproportionate power. For instance, in 2016 voters in tiny Wyoming had nearly four times as much influence as those in California.

There are some myths surrounding the Electoral College that need to be put to rest. One is that the founders favored it because they opposed direct democracy. Boston Globe columnist Jeff Jacoby uncorked that one recently, writing, “The framers of the Constitution devised it deliberately as a check on direct democracy” because they did not want “important national decisions to be driven by unbridled public emotion, populist demagoguery, or the passions of the mob.”

There may have been something to that in the early days of the republic. But the problem with this theory today is that the reality is exactly the opposite of what Jacoby describes. In fact, the president is elected via direct democracy. The electors in each state are not free to exercise their independent judgment and stand fast against “the passions of the mob.” In many cases it is actually illegal for electors to oppose the will of their state’s voters. Not that there’s much chance of that happening given that they are chosen because they’re party loyalists. So we end up with the worst of both worlds — direct democracy, but distorted to favor rural states over the places where people actually live.

Another fallacy is that we’ve always lived with the reality of the Electoral College, candidates have always understood that they need to build a broad coalition of states, and that popular-vote winners who lose in the electoral count have no one but themselves to blame.

Unlike the direct-democracy argument, there is a little bit of truth to this one. “In the Trump era, Democrats are in a perpetual state of panic,” National Review editor Rich Lowry wrote recently in Politico. “They should remember that the electoral map is always changing. Before 2016, it was thought the Electoral College favored Democrats. It shouldn’t be beyond their conceiving that they can win again under the long-established rules of America’s foundational governing document.”

But here’s the problem with that argument:Before George W. Bush’s narrow, controversial victory over Al Gore in 2000, the last time a candidate became president despite losing the popular vote was 1888, when Republican Benjamin Harrison defeated Grover Cleveland, the incumbent Democrat.

That’s 112 years. Surely the public could be forgiven for thinking that the Electoral College — to the extent that they thought about it at all — was some vestigial appendage from the past that they need not worry about. Now, thanks to shifting population patterns, any Democratic candidate starts out with a disadvantage because so many liberal voters now live in a few blue, underrepresented bastions such as New York, California, and Massachusetts.

So what are we going to do about this miserable state of affairs? One possible solution is an interstate compact being pushed by an organization called National Popular Vote, which would require each state’s electors to support the candidate who won the most votes nationwide. But this strikes me as a fool’s mission, as there is no more incentive for small states to join the compact than there would be for them to support a constitutional amendment to do away with the Electoral College altogether.

And, of course, a popular, broad-based campaign can win both a majority of the popular vote and the Electoral College, thus putting the issue on the backburner. Barack Obama did it twice. So did Ronald Reagan.

Ultimately, though, we need to come to a consensus that nothing good comes of a presidency that was flawed right from the start by losing the popular vote. Bush was unable to unite the country except for a brief moment after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. Trump’s problems hardly need to be laid out here. But doing something about the Electoral College will require a bigger politics than we have at the moment. I’ll choose to be optimistic and hope that sometime in the not-too-distant future we can embrace something better.

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Of course there was collusion

It happened in plain sight. This isn’t a criticism of special counsel Robert Mueller, whose report hasn’t been released and who may not have found any criminal offenses. But we can’t unsee what we all saw.

At Mother Jones, the indispensable David Corn walks us through it. He writes:

[William] Barr’s note is clear that Mueller did not uncover evidence Trump and his gang were in direct cahoots with Russia’s covert operation to interfere with the US election and boost Trump’s odds. But the hyper-focus on this sort of collusion — as if Trump instructed Russian hackers on how to penetrate the computer network of the Democratic National Committee — has always diverted attention from a basic and important element of the scandal that was proven long before Mueller drafted his final report: Trump and his lieutenants interacted with Russia while Putin was attacking the 2016 election and provided encouraging signals to the Kremlin as it sought to subvert American democracy. They aided and abetted Moscow’s attempt to cover up its assault on the United States (which aimed to help Trump win the White House). And they lied about all this.

Read the whole thing.

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How Beto O’Rourke quickly lost his status as the media’s favorite slacker

Beto O’Rourke. Photo (cc) 2018 by Steve Standeford

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Betomania had somehow eluded me. And so when I set out to write about how the media have reacted to the launch of Beto O’Rourke’s presidential campaign, my first plan was to criticize the elevation of yet another celebrity candidate over his more substantive but less magnetic rivals.

That’s not how it’s worked out. Yes, there was the 8,800-word Vanity Fair profile by Joe Hagan, accompanied by an Annie Leibovitz cover shot of O’Rourke standing by what I assume is his pick-up truck, with archetypal dirt road, hills, and dog in the background. But that proved to be an exception.

“It is a well put-together, if unsubtle, piece of propaganda, and it should be read by anyone looking to learn the art of the puff piece,” wrote Nathan J. Robinson at the website of the left-wing magazine Current Affairs. Personally, I didn’t think it was that gushing; certainly it was spritely and readable, but it also included some harsh passages about O’Rourke’s drunken-driving arrest years ago and his alliance with the white Republican power structure during his early days in El Paso politics. But as substantive political pieces go, well, there was a lot about his youth as a punk rocker.

After O’Rourke made his candidacy official last Thursday, though, the tide quickly turned, at least according to my shockingly unscientific survey of media coverage. Yes, his record one-day online fundraising haul of $6.1 million was duly noted. But so was a less-than-woke comment he made about how he sees his role as a father and a husband — a danger zone given that his rivals for the presidency include a number of well-qualified women. Matt Viser of The Washington Post tweeted the details:

That was followed by criticism both serious and silly. On the serious side, Josh Marshall of the liberal website Talking Points Memo called O’Rourke’s rollout “A Bad Day for Beto,” arguing that O’Rourke’s early support has come from centrist elements of the Democratic Party — and that’s not where the energy is. “The Democratic nominee is not going to be the factional candidate of Democratic centrists,” Marshall wrote, adding that O’Rourke had, to his detriment, “made a good start toward becoming that guy.”

Hanna Trudo of National Journal (and, ahem, a former student of mine) offered a similar point on the podcast “Quorum Call,” suggesting that O’Rourke may have a problem running as a moderate during a year when Democrats seem to want someone more progressive. “He’s to the right of nearly every other candidate aside from Biden, I would say,” Trudo said of O’Rourke. “He’s far to the right of Sanders and Elizabeth Warren, or even Kamala Harris and Cory Booker. He’s voted for Republican policies more often than most Democrats running.”

In contrast with Marshall and Trudo, New York Times columnist Maureen Dowd offered a snark-filled update of her dreadful columns referring to Barack Obama as “The One.” And yes, it seems indisputably true that O’Rourke, like Obama, has a healthy ego and a sense of destiny that may or may not be shared by Democratic primary voters. But there’s really no excuse for Dowdian drivel like this: “We have The One again, a New One — another lanky, bookish, handsome man with an attractive young family, a thin résumé, an exotic name, a hip affect, a rock star aura, an enticing smile, a liberal press corps ready to fluff his pillows and a frothing Fox News.” As Charles Pierce of Esquire tweeted, “I was reading this but my laptop floated to the ceiling.”

So what is going on? I think part of it is that candidates never look as good as they do the day before they announce — and that O’Rourke, who was already a political celebrity, was bound to come in for more of a thrashing than a lower-profile politician might. The pundits may also be having second thoughts about O’Rourke’s loss in the Texas Senate race last year to Ted Cruz. No doubt O’Rourke deserves credit for coming within three points in a state where Republicans have a virtual stranglehold. But good grief, Ted Cruz.

And questions about whether O’Rourke is too white, too male, and too moderate for Democrats in 2020 are perfectly legitimate — notwithstanding the reality that Bernie Sanders and the still-unannounced (or should I say semi-unannounced) Joe Biden sit atop the Iowa polls, for whatever that’s worth at this early stage of the campaign.

More than anything, though, O’Rourke’s self-regard puts him in danger of becoming the most easily mockable Democratic candidate, especially since he doesn’t have a concrete issues agenda to fall back on. “I want to be in it,” he told Vanity Fair’s Hagan. “Man, I’m just born to be in it, and want to do everything I humanly can for this country at this moment.”

I’m just born to be in it. It’s a comment that a number of women have picked up on, and not in a good way. Writing at Vox, Laura McGann called out the double standard of a man making a comment that would be deadly if a woman said it, adding, “Men are rewarded in politics for showing ambition, while women are punished.” McGann is right, except that in 2019 the sense of entitlement in O’Rourke’s remark didn’t seem to make a good impression on anyone.

That old war criminal Henry Kissinger supposedly liked to joke that the infighting in academic politics is so vicious because the stakes are so low. In Campaign 2020, it’s just the opposite: Democrats and other voters in the anti-Trump coalition are so determined to win that every remark, every gesture is being held to an impossibly high level of scrutiny. And the infighting is going to be vicious.

Whether O’Rourke’s toothy, charismatic, hazy-on-the-issues appeal will have staying power is months away from being put to the test. The criticism has already reached the unserious stage, as Fox News is pillorying Reuters for sitting on a story about O’Rourke’s youthful exploits as a computer hacker on the grounds that the reporter was supposedly trying to help him beat Cruz. If nothing else, it’s a sign that if O’Rourke and his supporters were assuming that the media would be on their side, they may be in for an unpleasant encounter with reality.

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Elizabeth Warren and that Washington Post story

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Trump’s SOTU speech was a cynical exercise in pretend bipartisanship

Donald Trump and Nancy Pelosi in happier times. 2017 photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Was President Trump’s bipartisan outreach in his State of the Union address Tuesday night a cynical attempt to recast himself as something he fundamentally is not? Or was it an even more cynical attempt to be seen as bipartisan while winking and nodding to his hardcore supporters? As Lily Tomlin once observed, “No matter how cynical I get, I can’t keep up.” I thought it was clear that Trump was pursuing the latter course. So take this as my attempt to stay ahead of the Tomlin curve.

The conventional take was expressed in The Wall Street Journal by Gerald Seib, who wrote: “When Donald Trump became president, there was reason to believe he might govern as he campaigned, almost as an independent, standing apart from both parties, perhaps even with an ability to bridge the two parties because he was beholden to neither of them. And for the first half an hour of his State of the Union address Tuesday night, that was the very tone he set in his remarks in the House chamber. He opened his arms to Democrats, declaring that Americans are ‘hoping we will govern not as two parties but as one nation.’”

But is that really what Trump did? Consider:

  • Near the beginning of his speech, the president said that “the agenda I will lay out this evening is not a Republican agenda or a Democrat agenda.” Referring to the Democratic Party as “the Democrat Party” is a slight that goes back decades, as then-NPR ombudsman Alicia Shepherd explained in 2010. It was a calculated way for Trump to signal to his base that he was reaching out to Democrats while actually doing the opposite.
  • Trump refused House Speaker Nancy Pelosi the courtesy of introducing him, as is the longstanding custom at the State of the Union. Kate Feldman noted the snub in New York’s Daily News, although she also observed that “he and Pelosi did share a cordial handshake during the first standing ovation.”
  • Much later in his 82-minute stemwinder, Trump began ranting about the evils of socialism — “as if it had gotten particularly far along,” snarked Jim Newell in Slate. Trump’s remarks were apparently aimed at Congress’ two high-profile democratic socialists, Sen. Bernie Sanders and Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, and they seemed to have little effect. The #NeverTrump conservative Max Boot bemusedly pointed out in The Washington Post that Trump “equated [socialism] with Venezuela rather than, say, Denmark.” But it was a sign that Trump is prepared to go full Red Scare in what will surely be a desperate attempt to win re-election.

“Trump and his advisers can see he’s in a corner,” wrote the liberal commentator Josh Marshall at Talking Points Memo. “He needs to try to get some footing with a less confrontational, more unifying posture that most Presidents at least optically try to govern from.”

Other than Trump’s phony bipartisanship, his customary fear-mongering about undocumented immigration and crime, and his introduction of some truly admirable guests (every one of whom exuded a decency that was entirely absent from the podium), what struck me most was an unforced error in which he directly drew a parallel between himself and Richard Nixon.

“An economic miracle is taking place in the United States — and the only thing that can stop it are foolish wars, politics or ridiculous partisan investigations,” Trump said, a direct reference to the ongoing investigations into his campaign, his businesses, and his presidency. “If there is going to be peace and legislation, there cannot be war and investigation. It just doesn’t work that way!”

As Philip Bump pointed out in The Washington Post, Nixon said something remarkably similar in his 1974 State of the Union speech: “I believe the time has come to bring that investigation and the other investigations of this matter to an end. One year of Watergate is enough.” Bump’s riposte: “It wasn’t quite enough, as it turned out.”

The Democrats’ official response to Trump’s speech, delivered by Georgia Democrat Stacey Abrams, was unusually effective as these grim rituals go. Abrams gave an upbeat, warm talk while simultaneously scorching Trump over the recent government shutdown (she said she helped serve meals to out-of-work federal employees) and talking frankly about voter suppression. Abrams lost a close race for governor last November amid accusations that a variety of Election Day problems had resulted in thousands of voters in Democratic areas being turned away.

Who was watching Tuesday night? Mainly Trump voters. According to CNN polling director Jennifer Agiesta, people who viewed the speech “were roughly 17 points more likely than the general public to identify as Republicans.” And they liked what they saw, with about 60 percent giving it a thumbs-up.

Trump’s approach was pretty standard for him: Appeal to his shrinking but loyal base in the hopes that he can parlay their enthusiasm into another Electoral College victory. We are a very long way from knowing whether it will work — or even if he’ll be on the 2020 ballot given the various investigations swirling around him. It didn’t work out for Nixon. The final chapter of the Trump presidency has yet to be written.

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A malign force from Nixon to Trump: Revisiting the Roger Stone biopic

Roger Stone. Illustration (cc) by DonkeyHotey.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

How sleazy is Roger Stone? After the on-again, off-again Trump operative was arrested last week and charged in connection with special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, news reports invariably brought up Stone’s boasts that he and Richard Nixon were thisclose. Once again, we were subjected to those appalling photos of the Nixon tattoo that adorns Stone’s back. And the Nixon Foundationsprung into action on Twitter:

When even an organization devoted to “the consequential legacy and relevance” of the original unindicted co-conspirator wants nothing to do with you, it may be safely assumed that you are no ordinary political dirty trickster. And surely no one would call Stone ordinary.

What we should call Stone is the man who, more than anyone else, inflicted the presidency of Donald Trump upon us. It is easy to dismiss Stone as a foppish buffoon. But in rewatching the Netflix documentary “Get Me Roger Stone” this week, I was reminded of how crucial Stone was to the entire Trump political enterprise — starting in the late 1980s, when Trump visited New Hampshire at Stone’s instigation.

“The Trump candidacy was a pure Roger Stone production,” says Jeffrey Toobin, who wrote a profile of Stone for The New Yorker and is one of the principal talking heads in the 2017 film, directed by Dylan Bank and Daniel DiMauro.

By Stone’s own telling, his dirty tricks extend all the way back to elementary school, where he rigged a mock election between his candidate, John F. Kennedy (Stone was not yet a Republican), and Richard Nixon.

“I went to the cafeteria, and as each kid would go through the cafeteria line with their tray, I would tell them, ‘You know, Nixon has proposed having school on Saturdays,’” Stone recalls. “Well, then the mock election was held, and to the surprise of the local newspaper, Democrat John Kennedy swept this mock election. For the first time ever, I understood the value of disinformation.” With a slight smirk he adds, “Of course, I’ve never practiced it since then.”

Stone has somehow managed to convince himself that he has political convictions that go beyond notoriety and cashing in. Yes, at one point we learn that he holds libertarian views on issues such as reproductive choice, same-sex marriage, and the legalization of marijuana. What really motivates him, though, are the same inchoate resentments that have helped elect the Republican presidents he’s served.

“Those who say I have no soul, those who say I have no principles, are losers. Those are bitter losers,” he says, sitting in a limousine in a pinstriped suit, wearing a lavender hat and his trademark round dark glasses. “Everything I have done, everything I have worked for, is to propel ideas and a political philosophy that I want to see dominate in government. Donald Trump has now elevated the issues that I believe in: anti-elitism that was first identified by Richard Nixon, mined by Ronald Reagan, and now Donald Trump.”

Anti-elitism as a “political philosophy.” Well, it carried Trump to the presidency, and it continues to resonate with his base. In Stone’s world, as in Trump’s, winning is its own justification.

The range of dirty tricks attributed to Stone, often exaggerated by the man himself, is breathtaking. Arranging for a campaign donation from a phony socialist group to Pete McCloskey, Nixon’s 1972 Republican primary opponent. Destroying Pat Buchanan’s 2000 presidential campaign by means too complicated to explain here (Trump played a cameo), thus helping to ensure the election of George W. Bush. Instigating the “Brooks Brothers Riot” that stopped the 2000 Florida recount. Breaking the Eliot Spitzer prostitution scandal. Possibly even supplying CBS News with the George W. Bush National Guard documents that led to the departure of several journalists from the network, including anchor Dan Rather, after they were shown to be fake.

Toobin again: “Roger is unique in my opinion because he embraces infamy. He doesn’t worry that you’ll think he’s a sleazeball. He wants you to think he’s a sleazeball.”

Among other things, “Get Me Roger Stone” demonstrates that the Trump campaign had its origins many years ago, tying together such nefarious figures as Roy CohnPaul Manafort, Stone, and Trump himself. Trump and Manafort spoke extensively to the filmmakers, with Manafort saying, “Roger’s relationship with Trump has been so interconnected that it’s hard to define what’s Roger and what’s Donald.”

It seems likely that Stone would have been regarded as more of a real player and less of a sideshow freak if he hadn’t gotten caught up in a sex scandal of his own while working for Bob Dole’s 1996 presidential campaign, thus relegating him to the shadows. Indeed, in the film we see Stone in such ridiculous situations as yelling into a megaphone while wearing a Shepard Fairey-style T-shirt of Bill Clinton emblazoned with the word “Rape” and holding forth on Alex Jones’ conspiracy-mongering “Infowars” program.

Roger Stone may come across as an absurd character. But as the film makes clear, he’s also one of the most important political operatives of the past four decades. As “Get Me Roger Stone” winds down to its conclusion, his unseen interlocutor asks, “What message would you have for the viewers of this film who will loathe you when the credits roll?” Stone’s answer: “I revel in your hatred. Because if I weren’t effective, you wouldn’t hate me.”

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Yes, the networks were right to give Trump airtime. No, it wasn’t worth watching.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Let’s get this out of the way first: Of course the networks made the right decision in giving President Trump airtime to deliver yet another pitch for his border wall. Yes, he lied, as we all knew he would. Yes, he engaged in fear-mongering, which is to say that he opened his mouth and spoke. But the notion that television executives should have said no to a president making his first request for a prime-time Oval Office address in the midst of the shutdown crisis (a crisis of his own making, but still) is hard to take seriously.

And yet that’s where we are. One activist, Ryan Knight, who tweets under the handle @proudresister, went so far as to post the phone numbers of the major broadcast networks so that his 267,000 followers could protest Trump’s appearance. “Call the networks & tell them you don’t support their decision to give airtime to a man who lies to the American people, demonizes immigrants & emboldens right-wing extremism,” Knight tweeted. His call had gotten more than 7,600 likes and nearly 4,900 retweets as of this morning. The hashtag #BoycottTrumpPrimeTime proved popular as well.

I’m not saying there weren’t real concerns about the wisdom of allowing Trump a prime-time platform. The extent to which we ought to give normal treatment to this most abnormal of presidents is an ongoing dilemma for journalism. But it would have been virtually unprecedented not to go along with the White House’s very first request for a prime-time Oval Office address. “There are three things going on: a tradition of saying ‘yes,’ that they probably want to feel it’s newsworthy and important, and that no news executive wants to be accused of partisan bias by not airing it,” former CBS News president Andrew Heyward told Scott Nover in a piece for The Atlantic. I also thought Nate Silver of Five Thirty Eight put it well:

Silver added: “So put him on and fact-check him.” Which is what they did, or at least tried to do. How effective were they? Ah, well, that’s where the major networks — our last truly mass medium — fell short. I did not attempt a comprehensive assessment, but I clicked back and forth between CBS and NBC and was unimpressed. Mostly there was a lot of so-called analysis pointing out that neither Trump nor the Democrats, in the form of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Senate minority leader Chuck Schumer’s response, had moved toward any sort of compromise.

CBS’s Nancy Cordes deserves some credit for pointing out that the Democrats really can’t give in lest it embolden the president to shut down the government every time he wants something. Contrast that with the Associated Press’ mind-boggling tweet in which Trump and the Democrats were assigned exactly equal portions of blame:

Cable news actually did better. I didn’t have a chance to watch them during Trump’s address, but afterwards CNN and MSNBC put up some unstinting chyrons about the president’s lies while their guests talked about what we had just seen. Two examples: “Trump Falsely Claims Mexico Trade Deal Will Pay for Wall” (CNN). “Trump Claims Southern Border Is Drug Pipeline. Fact: Most Narcotics Enter U.S. Via Ports of Entry” (MSNBC). No surprise there. But on Trump’s favorite network, Fox News, Shepard Smith was allowed to offer some rare prime-time fact-checking in which he found Trump’s claims fell well short of the truth on matters such as violent crime by undocumented immigrants, drugs at the border, and whether the president’s trade deal with Mexico would pay for a wall.

Everywhere I looked this morning, news outlets were filled with fact-checks. I thought it was notable — although less notable than it would have been a year or two ago — that both The New York Times and The Washington Post referred to the president’s falsehoods in their lead stories. The Times’ Peter Baker, in his third paragraph, described Trump’s address as “a nine-minute speech that made no new arguments but included multiple misleading assertions.” The Post’s Philip Rucker and Felicia Sonmez called it “a forceful and fact-challenged televised plea” in their very first sentence.

More than anything, what struck me about Trump’s address, the Democrats’ response, and the news coverage was a sense of fatigue. No one’s mind was changed. It didn’t seem like anyone was into it, especially once it was clear that Trump was not going to take the constitutionally dubious step of declaring a national emergency. Trump himself had said at an off-the-record lunch earlier in the day that he’d been pushed into giving the speech against his instincts. He, Pelosi, and Schumer seemed tired and disengaged, going through the same points they’ve been making over and over. U.S. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-New York, was pretty cranked up. But she was the exception.

In the end, Trump’s address wasn’t worth getting agitated about, wasn’t worth watching, and won’t be remembered.

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