The Wikileaks DNC email dump is Putin’s latest gift to Trump

Trump's running mate. Official Kremlin photo (cc) 2014 via Global Panorama.
Trump’s running mate. Official Kremlin photo (cc) 2014 via Global Panorama.

The job of the party infrastructure is to win elections. Democratic and Republican party officials regularly recruit candidates and punish weaker contenders who refuse to get out of the way. So the Wikileaks revelation of emails showing that the Democratic National Committee talked about helping Hillary Clinton and hurting Bernie Sanders mean exactly nothing. One email suggested that Sanders be attacked on the grounds that he might be an atheist. That’s pretty vicious stuff, but it didn’t happen.

Top Democrats believed that they were more likely to lose in November with a 74-year-old socialist at the top of the ticket than with Hillary Clinton, however flawed she may be. You’re free to disagree, but that was their judgment, and it’s not insane.

Outraged Sanders supporters might also keep in mind that the Wikileaks email dump is almost certainly a favor to Donald Trump from the Russian government, even if Wikileaks wasn’t directly involved. What we’ve already learned about the Trump-Putin connection would have been enough to force a presidential candidate to step aside in past election cycles. Now no one seems to care.

Meanwhile, Trump is back to claiming that Ted Cruz’s father may have been involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy.

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Clinton’s comeback is like nothing since Richard Nixon’s

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Public domain photos via Business Insider.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Hillary Clinton had seemed like the inevitable Democratic nominee for so long—not just in the current campaign, but eight years ago as well—that she tends not to get the credit she’s due for what is by any measure a remarkable accomplishment.

And it’s not just that she’s the first woman to become the presumptive nominee of a major party, though that is legitimately a big deal. She also staged a comeback unlike any in recent political history. Since her enemies like to compare her to Richard Nixon, she ought to get the benefit of that comparison as well—as she does in a piece by Peter Beinart at the Atlantic, who writes:

In purely political terms, Clinton’s victory—after losing the Democratic nomination in 2008—constitutes the greatest comeback by a presidential candidate since Richard Nixon won the Republican nomination in 1968, after losing the presidential election of 1960.

Clinton’s fall from grace eight years ago was more devastating than we might remember, Beinart argues, noting that major party figures such as Harry Reid, Ted Kennedy, and Chuck Schumer were so appalled at the prospect of a Clinton campaign that they urged Barack Obama (some openly, some privately) to run against her. Civil-rights leader John Lewis even unendorsed her and switched to Obama.

“Over the past 30 years, no American political figure has absorbed as many blows as Clinton,” Beinart writes. “And none has responded with more tenacity and grit.”

That theme is also reflected in Amy Chozick’s “how she won” story in the New York Times: “She may not be the orator President Obama is, or the retail politician her husband was. But Mrs. Clinton’s steely fortitude in this campaign has plainly inspired older women, black voters and many others who see in her perseverance a kind of mirror to their own struggles.”

Meanwhile, in the Washington Post, Karen Tumulty reminds us of Clinton’s shortcomings as a politician: “Not one for mega-rallies, she prefers small, scripted settings where she can discuss the policy intricacies of heroin addiction, mental health treatment, college debt or gun control—all the while keeping her campaign press corps at arm’s length. There have also been times when her tone-deafness could be spectacular.”

Thanks to the Associated Press’s questionable decision to proclaim Clinton the presumptive nominee on Monday evening (see this Facebook post by Bill Mitchell of Poynter), today’s headlines are anticlimactic. The print edition of the Times leads with “Clinton Claims the Democratic Nomination,” which feels like an update of Tuesday’s awkward banner: “Clinton Reaches Historic Mark, A.P. Says.” Today’s Post offers “Clinton celebrates victory,” and it’s less than a full page across. On Monday the Post went six columns with “Clinton reaches magic number for historic nomination.”

As of Wednesday morning, Bernie Sanders is vowing to stay in the race even though Clinton has now won a majority of pledged delegates as well as superdelegates, and has received nearly 3.7 million more votes. Media and political voices are strongly suggesting Sanders’s refusal to concede might change over the next few days as reality sinks in for him and his supporters.

But after reading this piece in Politico by Edward-Isaac Dovere and Gabriel Debenedetti, I’m not so sure. According to their reporting, Sanders is the chief hothead in his own campaign, continually overruling his advisers in favor of more aggression. “More than any of them,” they write, “Sanders is himself filled with resentment, on edge, feeling like he gets no respect—all while holding on in his head to the enticing but remote chance that Clinton may be indicted before the convention.”

So much for party unity. Then again, the self-styled democratic socialist has only been a Democrat for a few months.

Finally, Tuesday may have been Hillary Clinton’s day, but the presumptive Republican nominee, Donald Trump, came close to dominating it, as he does in practically every news cycle.

This time it wasn’t a matter of the cable networks giving him more attention than he deserved. Instead, there was actual news, as Republicans staged a collective freakout over Trump’s racist statements about Judge Gonzalo Curiel, as Matt Viser reports in the Boston Globe; House Speaker Paul Ryan denounced Trump’s comments as “racist” while sticking by his endorsement (“Everywhere Paul Ryan turns, there’s the smell of Trump” is the headline on Dana Milbank’s Washington Post column); and Trump himself issued a nonapology in the afternoon while delivering a rare prepared speech at night in which he viciously attacked Clinton but avoided his usual excesses.

At this point, conservatives are hopelessly divided over how they should respond to the demagogue at the top of the GOP ticket. A Wall Street Journal editorial criticizes conservatives for pressuring Ryan and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell to abandon Trump, while Jonah Goldberg of National Review, a leading anti-Trump conservative journal, blasts Ryan for not being tough enough: “Because Trump did nothing to earn Ryan’s endorsement, the presumptive nominee may conclude that he needn’t negotiate with the GOP establishment; he can just count on its eventual submission.”

Meanwhile, at the Weekly Standard—whose editor, Bill Kristol, has been unsuccessfully trying to convince a conservative to mount an independent campaign—Jay Cost pens an open letter to Mitt Romney begging the former Massachusetts governor to run. Cost begins:

I write to you not as a fellow conservative, not as a fellow partisan, but as a citizen of our republic. You have served your nation admirably for many years and by any ordinary standard are entitled to a happy retirement. But these are extraordinary times, and your nation still has need of your service. I respectfully implore you to run for president as an independent candidate in 2016.

It’s not likely to happen. Even if a significant number of voters could be persuaded to support an independent, it may be too late for such a candidate to get on the ballot in enough states for it to matter. (I should note that the Libertarian ticket of former New Mexico governor Gary Johnson and former Massachusetts governor Bill Weld is in fact on the ballot in all 50 states.)

Still, Cost’s desperate plea is a sign of the straits in which the Republicans find themselves with Trump at the top of the ticket.

Someone pointed out the other day that the Iowa caucuses were just four months ago, whereas we still have five months to go before the November election. If you’re sick of this campaign, you’re far from alone. Unfortunately, we’ve just gotten started.

I will vote against Donald Trump. There, I said it.

Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.
Donald Trump in 2011. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Donald Trump represents a challenge on many levels. One of those challenges is to the traditionally independent role of journalists—even opinion journalists like me. Because I’m in a position to express my opinions freely, I am not violating any ethical standard by saying that I think Trump is a racist demagogue who advocates violence and who is, in my view, the greatest threat to American democracy since the Great Depression.

What I always refrain from doing, though, is saying whom I’ll vote for. If you read me (thank you), you can probably guess at least 95 percent of the time. But I don’t take that last step. I have opinions, but I support no one. Nor do I make political donations, or put signs on our lawn or bumper stickers on my car.

Trump, though, is a clear and present danger to our country. NPR recently tied itself up in knots because Cokie Roberts—a commentator who is supposedly free to offer her opinions—wrote an anti-Trump column co-bylined with her husband, Steve Roberts. Like a lot of observers, I found that to be incredible. So let me tell you right now:

I will not vote for Trump. Assuming that Trump wins the Republican nomination and there is no viable independent candidate whom I prefer, I will vote for the Democratic candidate, most likely Hillary Clinton. If Bernie Sanders somehow manages to wrest the nomination from Clinton, I’ll vote for him.

I also hope the Republicans somehow find a way to deny Trump the nomination at their national convention this summer, which could happen if he’s ahead but commands less than a majority of the delegates. Trump has threatened us with riots if he’s spurned in such fashion, but that’s all the more reason to keep him off the ballot, not to retreat.

No, I’m not going to send Clinton a check or put a bumper sticker on my car. But I’m abandoning my independence just this once to make it clear that I will vote against Donald J. Trump.

Will Trump face an independent challenge from the right?

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Donald Trump on December 29 in Council Bluffs, Iowa. Photo (cc) by Matt Johnson.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Super Tuesday was newsworthy not so much because of what happened, but because it set the stage for what may prove to be cataclysmic events in the weeks and months ahead—especially on the Republican side.

To no one’s surprise, racist demagogue Donald Trump took another huge step toward becoming the Republican nominee, raising serious questions about the future of the party. Worcester’s own Charles P. Pierce, who writes a popular political blog for Esquire, compares the situation to the break-up of the Whig Party in the 1850s. In the Financial Times, Martin Wolf is even gloomier in a column headlined “Donald Trump embodies how great republics meet their end.”

On the Democratic side, Hillary Clinton hit her marks with ease. Bernie Sanders will soldier on, but as a left-wing protest candidate angling for a nice speaking slot at the party’s national convention rather than as someone who is actually running for president.

What follows is a round-up of commentary that will help you make sense of what comes next.

• The Republican crisis. Let’s start with a week-old piece whose relevance has only increased. As Conor Friedersdorf wrote in The Atlantic, fears that Trump would mount an independent candidacy if he didn’t get his way have been turned on their head. Now it’s conservative Republicans who may ask one of their own to run as an independent this fall against major-party candidates Clinton and Trump.

Such a candidate would likely come not from the Republicans’ minuscule moderate wing but from the right, the better to challenge Trump’s heterodox (and ever-shifting) views on Social Security, health care, and abortion rights. Republican Senator Ben Sasse of Nebraska has said that he won’t support for Trump and might support an independent conservative.

So here’s an idea: Why not South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley? She’s certainly conservative enough, coming to prominence several years ago on the strength of her Tea Party support. She’s non-white and struck just the right tone on the Confederate flag following the Charleston shootings last year. In other words, she’s an ideal alternative to Trump, who took a disturbingly long time to disavow the support of Ku Klux Klan figure David Duke.

If not Haley, there’s always Mitt Romney, as this Boston Globe editorial reminds us.

 Sanders faces reality. In the span of just a few weeks, Hillary Clinton has lurched from inevitable to teetering on the brink and then back to inevitable again—a media-driven phenomenon that we talked about on WGBH-TV’s Beat the Press last week.

So what went wrong with the Bernie Sanders campaign? Washington Postcolumnist Dana Milbank took a dive into the numbers and found that, though voters are angry, the anger is mainly on the Republican side. Milbank writes:

Americans overall have a dim view of where the country is headed: 36 percent think we’re on the right track, and 60 percent say we’re headed in the wrong direction, in the January Washington Post-ABC News poll. But break that down further and you find that 89 percent of Republicans think we’re on the wrong track. With Democrats, it’s reversed: Only 34 percent say we’re heading the wrong way.

Given those findings, Clinton’s decision to go all-in with her embrace of President Obama makes a lot of sense.

• A massive media fail. In Politico, Hadas Gold pulls together multiple strands in trying to explain why the media got Trump so wrong by treating him until recently as a laughingstock with no chance of winning the nomination. (Mea culpa.)

The best quote is from New Yorker editor David Remnick, who tells Gold, “The fact that so many of us, all of us, were wrong in predicting anywhere near the extent of his success so far, may be partly due to the fact we didn’t want to believe those currents could be appealed to so well and so deeply and successfully.”

• Two cheers for democracy. At National Review, the venerable conservative journal that recently devoted an entire issue to anti-Trumpism, Kevin D. Williamson writes that the two major political parties both produced better nominees before the rise of the modern primary-and-caucus system:

In our modern political discourse, we hear a great deal of lamentation about deals made in “smoke-filled rooms,” but in fact that horse-trading led to some pretty good outcomes. Vicious demagogues such as Donald Trump and loopy fanatics such as Bernie Sanders were kept from the levers of power with a surprisingly high degree of success.

• Why Rubio keeps losing. Marco Rubio finally won something—the Minnesota caucuses. But the Florida senator, a Tea Party favorite embraced by the party establishment, has consistently underperformed. Texas Senator Ted Cruz, who on Super Tuesday won his home state along with Oklahoma and Alaska, now appears to be a more viable challenger to Trump than Rubio does.

Why did Rubio never rise to the moment? There were the robotic talking points, of course, as well as his seeming lack of any sort of core as he veered wildly from sunny optimism to telling a thinly veiled joke about the size of Trump’s packageover the weekend.

In SlateIsaac Chotiner opines about all these things and more—and reaches the conclusion that Rubio’s meltdown in the New Hampshire debate, in which he panicked under a withering assault from Chris Christie, may have done lasting harm, even though he seemed to have recovered. Chotiner writes that “it’s possible the initial conventional wisdom about his debate performance was correct,” although he adds that it’s “wishful thinking” to believe that Rubio would otherwise be the front-runner.

• Christie’s hostage video. Chris Christie’s uncomfortable appearance with Trump on Tuesday night following his endorsement provoked an outburst of mockery on Twitter. Typical was this tweet from Adam Riglian:

The Guardian and CNN.com have some amusing wrap-ups as well.

The case against Henry Kissinger—and why it still matters

Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards 2013. Photo (cc) by the Atlantic Council.
Hillary Clinton and Henry Kissinger at the Atlantic Council Distinguished Leadership Awards in 2013. Photo (cc) by the Atlantic Council.

Henry Kissinger is back in the news thanks to Bernie Sanders, who went after Hillary Clinton at Thursday night’s debate for taking Kissinger’s advice. “I am proud to say that Henry Kissinger is not my friend,” Sanders said, to which Clinton replied: “I listen to a wide variety of voices that have expertise in various areas.” (I am not doing the full exchange justice. Click here for the debate transcript and search for “Kissinger.”)

In following the debate on Twitter, I was surprised at the extent to which people seemed bemused that Sanders would bring up someone who hasn’t served in public office for 40 years. Yet Sanders’s critique certainly struck me as relevant. To this day, many observers refer to Kissinger as a war criminal for his actions as Richard Nixon’s national security adviser and secretary of state. And, frankly, the case against him is strong, particularly with regard to the Nixon administration’s secret war in Cambodia and its role in the overthrow and assassination of Chile’s elected socialist president, Salvador Allende.

In 2001 the late journalist Christopher Hitchens wrote a 40,000-word, two-part article for Harper’s that was later published as a book called The Trial of Henry Kissinger. I wrote about Hitchens’s polemic for The Boston Phoenix, summarizing Hitchens’s evidence in some detail and comparing it to what other Kissinger biographers had found. My conclusion: a bit simplistic but compelling nevertheless.

So how closely associated is Hillary Clinton with Henry Kissinger? Certainly there’s an element of guilt-by-association in Sanders’s accusation, which is his M.O. Count me as among those who are tired of Sanders’s constant insinuations that anyone who takes campaign contributions from Wall Street is by definition corrupt.

Still, this New York Times piece by Amy Chozick makes clear that Clinton didn’t just accidentally bump into Kissinger one night at Zumba class. Chozick points out that when Clinton reviewed Kissinger’s book World Order for The Washington Post, Clinton wrote: “Kissinger is a friend, and I relied on his counsel when I served as secretary of state.” Clinton continued: “He checked in with me regularly, sharing astute observations about foreign leaders and sending me written reports on his travels.”

I don’t think we have to worry that Clinton will be giving the 92-year-old Kissinger an office at the White House if she is elected president. Still, Sanders has identified not just a political problem for Clinton but a substantive one. She needs to address it.

Debate does little to stop Bernie’s media-fueled momentum

Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.
Photo (cc) 2015 by Tiffany Von Arnim.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

There are few story lines the media love more than “Clinton is in trouble.” Just saying it out loud brings back warm, gauzy memories of Gennifer Flowers, Monica Lewinsky, and Whitewater, of Benghazi and private email servers.

So I suspect there was almost nothing that could have happened at Sunday night’s Democratic debate to change the narrative that Bernie Sanders is surging and Hillary Clinton is hanging on for dear life.

None responded to the moment more predictably than Glenn Thrush of Politicowho opens by writing that Clinton’s attacks on Sanders “reinforced his characterization of her as an establishment politician so desperate she’d say anything to win,” and that the Vermont senator represents “an existential threat” to her candidacy.

The Washington Post’s lead story on the debate, by Anne Gearan and Philip Rucker, offers a calmer version of the same idea, with phrases such as “she sought to puncture Sanders’s insurgent appeal and regain her footing after a difficult stretch” and a reference to “the newly potent threat Sanders poses to Clinton in her second White House run.” For good measure, the Post’s Chris Cillizza pronounces Bernie a winner and Hillary a loser.

In fact, those of us who watched—and it’s not likely there were many of us given that it took place in the middle of a holiday weekend—saw nothing all that dramatic.

Sanders, as usual, shouted and did a decent job of getting his points across. Clinton, as usual, was in command of the issues, though there’s no doubt she went after Sanders far more than in the previous three debates. Martin O’Malley, as usual, was there.

My own sense was that this was Clinton’s weakest performance, but still generally fine. I thought her worst moment was her closing remarks about sending a campaign aide to Flint, Michigan, to look into the drinking-water crisis. Why didn’t she go there herself? But I’ve seen plenty of commentary to the contrary. For instance, Paul Volpe and Quynhanh Do of The New York Times call it “her best moment of the night.”

But because the prospective voters who did not watch are going to depend on the media to tell them what happened, the takeaway is going to be that Clinton failed to stop Sanders’s momentum. That’s not wrong, just simplistic.

On the issues, I thought Clinton bested Sanders on guns, health care, and foreign policy, whereas Sanders was better on Wall Street and campaign-finance reform.

Clinton’s argument against Sanders’s newly released health-care proposal, which calls for a single-payer system that would eliminate private insurance (see Jonathan Cohn at The Huffington Post for details), isn’t really fair.

No, Sanders would not scrap the Affordable Care Act. But even liberal Democrats inclined to support single-payer are sure to recall what a horrendous slog it was to get the ACA passed. My guess is they’re disinclined to go back for another round.

“If Democrats couldn’t pass single-payer with a Senate supermajority, how would Sanders do it with a Republican House and, at best, a narrow Senate edge?” asks David A. Graham at The Atlantic. “She [Clinton] knows the limitations of health-care politics better than almost anyone.”

Though it might not have been immediately evident, Sanders may have seriously wounded himself with his answers on foreign policy. Despite offering some unconvincing caveats, he sounded like he’s all but ready to emulate Ronald Reagan and send a cake to the Iranian mullahs. Twice Sanders said the United States should work with Iran, to remove Syrian dictator Bashar al-Assad from power and to defeat ISIS. Let’s roll the tape:

But I think in terms of our priorities in the region, our first priority must be the destruction of ISIS. Our second priority must be getting rid of Assad, through some political settlement, working with Iran, working with Russia.

But the immediate task is to bring all interests together who want to destroy ISIS, including Russia, including Iran, including our Muslim allies to make that the major priority.

I have to agree with Boston Globe columnist Michael Cohen, who says of Sanders that “it’s blindingly apparent that not only does he not understand foreign policy and national security, he simply doesn’t care to know more.”

NBC News moderators Lester Holt and Andrea Mitchell did a good job of keeping things on track and covering a wide range of issues. But when Mitchell pressed Sanders on whether he would support tax increases, I would have liked to see a disclosure that she’s married to former Federal Reserve chairman Alan Greenspan.

And, finally, some counterintuitive polling wisdom from Five Thirty Eight’s Nate Silver. His analysis of multiple polls shows that Clinton has an 81 percent chance of winning the Iowa caucuses on February 1 and a 57 percent chance of winning the New Hampshire primary (where, as this Real Clear Politics compilation shows, Sanders is widely believed to be ahead) on February 9.

If Clinton takes both Iowa and New Hampshire, the race for the Democratic nomination will be over.

Sanders called a liar over a difference of opinion

Glenn Kessler. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.
Glenn Kessler. Photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Glenn Kessler, The Washington Post‘s fact-checker, gives Bernie Sanders a rating of “Three Pinocchios” for claiming that partial repeal of the Glass-Steagall law helped cause the 2008 financial collapse. It’s complicated, as you’ll see. But my conclusion is that Kessler wrote a pretty good analysis and then undermined it by calling Sanders a liar when we’re really only talking about a difference of opinion.

Several years ago I wrote a commentary for The Huffington Post on the limits of fact-checking. As I said at the time:

The problem is that there are only a finite number of statements that can be subjected to thumbs-up/thumbs-down fact-checking…. The fact-checkers are shifting from judging facts to indulging in opinion, but they’re not necessarily doing it because they want to. They’re doing it because politicians don’t flat-out lie as frequently as we might suppose.

Sanders believes the erosion of Glass-Steagall protections helped create an environment that made the 2008 financial collapse more likely. Kessler disagrees, and he’s found several experts to support his viewpoint. That doesn’t make Sanders a liar. I suspect Kessler knows better, but he’s got Pinocchios to bestow, and today Bernie’s number came up.

Media angst aside, Trump is not going to be elected

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Portrait of Trump (cc) by thierry ehrmann.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

According to the latest ABC News/Washington Post poll, 32 percent of registered Republicans and voters who lean Republican favor Donald Trump. And 34 percent of registered Democrats and Democratic leaners support Bernie Sanders.

Why am I telling you this? Because members of the political press are having a collective nervous breakdown over their inability to shake Trump’s support despite his lies about “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey celebrating the 9/11 attacks, his mocking of a disabled reporter, and his overall thuggish behavior. So keep those poll numbers in mind, because I’ll come back to them in a few moments. First, though, I want to discuss the angst that has broken out within the pundit class.

The redoubtable media observer Jay Rosen, author of the blog PressThinkwrote about the Trump phenomenon earlier this week. “The laws of political gravity” never actually existed, Rosen argued, and the Trump campaign has merely exposed that fact:

The whole system rested on shared beliefs about what would happen if candidates went beyond the system as it stood cycle to cycle. Those beliefs have now collapsed because Trump “tested” and violated most of them—and he is still leading in the polls…. The political press is pretty stunned by these developments. It keeps asking: when will the “laws of political gravity” be restored? Or have they simply vanished?

In an interview Sunday on Effective Radio with Bill SamuelsNew Yorker media critic Ken Auletta expressed the conventional view of how the media have enabled Trump’s rise—the “embarrassing” amount of attention they’ve given him in order to goose ratings and the obsessive attention paid to polls at a time when few ordinary Americans can even name non-celebrity candidates such as Chris Christie or John Kasich. “You’ve just got to give it time,” Auletta said, “but the press is so desperate to create narrative and to make competition exciting.”

Trump’s making fun of a disabled reporter, Serge Kovaleski, and his easily debunked claimthat he didn’t know Kovaleski was disabled, seems to have struck nerve. No, it wasn’t the first time Trump had gone after a journalist. Earlier he had attacked Megyn Kelly of Fox News and Jorge Ramos of Univision. But Trump’s cruel imitation of Kovaleski’s twisted hands was so outrageous that—to return to Rosen’s theme—it would have ended his candidacy if the “laws of political gravity” actually existed.

In a commentary for the NewsGuild of New York website, union president Peter Szekely urged his fellow reporters to stay away from the “he said-she said” treatment. “Here’s my message to reporters covering Trump,” Szekely wrote. “The reporter-mocking incident will be regurgitated numerous times going forward. When you report on it, you’ll need to mention that Trump denied it, of course. But you saw the video. You heard the words. You know the truth. Don’t hide from it.”

Now, of course, Trump’s rise has been real—more real than I and most other political observers had expected. But let me offer some perspective. In fact, what we are seeing is the acceleration of a trend in the Republican nominating process that began in 2008, when the establishment candidate, John McCain, was nearly hounded out of the campaign for insufficient wing-nuttery before coming back to win the nomination.

Four years ago, Michele Bachmann had a few moments in the sun before fading. The front cover of Newsweek for October 24, 2011, featured a smiling image of Herman Cain(remember him?) giving the thumb’s-up. The cover line: “Yes We Cain!” Well, no he couldn’t.

Which brings me back to those poll numbers. On the Democratic side, Bernie Sanders is trailing Hillary Clinton by the considerable margin of 60 percent to 34 percent. In other words, Sanders, a self-described democratic socialist, has consolidated the one-third of Democratic voters who will always support the most left-wing candidate. Unlike Trump, Sanders is a serious person with serious ideas. He also seems to have succeeded in pushing Clinton to the left of her comfort zone. But no one except true believers expects Sanders to be sworn in on January 20, 2017.

Trump, if you ignore the margin of error (and you shouldn’t, but never mind), is actually doing less well among Republicans than Sanders is among Democrats. But on the Republican side, with a huge field of contenders, 32 percent is enough to lead the field. At some point, establishment support is going to coalesce around one or two candidates, and Trump’s hold on a quarter to a third of the Republican electorate is going to look a lot less impressive. Marco Rubio would appear to be the most likely beneficiary of this process. But even Jeb Bush looks no more hapless than Mitt Romney did in late 2011.

In a recent analysis for The Wall Street Journal, Dante Chinni, a political scientist at Michigan State University, found that support for the establishment Republican candidates during the current campaign mirrors Romney’s in late 2011. It wasn’t until January 2012, Chinni noted, that Romney started to achieve liftoff.

“If that establishment vote comes together by January,” Chinni wrote, “the leading establishment candidate can win delegates in the early primaries and caucuses, which start in February, and build momentum.”

In September, Trump told a crowd gathered in Washington to oppose the nuclear agreement with Iran, “We will have so much winning when I get elected that you will get bored with winning.”

So much winning. In fact, Trump is not winning, and he’s not going to win. Members of the political press may wring their hands over their inability to convince Trump’s supporters that his lies, his outrageous statements, and even his flirtation with fascismshould disqualify him from the presidency. But the overwhelming majority of the public wants nothing to do with Trump.

I don’t think the media deserve the credit for Trump’s low ceiling. But I certainly don’t believe the press should be blamed for Trump’s continuing support among a minority of one of our two major parties. To paraphrase what Joseph Kennedy once said about his son Bobby (as reported by Robert Caro), they love him because he hates like they hate. That’s not going to change—but neither is it going to get him elected.

 

Clinton stumbles as Paris changes the terms of debate

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

It was such a charged moment that I almost expected to see a split screen. On one side: the still-unfolding horror in Paris. On the other: the three Democratic candidates for president talking about how the United States should respond.

CBS News didn’t go that far, though it did rearrange the format to move questions about national security and terrorism to the beginning of Saturday night’s two-hour debate. Bernie Sanders was reportedly none too happy about it, but it’s hard to understand why. He more than held his own with Hillary Clinton, matching her with his command of the details, reminding everyone that she voted for the war in Iraq, and explaining that there’s a clear link between terrorism and climate change. That last bit may cause some head-scratching, but in fact it reflects the thinking of Defense Department experts.

Clinton’s performance was adequate for the most part, but she was not as stellar as she was in the first debate, a triumph that re-energized her campaign. She was strong on the details, but she was also relatively humorless and charmless. She also had two moments that reflected poorly on her political judgment. The first of those two moments was also the more important, since it may make some question whether they really want her to be answering the phone at 3 a.m.

Moderator John Dickerson asked Clinton whether she agreed with Republican presidential candidate Marco Rubio that “the attack in Paris showed we are at war with radical Islam.” A simple “yes” would have sufficed, and I’m surprised she wasn’t quick enough on her feet to realize it. Instead, she proceeded to head down a tangled syntactical path, arguing that we are not at war with Islam (that wasn’t the question), praising George W. Bush for making a clear distinction between Muslims and terrorists (OK, good point), and saying she preferred terms like “violent extremism.” (As usual, I am relying on a transcript published by The Washington Post.)

It wasn’t a terrible answer so much as it was overly complicated and somewhat tone-deaf. Just Google “Hillary Clinton” and “radical Islam” and you’ll see that the right is already in a high state of excitation. Is this a huge deal? Probably not. But it seemed to me that she handed an issue to her opponents for no good reason.

The other Clinton low point came in response to an arm-waving tirade by Sanders about her close relationship with Wall Street. It was actually pretty tough stuff from Bernie, including as it did a suggestion that she does favors for the financial sector in return for campaign contributions. “Why, over her political career, has Wall Street been the major campaign contributor to Hillary Clinton?” asked Sanders. “You know, maybe they’re dumb and they don’t know what they’re going to get, but I don’t think so.”

Clinton’s response was to play the gender card and to wrap herself in the flag of 9/11. “You know, not only do I have hundreds of thousands of donors, most of them small,” she said. “And I’m very proud that for the first time a majority of my donors are women, 60 percent.” Then came this doozy:

So, I represented New York, and I represented New York on 9/11 when we were attacked. Where were we attacked? We were attacked in downtown Manhattan, where Wall Street is. I did spend a whole lot of time and effort helping them rebuild. That was good for New York. It was good for the economy and it was a way to rebuke the terrorists who had attacked our country.

It was so brazen that debate panelist Nancy Cordes later hit Clinton with an observation from someone on Twitter who said, “I’ve never seen a candidate invoke 9/11 to justify millions of Wall Street donations until now.”

https://twitter.com/AndyGrewal/status/665727759168081920?ref_src=twsrc%5Etfw

(It occurs to me that I’m 650 words into this and I haven’t mentioned the third candidate, Martin O’Malley. He just didn’t seem to be a factor. Compared to Sanders and Clinton, he comes across as inexperienced and unprepared. And I finally figured out what his earnest, wooden speaking style reminds me of: the official response to the State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.)

Most of the debate was devoted to domestic issues. No new ground was broken. Sanders is still appalled by “millionaires and billionaires.” All three support raising the minimum wage, although Clinton — there she goes again — gave a complicated answer that left me wondering exactly where she stands.

But given that the world is still dealing with the shock of the Paris attacks, let me return to foreign policy, an area that’s a real weakness for both parties.

International affairs should be a strength for Clinton, who is, after all, a former secretary of state. But liberals don’t trust her because of her support for the war in Iraq, and the right’s endless investigation into the Benghazi incident has undermined her reputation for competence and contributed to the longstanding perception that she’s not trustworthy. And I doubt many prospective voters see Sanders or O’Malley as a plausible commander-in-chief.

On the Republican side, it’s a whole lot worse. The hateful immigrant-bashing rhetoric of Donald Trump is the most visible (and audible) manifestation of the Republicans’ problems in dealing with the world at large. Marco Rubio is callow and inexperienced. Who knows what’s floating around inside Ben Carson’s head? Jeb Bush was rocked by Politico Magazine story over the weekend showing (as if we didn’t already know it) that no, his brother most definitely did not keep us safe. Maybe Lindsey Graham, a consistent exponent of John McCain-style aggression, is finally about to have his day.

At the moment we can’t guess how the Paris attacks will affect the presidential race. I was struck by the willingness of all three Democrats to continue accepting Syrian refugees — a humane and proper stance, but one likely to prove unpopular, especially since one of the terrorists appears to have entered Europe by pretending to be a refugee. Will we commit a significant number of American troops to the war against ISIS? Will we be able to prevent a terrorist attack from taking place here?

Given those difficult issues, it could be that the foreign-policy focus of Saturday night’s was premature. The stakes are likely to be much higher in the weeks and months ahead.

Live-blogging the second Democratic presidential debate

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10:57. That was so weird. The candidates remained on stage while Major Garrett reported on audience reaction to several key moments. O’Malley was giving a thumb’s-up to the crowd when Garrett said his slam at Trump got a big response.

10:56. And so it ends. Clinton began her campaign revival with the first debate. I suspect tonight will be seen as a minor setback. She wasn’t bad, but she was hardly dominant. Sanders was as good on the details as she was, and came across as more principled — and, needless to say, more passionate.

O’Malley isn’t terrible, but by comparison he comes across as less experienced and kind of wooden.

10:50. It finally occurred to me what O’Malley reminds me of: an official response to a State of the Union address. That’s not a compliment.

10:46. “We’ve been working you hard. Please take the next few minutes to puff yourself up in any way you like.”

10:40. I realize I said nothing about the candidates’ answers to the Black Lives Matter question. Frankly, the answers struck me as boilerplate, so I didn’t see any need to comment. But yes, I wish they had transcended boilerplate.

10:38. I’d like to see someone talk about the responsibility of private colleges and universities to hold down tuition and fees. That’s a huge part of the equation.

10:28. Sanders says again that he’s sick of hearing about Clinton’s emails, and he blames the media for reports that he’s changed his mind.

10:25. I’m going to be writing this up for WGBHNews.org as soon as the debate is over, so I won’t be able to incorporate any of the pundits’ reactions. But though Clinton has come across as knowledgeable and competent, she’s also been humorless and charmless compared to the last debate. You could say the same of Sanders, of course, but he’s playing a different game. Bernie acolytes won’t want to hear this, but I still think his main interest is in pushing Clinton to the left and influencing the party platform.

I’m also seeing indications on Twitter that the main takeaway for Clinton’s conservative critics is that she wouldn’t agree with moderator John Dickerson that “radical Islam” is our enemy. She was more comfortable talking about “jihadists,” “Islamists” and “extremism,” arguing that invoking “Islam” is too easily misinterpreted as anti-Muslim. Frankly, I’m surprised that Clinton wasn’t better at thinking on her feet. She had to know that she was handing an issue to the right.

10:16. Good to see a Twitter commenter calling out Clinton for wrapping herself in the 9/11 flag when she was challenged on her close relationship with Wall Street.

10:09. We’re now getting the Full Bernie as Sanders goes off on Clinton for her support from Wall Street. It must have stung, because Clinton responds by playing both the gender and the 9/11 cards. As pre-rehearsed as it was, I don’t think it was a good move — it was so transparent.

O’Malley, when finally given a chance to talk, calls Clinton’s Wall Street reform proposal “weak tea” and agrees with Sanders that we need to restore Glass-Steagall financial regulation.

Sanders either just said “The business of Wall Street is fraud” or “flawed.” I’m not sure which, and there’s a huge difference, needless to say.

10:00. It’s refreshing to hear presidential candidates arguing over how high the minimum wage should be rather than how low. As Sanders and O’Malley point out, it’s basic economics that everyone benefits when lower-income workers have more money to spend on goods and services. Sanders and O’Malley want $15 an hour. Clinton takes a nuanced, complicated position — $12 nationwide, but local officials could choose to go higher. But that’s already the case, so it seems like she’s being too cute.

9:50. O’Malley gets some applause for referring to “that immigrant-bashing carnival barker Donald Trump.”

9:45. Clinton wants to improve the Affordable Care Act. Sanders says he supports the ACA, but wants to keep pushing for universal coverage.

9:42. “I’m not as much of a socialist as Eisenhower,” says Sanders, noting that the marginal tax rate was 90 percent under Ike.

9:37. We’re moving on to the financial challenges faced by the middle class. Seems somehow inappropriate, but on with the show.

9:35. Poor O’Malley! The union-sponsored anti-Walmart commercial that just ran mentioned “Hillary, Bernie” and even the Republicans. But not O’Malley.

9:34. Clinton is as good as she was in the previous debate, but Sanders is much better. Interesting that all of them are still willing to take Syrian refugees with the proper screening. Again, the contrast with the Republicans is striking.

9:30. I don’t know why Sanders didn’t want to talk about national security tonight. He’s very good at this — as detailed as Clinton, and with more of an overarching philosophy. He makes a great point about the U.S. military, which has 5,000 nuclear weapons but devotes only 10 percent of its resources to fighting terrorism. “The Cold War is over,” he says.

9:29. It’s interesting to hear all three candidates take care to distinguish between violent jihadists and ordinary Muslims. Clinton even pays tribute to George W. Bush for visiting a mosque in the days after 9/11. Can you imagine what we’d be hearing tonight if the Republicans were debating?

9:23. Clinton and Sanders are having a serious discussion. O’Malley is a distraction.

9:17. Asked if he still believes climate change is our top threat, Sanders not only says “absolutely” but links it to the rise of ISIS. This is very smart. Numerous analysts have linked terrorism to environmental catastrophe, as desperate people fight over increasingly scarce resources. New York Times columnist Tom Friedman has written about this quite a bit.

Sanders also rightly associates the rise of ISIS with the war in Iraq, which, of course, Clinton voted in favor of. “These regime changes have unintended consequences,” Sanders says. Clinton’s command of the details is impressive, but Sanders is holding his own and then some.

Martin O’Malley comes across as someone who’s feeling his way. Which he is.

9:09. In opening statements, Sanders quickly switches back to his “millionaires and billionaires” rhetoric. Hillary Clinton and Martin O’Malley stay on message in talking about Paris and national security.

9:01. The debate begins with a moment of silence — very brief but appropriate.

8:59. You may have heard that the Bernie Sanders campaign was upset at CBS News’ decision to refocus the debate on national security and foreign policy. Seems strange that someone who wants to be president can’t understand the need to switch gears after the terrorist attacks in Paris. Anyway, it will be interesting to see if any of it spills over into the debate itself.

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I’ll be live-blogging the Democratic presidential debate starting at 9 p.m. Please check in — and don’t forget to hit refresh to see new content. As you may know, CBS News has refocused the agenda to concentrate on foreign policy and national security following the terrorist attacks in Paris. There should be a lot to talk about.