I’ve seen quite a few complaints over the past few days about the glacial pace at which the media moved toward calling the election for Joe Biden, with some suggesting it was because they didn’t want to incur the wrath of President Trump. I have no special insight, but I can think of several reasons why I’d be reluctant to pull the trigger if I were in charge of making the call.
Fox News and The Associated Press called Arizona for Biden with lightning speed. Yet here we are, five days later, and it’s still not 100% clear that Arizona will end up in the blue column. It now looks like Arizona was a premature call, and it may have made news orgs hesitate about calling other states.
News organizations may have set some benchmarks for calling Pennsylvania — and then the vote came in more slowly than expected.
Trump has unleashed a horde of lawyers upon the land to sue and challenge outcomes in key states. Those actions are, by all accounts, frivolous and abusive. But the courts are filled with Trump judges, right up to and including the Supreme Court. No doubt the media wanted to make sure that they didn’t call the election only to have the courts halt the count in some cases. It now seems reasonably clear that isn’t going to happen.
And yes, there’s no question that media decision-makers knew that calling the election for Biden would unleash a hellburst of rage from Trump. That’s not a reason to hold back. But it is a reason to make absolutely.. certain that Biden was the winner.
Please leave a civil comment. Real names are required. I’m trying this out as a test to move away from Facebook.
Four years ago I was watching CNN as John King poked and prodded an interactive map of Florida while Wolf Blitzer looked on. King was explaining why the state was likely to go for Hillary Clinton. And then it happened — the map flipped red. Donald Trump was on his way to victory in Florida and to a narrow Electoral College win nationwide.
So it was with a deep sense of foreboding Tuesday night as I watched King and Blitzer pore over the same map. The early lead Joe Biden had built up over President Trump in that state was beginning to fade. And sure enough, Trump moved ahead in Florida while the two were talking, just as he had in 2016.
But this is not 2016. As I write this, in the early-morning hours on Wednesday following a sleepless night, the race has not yet been decided. The headline on The New York Times home page reads “Election Turns Into Nail-Biter That May Extend for Days.” Moments after I crawled out of bed and turned on the TV, a lead that Trump had maintained in Wisconsin all night suddenly went Biden’s way. The election could go in either direction, and Biden is still very much in the running.
Among those of us who are appalled by Trump, the sickening feeling we experienced last night was based entirely on Biden’s inability to break through in solidly red states that had seemed to be within his grasp. Texas was never ridin’ with Biden. Nor was Florida — not quite an all-red state, but one that has been trending increasingly Republican in recent years, a trend that has been boosted by voter suppression. Nor was Georgia (or so I thought; at the moment it’s actually trending toward Biden).
In fact, if you strip away the fantasies of a Biden landslide, the map looks very much like what we had expected, with the race coming down to the industrial states of Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin.
Last night it struck me that the only real surprise was there hadn’t been any surprises. So I was reassured to see Boston College History Professor Heather Cox Richardson confirm that judgment. In her daily newsletter, “Letters from an American,” she wrote, “Tonight, we wait, as returns from this year’s election are about what we expected. … This is the scenario we all foresaw.”
As Cox and others have pointed out, the reason that the mail-in votes are taking so long to tally in Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin is that Republicans fought tooth and nail to prevent them from being counted before the polls closed. As the liberal economist Dean Baker put it, Republican complaints about the slow pace “is pretty thick hypocrisy even for Republicans.”
CNN is talking about Trump's tweet complaining about "they" trying to steal the election. Might be worth mentioning, that the Rs were the ones who deliberately delayed the counting in MI, WI, and PA. This is pretty thick hypocrisy even for Republicans
This is also the moment when Trump, cornered and desperate, will be at his most dangerous. Trump is attempting to capitalize, railing against the media in a middle-of-the-night speech and — as we all knew he would — falsely claiming that he’s won and threatening to take the election to the Supreme Court on some unspecified grounds.
“This is an extremely flammable situation, and the president just threw a match into it,” Fox News Anchor Chris Wallace told viewers.
In the hours and days ahead, the media must exercise all the discipline it can muster and keep reminding viewers, listeners and readers that the election isn’t over until all the ballots have been counted. We all know what happened this year — about 100 million ballots were cast early, many by mail, because of the COVID pandemic, and that has created delays and confusion. Republican leaders need to speak up for a fair election as well, but I’ve pretty much given up any hope that they’ll do the right thing.
A couple of other points.
First, Democrats must be shocked to see Hispanic voters shifting toward the Republicans. As The Texas Tribune reported, “Even as Biden performed well in large suburban counties that used to be reliably Republican, he failed to notch wide margins of victory in some critical Democratic strongholds, massively underperforming Hillary Clinton in the mostly Hispanic Rio Grande Valley. For example, Trump was leading in unofficial results in Zapata County — where Clinton won with 66% of the vote in 2016.”
Noting there were also signs that Black voters were not as monolithically with Biden as had been expected, the conservative pundit Byron York said on Fox News: “This is something the Republican Party has been trying to do for a long time.”
And yet Trump has shown in word and deed that he’s a racist, going all the way back to his earliest days as a real-estate developer. As the Black Lives Matter activist DeRay Mckesson tweeted, “No matter what happens tonight, we will have to reckon with the millions of people who chose Trump after seeing his racism, bigotry, and xenophobia over the past 4 years.” Democrats have some serious soul-searching to do as to why that’s the case.
No matter what happens tonight, we will have to reckon with the millions of people who chose Trump after seeing his racism, bigotry, and xenophobia over the past 4 years. If Trump is this wild for the first term, he will be an even more intense terror for a second term.
Second, although it’s too early to pass judgment given that millions of mail-in ballots have not yet been counted, it may be that the long-predicted polling apocalypse is upon us. A lot of observers said that four years ago, too, but the polls then really weren’t that bad. Clinton’s victory in the popular vote was within the margin of error, and Trump barely squeaked by in the Electoral College.
This time, though, it feels different — although, if you look at the final RealClearPolitics polls of battleground states, it may turn out that the numbers aren’t that far off. Even so, it wasn’t supposed to be this hard, and hopes that the Democrats would take back the Senate appear to be hanging by a thread. The wildly optimistic forecasts published by polling analysts like Nate Silver of FiveThirtyEight (see this and this) are a separate problem, and too complex to be dealt with at the moment.
For those of us who believe that Trump is a would-be authoritarian who poses a threat to American democracy, the results so far have been shocking. But we need to get out of our bubble. It looks like Biden may have just barely accomplished what he needed to do to win, which was all we could have realistically expected. He’ll win the popular vote by a lot. The Electoral College, on the other hand, is increasingly becoming a bulwark of Republican minority rule. A huge Biden win was probably never in the cards.
In the hours and days ahead, it’s important that all of us — not just Biden supporters, but Trump supporters as well — stay calm and wait for the final result to become clear.
I’ve got to get up early and try to write something for GBH News. We’re not going to learn any more tonight, so that’s it for me. But one quick thought: The only surprise is that there haven’t been any surprises. Hopes that the Biden camp had of breaking through in Trump country have been dashed. Biden was never going to win Georgia or Texas, and probably not Florida or Ohio, either.
So it comes down to Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin. And we may not know until later this week, if then, who the winner is.
Twenty-eight years ago today, also a Sunday, I got up in the pre-dawn hours in order to drive a neighbor to the airport. Before returning home, I stopped at my favorite diner, ordered breakfast and spread out that day’s New York Times. The coverage pointed to a victory by Bill Clinton over President George H.W. Bush and Texas businessman Ross Perot. Which, of course, is exactly what happened.
The news in today’s Times foretells a similar outcome. The latest Times/Sienna College poll of likely voters shows Joe Biden with a lead over President Trump in four key battleground states — Arizona, Florida, Pennsylvania and Wisconsin. Only Florida seems close enough that it could slip away. With the FiveThirtyEight model giving Biden a 90% chance of winning and The Economist up to 95%, there is plenty of reason to be hopeful that we can finally put Trump in the rear-view mirror.
And yes, we all know what happened four years ago. Shocking as it was, though, Biden has held a larger, more durable lead over Trump than Hillary Clinton ever did. James Comey wasn’t around to deliver a late, devastating hit only to say “never mind.” The media have been smarter and more responsible about Trumpist disinformation, such as Tara Reade’s unsupportable allegations and the laptop that may or may not have belonged to Hunter Biden. Last week, NBC News even reported that documents circulating in the fever swamps of the right were not only fake, but had been produced by a fake company headed by a fake person whose fake face had been created using artificial intelligence.
In these final hours before the polls close on Tuesday, we are hearing lots of anxiety-inducing stories about voters being turned away, ballots getting lost and thugs in Texas threatening a Biden campaign bus, resulting in the cancellation of several Biden rallies. As disturbing as this is, I think we’d all be better off if we relaxed as best we can until it’s over. Have you voted? Will you vote? Good. For most of us, that’s all we can do.
Fortunately, Biden seems likely to win by a large enough margin to withstand whatever assault on the vote’s legitimacy Trump tries to mount. It’s not over till it’s over, of course. Right now, though, it looks like we can soon look forward to a victory by Biden and Kamala Harris — and to our country returning to some semblance of normal.
One week from today, it will be over. Maybe we’ll know who won. Maybe they’ll still be counting. Maybe angry demonstrators will be marching in the streets. No longer, though, will we be checking FiveThirtyEight 15 times a day, tracking every up, down and sideways movement.
For most of the past four years I’ve felt pessimistic about the short term but optimistic about the long term. Now I feel just the opposite — optimistic about what the next few years may bring but pessimistic about the fate of our country. Let me explain.
As an opinion journalist, I have the privilege of being able to say what I think. I don’t have to take a neutral stance on issues I’m writing about. And I most certainly don’t have to take a neutral stance on President Donald Trump, a racist demagogue who, if given another term, will continue to move us down the road toward authoritarianism. I was pessimistic during most of Trump’s presidency because of the damage he was doing to our democratic norms. I was optimistic because I believed that, together, we would get past this dark moment.
But now I’m optimistic in the short run because, according to all indications, former Vice President Joe Biden is going to beat Trump by a substantial if not an overwhelming margin. It also seems likely that the Democrats will take over the Senate, meaning that, at least for the next two years, the president and Congress will be able to get a few things done. Biden was not my first choice — something I’m sure you’ve heard a lot of people say. But he is a caring and decent person, and his running mate, Sen. Kamala Harris, puts the Democrats in a strong position for 2024 and beyond.
So why am I pessimistic about the long run? Because of the horrible mess Biden will be inheriting — assuming he wins. A deadly pandemic that the Trump administration has simply given up on, according to White House chief of staff Mark Meadows. A broken economy. A refusal by too many of us to confront racism. And, above all, a fractured culture, with about 40% of the country believing all kinds of outlandish and dangerous things, right up to and including the ugly notion that Democrats are involved in some sort of secret pedophile ring.
Then there is our dysfunctional political system. We’ve learned a lot during the past few years about flaws that we may not have thought about before. The founders didn’t like the idea of political parties, and they designed the Constitution so that the three branches would hold one another accountable if any of them got out of line. But that presumed nonpartisan government. What we’ve got instead is a Congress that will not hold the president accountable because the Senate and the White House are both controlled by the same party. Never was that more obvious than when the Senate took up the House’s strong impeachment case against Trump and dismissed it without even calling any witnesses, and with every Republican except Sen. Mitt Romney voting to acquit the president.
I’ve often complained about the Electoral College and the Senate, both of which are constructed in such a way as to favor the low-population states and thus give the Republicans an artificial advantage. Over the weekend, Steven Levitsky and Daniel Ziblatt, the authors of “How Democracies Die” (one of the most important books of the past several years), proposed abolishing the Electoral College and tilting the Senate a bit toward majority rule by granting statehood to D.C. and Puerto Rico.
“In America today, … the majority does not govern. This disjuncture cries out for reform. We must double down on democracy,” they wrote in The New York Times, adding: “Not only would ending minority rule be inherently democratic, but, importantly, it would also encourage the Republican Party to abandon its destructive course of radicalization.”
That last truth is not spoken out loud nearly enough. The Democrats, for all their flaws, remain a normal political party. The Republicans, by contrast, have gone off the rails. According to The Guardian, a new study finds that the party of Lincoln “has become dramatically more illiberal in the past two decades and now more closely resembles ruling parties in autocratic societies” such as Hungary, Poland, Turkey and India. We need a responsible center-right party, but we no longer have one.
Those trends will continue post-Trump. By refusing to approve a COVID relief package that even Trump kind of sort of seems to want, Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell is sowing the seeds for gridlock. Having run up the deficit to unprecedented levels by passing a massive tax cut for the rich, the Republicans are going to yammer about the deficit incessantly if Biden wins and do everything they can to destroy his presidency. We can only hope that our ever-malleable press doesn’t go along with this cynical game.
The Republicans are also getting ready to question Biden’s legitimacy, arguing that Trump easily would have won re-election were it not for the pandemic and the concomitant economic collapse. Don’t believe it. As the RealClearPolitics average of national polls shows, Biden has led Trump by a significant margin since October 2019. According to FiveThirtyEight, Trump’s approval ratings have been under water almost from Inauguration Day in 2017. Trump’s grotesque response to COVID may have hurt him at the margins, but he always faced a steep uphill fight to win re-election.
In the second and final debate last week, Biden promised to be president of the entire country, not just of his supporters. “I represent all of you whether you voted for me or against me,” he said. It was the sort of statement that would have seemed clichéd and devoid of content in any other campaign. But given that his opponent is Trump, his message of unity would amount to a complete reversal.
Can a President Biden really bring us together? Can he overcome the weaponized propaganda of Fox News, the bizarro world that is QAnon and — let’s face it — the broken promises of previous Democratic administrations that contributed so much to the anger that enabled Trump’s victory in the first place?
In other words, can Biden capitalize on the short-term optimism that will greet his victory over Trump and translate that into a reason to be hopeful? It is an exceedingly tall order, and I’m not sure that anyone would be up to the task.
The big question is how much credit the media will give President Trump for not acting like a crazed sociopath. I thought Joe Biden won on style and substance, with a lovely closing, although he was more inarticulate than usual tonight. (He seemed to realize it and picked through his words carefully.)
Kristen Welker did a great job as moderator. And we can all count ourselves lucky that we will never have to watch Trump debate again. I’ll join with the conventional wisdom and observe that Trump needed to win a lot of people over tonight. It’s hard to see how he did that. The fact-checkers are going to go nuts on him, too. So, advantage Biden.
It was last Friday at precisely 9:24 p.m. that the New York Post’s unverified and possibly false story linking Joe Biden to his son Hunter’s unseemly dealings in Ukraine crossed the line from conspiracy theory to fodder for mainstream discourse.
“He called it a ‘smear campaign’ and then went after me,” Erickson wrote, quoting Biden as saying: “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.”
I asked Joe Biden: What is your response to the NYPost story about your son, sir?
He called it a “smear campaign” and then went after me. “I know you’d ask it. I have no response, it’s another smear campaign, right up your alley, those are the questions you always ask.” pic.twitter.com/Eo6VD4TqxD
Biden does indeed appear angry in the accompanying video. And why shouldn’t he? In fewer than three days, an unsupported allegation based on emails of dubious provenance had slithered up the media food chain from Rupert Murdoch’s sleazy scandal sheet to what we once called the Tiffany Network. Now the story was “Biden denies,” and if — as appears more than possible — it was the work of disinformation agents, then they must have taken great satisfaction in a job well done.
The details of the story hardly matter. Even if the emails are genuine, all they show is that Joe Biden may have met with an official from Burisma, the Ukrainian energy company that paid Hunter Biden to sit on its board. Biden, as vice president, pressured the Ukrainian government to fire the prosecutor who was investigating Burisma. But as this piece by PolitiFact explains, it has long since been established that the prosecutor himself was corrupt, and that Joe Biden was acting on behalf of the U.S. government and the Western alliance.
What does matter is that the Post story has all the earmarks of disinformation from the campaign of President Donald Trump, from Russian interests or from both.
Consider that the two sources were former Trump adviser Steve Bannon and former New York Mayor Rudy Giuliani, one of Trump’s personal lawyers. One of Bannon’s best-known maxims is that “the real opposition is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with s**t.” Because, inevitably, the media just can’t resist reporting on it, even it’s to debunk it or, in the case of Erickson, to get the victim to say something about it.
Moreover, The Washington Post reported last week that U.S. intelligence agents had warned months ago that Giuliani was “the target of an influence operation by Russian intelligence,” and that he was passing along Russian disinformation to the president as part of his so-called investigation into the Bidens’ connections with Ukraine. Trump’s reported response: “That’s Rudy.”
Now, I don’t mean to suggest that it was a straight line from the New York Post to CBS News. There have been more than a few zigzags along the way.
For instance, there is the matter of why Giuliani’s latest “drug deal,” to recycle John Bolton’s apt phrase, found its way into the Post rather than a more respectable sector of Rupert Murdoch’s media empire. If the story had been broken by The Wall Street Journal, for instance, we’d all be taking it seriously.
As it turns out, what Giuliani was peddling was too rancid even for Fox News, yet another Murdoch property. According to Mediaite, the news department at Fox rejected Rudy’s pitch because the veracity of the emails — allegedly found on a laptop that Hunter Biden had left at a Delaware repair shop — couldn’t be verified.
Crisis averted? Hardly. That’s not how the media food chain works. Because after the story appeared in the Post, Fox News hosts immediately began talking it up. According to the liberal watchdog group Media Matters for America, the story was discussed more than 100 times between Wednesday and Friday — not just on the opinion shows, but on the news side as well, even though the operation’s actual journalists had taken a pass on it.
And even within the Post, the story proved toxic. The New York Times reported that there were such misgivings in the Post’s newsroom that those involved in writing it refused to have their bylines put on it. In the end, the bylines of two women who may not have had much to do with it were placed atop the story. One, according to the Times’ sources, had “little to do with the reporting and writing of the article” and “learned that her byline was on the story only after it was published.”
The smear led to the usual handwringing at Facebook and Twitter as well. As The Guardian reported, both platforms took steps to limit the reach and distribution of the story on the grounds that the emails had not been verified. And that, in turn, led to the usual complaints from Republicans that the two services were censoring news that had a rightward slant. “Twitter’s censorship of this story is quite hypocritical,” wrote Sen. Ted Cruz, R-Texas, to Twitter chief executive Jack Dorsey, “given its willingness to allow users to share less-well-sourced reporting critical of other candidates.”
As I wrote recently, the media for the most part have been less gullible in covering the presidential campaign than they were four years ago, when Hillary Clinton’s emails were conflated into a massive scandal despite all evidence to the contrary. This time around, for instance, the press treated unproven claims by Tara Reade, a former Senate staffer who charged that Biden sexually assaulted her a generation ago, with the skepticism they deserved.
But Giuliani, in particular, has refused to let go of the Ukraine story. And it’s got to be damaging to Biden on at least some level for it to resurface just a few weeks before the final day of voting. You can be sure it will come up at this Thursday’s debate, and it is exactly the kind of complicated tale that can’t be refuted with a soundbite. The challenge for Biden will be explaining it in simple terms while Trump is interrupting him and yelling at him, regardless of whether his mic has been cut.
A few minutes after Bo Erickson tweeted out Biden’s response, his CBS News colleague Paula Reid came to his defense. “Biden adopts Trump playbook” by “attacking” Erickson, she tweeted, adding: “Fine to attack the story, but why personally insult Bo?”
The “Trump playbook”? Seriously? Biden’s response was sharp and a little rude, but hardly out of line given that Erickson was giving mainstream credibility to an unverified smear. Fortunately for Biden, the media for the most part appear not to be taking it seriously.
But the question of how to handle such unproven and unprovable allegations remains unanswered. Ignore them, and you’ll be accused of bias — and the story will get out there anyway. Debunk them, and you’re giving them wider play. Ask the target about them, and you run the risk of #bothsides-ism.
It’s a miserable dilemma. But that’s the state of media and politics in 2020.
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.
“Harris Dodges Questions on Support for Supreme Court Packing at Debate,” said CBS News following Sen. Kamala Harris’ encounter with Vice President Mike Pence. “Biden and Harris Need an Answer on Court Packing,” proclaimed The Atlantic. And they were hardly alone. (Thanks to Eric Boehlert’s newsletter, Press Run, for rounding up the headlines.)
The problem with this focus on “court packing” isn’t that it’s not a legitimate issue. We would all like to know if a Biden administration would seek to add seats. What’s really at issue, though, are matters of language and context.
“Court packing” sounds like an abuse of power rather than something the president and Congress can do as a matter of law. The context, of course, is that the Republicans, under Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, stole one court seat by refusing to consider Judge Merrick Garland, President Barack Obama’s choice to replace Justice Antonin Scalia, even though the nomination came months before the 2016 election. And now McConnell is on the verge of stealing a second seat by ramming through the nomination of Judge Amy Coney Barrett to replace Justice Ruth Bader Ginsburg even as ballots in the presidential election are already being cast. Yet it is Biden who is facing questions.
“What makes this so especially bizarre,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson in her newsletter, Letters from an American, “is that it is Republicans, not Democrats, who have made the courts the centerpiece of their agenda and have packed them with judges who adhere to an extremist ideology.”
Once Barrett has been confirmed, and there is little doubt about that, Trump will have named three of the nine justices under the most undemocratic, unrepresentative circumstances imaginable.
As we all know, Trump lost the popular vote to Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton by 48% to 46%, a margin of more than 2.8 million. What’s less well known is that Republican senators represent fewer people than Democratic senators even though they hold the majority.
During the 2017-’08 session, for instance, when Justices Neil Gorsuch and Brett Kavanaugh were confirmed by slim margins, (54-45 and 50-48, respectively), the Senate’s 50 to 52 Republicans (the number changed several times) represented about 44% of the country’s population. Democrats and independents who caucus with them represented 56%. The 53 Republicans who will decide Barrett’s fate represent less than 47% of the country. (Click here for a chart breaking down the numbers. The 2017-’18 figures are based on 50 Republican senators.)
If you’re thinking this is not how we ought to conduct business in a democracy, well, you’re right. And yet there is reason to doubt that modern Republicans even support the idea that the majority ought to rule. Last week, for instance, U.S. Sen. Mike Lee, R-Utah, tweeted a message right out of the authoritarian playbook: “Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity [sic] are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.”
Democracy isn’t the objective; liberty, peace, and prospefity are. We want the human condition to flourish. Rank democracy can thwart that.
And sure enough, new research by psychology professor Bob Altemeyer and Nixon administration alumnus John Dean shows that Trump supporters are increasingly eschewing elections in favor of the strongman system of government, according to The Washington Post. For instance, about half of Trump supporters agreed that “once our government leaders and the authorities condemn the dangerous elements in our society, it will be the duty of every patriotic citizen to help stomp out the rot that is poisoning our country from within.”
Which brings me back to where I started. A president who lost the popular vote will have nominated three Supreme Court justices, confirmed by a Senate controlled by a party that represents millions fewer Americans than the opposition Democrats. Two of those three justices, Gorsuch and Barrett, will owe their presence to Republican norm-shattering. And Republican support for democracy in general appears to be waning.
Given all that, the possibility that Biden may seek to enlarge the size of the court sounds like a good move.
Several years ago I offered a few ideas on how to fix the court — to repair the damage done by McConnell and restore its image as a trusted institution. The court is still in drastic need of fixing. So let me offer a few more — none original with me, but proposals I’ve gleaned following the death of Justice Ginsburg. More than anything, the court has become too important. The following steps would make every vacancy less a matter of life and death than it is now.
First, if Barrett is confirmed, Biden is elected president and the Senate flips to blue, Democrats should expand the court by two members. Some progressives have argued for four new seats, but that would be an overreach. Two new seats would restore the ideological balance of the court that existed before Justice Scalia’s death. Perhaps the number could move back to nine over time.
Second, justices should be subjected to term limits. Eighteen years sounds about right.
Third, each president ought to get the same number of picks per term. Two? If a president is re-elected, then yes, they’d get four picks, which is a lot. But the problem now is that there isn’t enough turnover, and what little there is takes place mainly because of death.
I’ll leave it to better minds than mine to figure out how to square two picks per term with an odd-numbered court of either nine or 11 members.
Our system is profoundly broken. The challenges we face don’t lend themselves to easy solutions. Applying the one-person, one-vote rule that is at the heart of democratic governance, for example, would require major constitutional changes in the form of abolishing the Electoral College and changing the way we choose senators. That’s not going to happen any time soon.
So let’s move beyond the gotcha issue of whether Joe Biden wants to “pack” the Supreme Court. We can reform the court by turning down the temperature and moving it out of its current central role in our political culture. Expanding the size of the court, perhaps temporarily, as well as imposing term limits and guaranteeing a regular rotation of justices, might return us to the days when all but the most extreme nominees were confirmed with consensus support.
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.
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.