Trump was losing bigly even before COVID, economic collapse and BLM protests

Trump’s FiveThirtyEight approval/disapproval ratings.

According to a number of recent national polls, Joe Biden has moved out to a sizable lead over President Trump — so sizable that, if the election were held now, Biden would probably win the presidency by a substantial margin, since his lead is large enough to overcome Trump’s structural advantage in the Electoral College.

What I want to address here is the assumption some observers are making that Biden wouldn’t be ahead by nearly as much (or even at all) if it weren’t for COVID-19, the resultant economic catastrophe and the Black Lives Matter protests.

Yes, those would be huge challenges for any president. But with COVID, in particular, a compassionate, reasonably competent response wouldn’t have necessarily hurt Trump and might have even helped him. Look at Massachusetts Gov. Charlie Baker, who continues to receive high marks for his response to the pandemic, according to a new Suffolk University poll.

Likewise, the reason that the Black Lives Matter protests represent such an existential threat to Trump is that he’s a stone-cold racist who’s responded by advocating violence and embracing Confederate symbols — and no one outside his base wants to hear that anymore.

The reality is that any president’s re-election campaign is a referendum on the incumbent. And Trump has been historically unpopular from his first days in office. Biden’s lead merely tracks Trump’s approval/disapproval rating. It’s currently at 41% approve/55% disapprove, according to the FiveThirtyEight averages, and that’s right in line with most of his presidency.

Biden may be uninspiring to many, but he’s a consensus figure who’s bound to attract nearly all of the voters who disapprove of Trump. It’s not like anyone is going to hold their nose and vote for Trump because Biden scares them. If you look at the FiveThirtyEight graph, you’ll see that Biden would have been far ahead of Trump at almost any point in the past three and a half years.

The triple threat of COVID, the economy and protests against racism have made Trump’s re-election that much harder. But the dynamic is the same as it ever was.

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With Biden pulling ahead, the media must avoid the poll-driven mistakes of 2016

Jill and Joe Biden in Des Moines last Fourth of July. Photo (cc) 2019 by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

From the moment that former Vice President Joe Biden emerged as the presumptive Democratic nominee, political observers have been proceeding on the assumption that this year’s presidential election will be close.

But what if the dynamics are changing? What if President Donald Trump — behind in the polls even before the COVID-19 pandemic and falling further behind now — is written off as a political goner? Can the media handle it? Or will we see a repeat of 2016, when Hillary Clinton was subjected to a disproportionate amount of negative scrutiny on the grounds that Trump, as we all thought we knew, had no chance of winning?

First, let me lay out the evidence that Trump is starting to look unelectable — keeping in mind, of course, that he looked unelectable four years ago, too. Then I’ll loop back to what the media’s role ought to be in a campaign in which one candidate seems like the all-but-certain winner.

From the moment he took the oath of office, Trump has been a historically unpopular president. According to FiveThirtyEight’s polling average as of Monday, 42.7% approve of his job performance and 53.5% disapprove. That’s in line with his numbers for most of his presidency, and it represents a dip from the rally-round-the-flag bump he got after he belatedly started to address the pandemic.

Moreover, there were indications even before the pandemic that Trump would lose his re-election bid by a wide margin. For instance, in the very first sentence of his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party,” the political scientist Andrew Hacker of Queens College asserts: “There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term.”

Although Hacker’s argument is backed up with a considerable amount of data, it essentially comes down to this: The blue wave that enabled the Democrats to take back the House in 2018 is almost certain to be followed by an even bigger blue wave in 2020, overwhelming any attempts at voter suppression or Electoral College math that would otherwise favor Trump.

Trump’s prospects have only deteriorated in the face of his cruel and incompetent response to COVID. Oxford Economics, which has a solid track record of calling presidential races dating back to 1948, is currently predicting that Trump will receive only 35% of the popular vote and lose the Electoral College by a margin of 328 to 210. The RealClearPolitics polling average as of Monday showed Biden ahead by more than 5 points and leading in battleground states such as Wisconsin, Pennsylvania and Florida.

So, good news for Biden, right? Not necessarily. Because if it looks like a Biden blowout, he may be held to a different, higher standard than Trump.

We all remember what happened in 2016. Clinton’s relatively minor shortcomings over issues like her speech transcripts and, oh yes, her emails were covered as though they were the equivalent of Trump’s stream of racist outbursts, revelations about his corrupt foundation and his boasts, caught on tape, that he had sexually assaulted women.

In his definitive study of how the media performed during the 2016 campaign, the political scientist Thomas E. Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School wrote that “indiscriminate criticism has the effect of blurring important distinctions. Were the allegations surrounding Clinton of the same order of magnitude as those surrounding Trump? It’s a question that journalists made no serious effort to answer during the 2016 campaign. They reported all the ugly stuff they could find, and left it to the voters to decide what to make of it.”

(Incidentally, Patterson has a new book out called “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?” Spoiler alert: He thinks the answer is “yes.”)

Unfortunately, we may be seeing the same thing happen again. Yes, the media showed some restraint in covering Tara Reade’s allegations of sexual assault against Biden, with Politico and the PBS NewsHour doing an especially good job of reporting problems with her credibility. But the smear lingers — despite Biden’s denial, and despite the 25 women who’ve accused Trump of similar and worse misconduct.

The media have risen to the bait regarding Trump’s claims that there was something called an “Obamagate” scandal in 2016. Although Trump hasn’t bothered to flesh it out, it appears to be based on his fury that his campaign’s well-documented ties to Russian interests (see thisthis and this) were the subject of an FBI investigation.

“It’s becoming clear that journalists never fully reckoned with the mistakes of 2016 campaign coverage,” wrote Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan recently. “We know this because they seem poised to repeat them.”

And look at what happened over the weekend. Biden had to apologize for joking with the African American radio host Charlamagne Tha God that “you ain’t black” if he was still trying to decide between him and Trump.

Trump, meanwhile, went off on a sociopathic bender, retweeting attacks on Hillary Clinton (a “skank”), House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (a drunk), Democratic vice-presidential hopeful Stacey Abrams (she’s fat) and repeating his nauseating and utterly false innuendo that MSNBC host Joe Scarborough murdered a female staff member when he was a congressman in 2001.

Guess which story got more attention? To be fair, the press did take note that Trump went golfing and made no mention of the COVID pandemic as the U.S. death toll neared 100,000. But by every indication, it seems that Biden is going to be held to a more stringent standard — and his lead in the polls may have something to do with it.

What would better coverage look like?

First, the media should ignore the polls — not all the time, but most of the time. And they certainly shouldn’t decide who deserves the hairy eyeball on the basis of who’s ahead and who’s behind.

Second, the political press should report on what really matters. Gaffes, of which Biden will make plenty, are worth a tweet, maybe. Phony scandals ginned up by an increasingly desperate president and his supporters should get less than that.

Instead, the press should focus on offering an honest, fair-minded appraisal of the candidates’ character, leadership abilities and experience. And that coverage should look the same no matter who’s ahead or by how much.

Because we all know that regardless of what the polls and the models say, either candidate could win.

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Conspiracy Nation: Why Trump Jr.’s smear of Biden was even worse than it seemed

WGBH News illustration by Emily Judem.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a shockingly offensive message on Instagram claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden is a child molester. Next to an image of Biden appeared the words “See you later, alligator!” Below was a photo of an alligator with the retort “In a while, pedophile!” (No, I won’t link to it.)

Outrage came swiftly. “The dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker — so far — of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden,” wrote Chris Cillizza at CNN.com. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times called it “an incendiary and baseless charge.” In The Guardian, Martin Pengelly said “most observers” (was that qualifier really necessary?) regarded it as “beyond the pale even in America’s toxic political climate.”

What few analysts noticed, though, was that Trump Jr.’s vile accusation, which he later claimed was a joke, lined up perfectly with a conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Bubbling out of the darkest corners of the internet, the theory claims, in broad strokes, that President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy a plot led by the Clintons — but of course! — and other Democrats who engage in child abuse and cannibalism. And in order to defeat these malign forces we must heed the cryptic messages of Q, an insider who is helping Trump rout the forces of evil and save the world.

QAnon, in effect, is the ur-theory connecting everything from Pizzagate to paranoia about the “deep state” to regarding impeachment as a “hoax,” as Trump has put it. The Trumps have dabbled in QAnon from time to time as a way of signaling their most wild-eyed supporters that they’re on board. But there’s no exaggerating how dangerous all of this is.

We are living, unfortunately, in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Some, like Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, claim that mass shootings are actually carried out by “crisis actors” in order to give the government a rationale to seize everyone’s guns. Then there’s the anti-vaccine movement, currently standing in the way of any rational response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, a widely watched video called “Plandemic” falsely claims, among other things, that face masks make you sick and that people who’ve had flu shots are more likely to get COVID.

There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, just as there’s nothing new about so-called fake news. Never mind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the subject of a new, weirdly compelling 17-minute song-poem by Bob Dylan called “Murder Most Foul.” A century earlier, there were those who blamed (take your pick) Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Pope Pius IX for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.

But conspiracy theorizing in the 21st century is supercharged by the internet, with a significant assist from Trump. Trump has indulged not just QAnon but also Alex Jones, the anti-vaxxers and all manner of foolishness about the deep state — the belief that the U.S. government is run by a shadowy cabal of bureaucrats and military officials who are seeking to undermine the president. At its heart, that’s what Trump seems to be referring to when he tweets about “Obamagate!,” a scandalous crime lacking both a scandal and a crime. And let’s not forget that Trump began his political career with a conspiracy theory that he made his own: falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible to serve as president.

In recent days, the media have converged in an attempt to explain and debunk these various conspiracy theories. Last week, public radio’s “On the Media” devoted a segment to QAnon and “Plandemic.” The investigative website ProPublica has published a guide on how to reason with believers. The American Press Institute has offered tips for reporters. The Conversation, which brings academic research to a wider public, has posted an article headlined “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.”

By far the most ambitious journalistic effort is a special project published by The Atlantic called “Shadowland.” And the heart of it is a nearly 10,000-word article by the executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, profiling the QAnon phenomenon and how it has infected thousands of ordinary people.

“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” LaFrance writes. “But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”

What makes QAnon, “Plandemic” and other conspiracies so powerful is that believers have an explanation for every countervailing truth. Experts and others in a position of authority are automatically cast as part of the conspiracy, whether you’re talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.

“For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it,” LaFrance writes. This type of belief system is sometimes referred to as “epistemic closure” — the idea is that believers live in a self-contained bubble that explains everything and that can’t be penetrated by contrary facts.

What can the media do in the face of such intense beliefs? In all likelihood, the answer is: not much. There is a school of thought among some press critics that if only news organizations would push harder, prevaricate less and devote themselves more fully to truth-telling rather than to reporting “both sides,” then a new dawn of rationality would surely follow. But that fundamentally misunderstands the problem, because the mainstream, reality-based media are regarded as part of the conspiracy. Journalism is grounded in the Enlightenment values that LaFrance invokes — the expectation that false beliefs will give way when confronted by facts and truth. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today.

It should be noted that after Donald Trump Jr. posted his hideous attack on Joe Biden, Instagram neither deleted his post nor took down his account. Instagram, as you probably know, is owned by Facebook and is thus firmly ensconced within the Zuckerborg, which wants us all to believe that it is so very much concerned about truth and hate speech.

Thus does such garbage become normalized. You see a reference to Biden as a pedophile, and it seems off the wall. But then you remember he’s apologized for being handsy with women. And wasn’t he accused of sexual assault? And now look — there’s something on the internet about Democrats and pedophilia. Gosh, how are we supposed to know what to think?

Welcome to our nightmare.

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In a new book, political scientist Andrew Hacker argues that Trump can’t win

Nearly every poll says the same thing: Joe Biden is beating Donald Trump nationally, but it’s closer in the swing states, and by no means should we rule out a second term for Trump. For those of us who believe Trump represents an existential threat, it’s a nerve-wracking prospect, conjuring up nightmares from 2016 all over again.

But not to worry, writes Andrew Hacker in his new book, “Downfall: The Demise of a President and His Party.” Hacker, a political scientist based at Queens College who’s best known for his book “Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal,” argues that 2016 was a fluke that won’t be repeated. He opens thusly:

There is not even a long-odds chance that Donald Trump will gain a second term. Nor is this wishful thinking. Compelling evidence abounds that anyone the Democrats nominate will win the popular vote, and by a margin to easily carry the Electoral College. Republicans down the ballot will suffer a similar demise, losing even more House seats, and very likely the Senate.

Among other things, Hacker argues that Hillary Clinton was a uniquely unappealing candidate who combined arrogance with a sense of entitlement (I don’t agree, but I know plenty of people who do); that massive Democratic turnout in the 2018 midterm elections foreshadows a blue wave this November; and that the electorate continues to favor the Democrats demographically as it becomes less white, less straight and better educated.

Hacker wrote “Downfall” before the Democrats had settled on Biden as their presumptive nominee and before anyone had heard of COVID-19. It remains to be seen whether Biden was the best choice to do battle with Trump. But polling shows that the president’s cruel and incompetent response to the pandemic is harming whatever chances he had of being re-elected.

The argument that Hacker offers is in line with that of Rachel Bitecofer, a political scientist based at the Niskanen Center, a Washington think tank. Bitecofer made a splash earlier this year with a new election model that said Trump has virtually no chance of winning, mainly because unusually high Democratic turnout this fall is assured.

“In the polarized era, the outcome isn’t really about the candidates,” Bitecofer was quoted as saying in Politico Magazine. “What matters is what percentage of the electorate is Republican and Republican leaners, and what percentage is Democratic and Democratic leaners, and how they get activated.”

Another political scientist, Thomas Patterson of the Harvard Kennedy School, argues in a new book that the Republican Party has guaranteed its demise by moving to the extreme right, by ignoring demographic trends, by taking dictation from right-wing media, by showering tax cuts upon the wealthy, and by disregarding democratic norms such as voting rights, through which “it has made lasting enemies and created instruments of power that can be used against it.”

In so doing, Patterson writes in “Is the Republican Party Destroying Itself?,” the GOP has abdicated its role as the necessary center-right counterbalance to the center-left Democrats.

All of this is encouraging if you want to see Trump leave office next January. And the data suggesting that he’ll lose is compelling. But we’ve all been here before, haven’t we? Patterson, after all, is also the author of the definitive analysis of how media malpractice contributed to Trump’s election four years ago — and, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan laments, here we go again. So let’s see how it plays out.

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Follow the money

Two in-depth reports Friday rendered what was left of Tara Reade’s credibility in tatters.

The more important was a story by the PBS NewsHour. Lisa Desjardins and Daniel Bush interviewed 74 former Joe Biden staff members, 62 of them women. And though they said Biden sometimes had trouble keeping his hands to himself (something Biden acknowledged and apologized for last year), they emphatically denied that they’d ever heard of him engaging in sexual assault.

“The people who spoke to the NewsHour,” they wrote, “described largely positive and gratifying experiences working for Biden, painting a portrait of someone who was ahead of his time in empowering women in the workplace.”

Crucially, an on-the-record source told them that there were problems with Reade’s job performance that may have led to her termination. And the place where the alleged assault took place was entirely out in the open, making it nearly impossible for Biden to have done what she claims without being seen.

Also Friday, Natasha Korecki reported for Politico that Reade has spent much of her adult life as a grifter, lying and cheating people out of money — but never, in the recollection of the people she interviewed, saying anything negative about Biden.

“Over the past decade,” Korecki wrote, “Reade has left a trail of aggrieved acquaintances in California’s Central Coast region who say they remember two things about her — she spoke favorably about her time working for Biden, and she left them feeling duped.”

In the weeks after I wrote about the Reade case for WGBH News, I’ve gone from thinking there was a reasonable chance that she was telling the truth to now believing it’s highly likely that she made the whole thing up.

But why? Could it have something to do with her weird praise for Russian President Vladimir Putin? What should we make of the fact that her lawyer, who’s representing her for free, is a Trump donor? Or the fact that another lawyer who’s acted on her behalf has ties to Russian propaganda operations?

Ultimately Reade’s story can’t be definitively proven or disproven, but the media have done a good job of laying out the facts and showing how far-fetched it is. Now we need to know who, if anyone, was behind what appears to be a classic political dirty trick. Keep digging.

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Why Michelle Obama would not be a good choice as Joe Biden’s running mate

Photo (cc) 2016 by Gage Skidmore

A Michelle Obama for vice president boomlet is now under way. This would be a very bad idea. Joe Biden is 77, and, if he’s elected, there’s a good chance that his running mate will become president before his first term is up. Obama has no relevant experience beyond being a former first lady. You can be sure that would be used against her during the campaign. And let’s not forget that Obama has said over and over that she has no intention of ever seeking political office.

I actually think Obama would make a decent president because, like most normal people, she has the humility to know what she doesn’t know. She’s wicked smart, and she would almost certainly choose good advisers and listen to them. One of those advisers, obviously, would be Barack Obama. So a Michelle Obama presidency would probably work out OK.

But for Biden to choose someone with no history in elected or appointed government office would be a political disaster. He’s promised to pick a woman, and I think he ought to choose a woman of color. Kamala Harris would be an excellent choice, though there are others, too.

Maybe putting Michelle Obama on the ticket would turn out to be a stroke of genius. She’s popular and likable. But choosing her would be wildly unconventional, and there’s too much at stake to take that kind of chance.

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An allegation of sexual assault against Joe Biden presents a challenge to the media

Joe Biden campaigning in Des Moines earlier this year. Photo (cc) 2020 by Phil Roeder.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

When a woman accuses a presidential candidate of sexual assault, her allegations deserve to be treated as something more than a political problem.

And so it is with Tara Reade, a former Senate staff member who claims that Joe Biden assaulted her in 1993. So let me stipulate up front that Reade may be telling the truth in saying that Biden stuck his hand up her skirt and penetrated her while she was pinned against a wall in a Senate office building.

There are problems with her account, which I’ll get to in a bit. But there are inevitably going to be problems with an alleged incident that took place 27 years ago. That doesn’t mean she’s making it up. It does mean that her accusation is unproven — and, in all likelihood, unprovable.

Given all that, it makes sense to examine how Tara Reade’s story made the leap from the backwaters of political chatter into the mainstream media — as it did over the past few days, as The New York TimesThe Washington PostThe Associated Press and others all published detailed articles following her decision last week to file a complaint with the D.C. police.

Reade first made her allegations in late March, as WGBH News’ “Beat the Press” noted on April 3. At the time, the question was why the media were staying away from it. One likely answer: With COVID-19 smothering all other news stories, there just wasn’t the bandwidth to take on anything else.

But there was another possibility: Responsible news outlets wanted to take the time to investigate Reade’s claims thoroughly before publishing such incendiary news. The Times’ description of the lengths it went to is worth considering in full, as it shows how a first-class news organization goes about its business in a media world otherwise drowning in tweets, he-said/she-said stenography and cable-news speculation.

“Soon after Ms. Reade made the new allegation, in a podcast interview released on March 25, The Times began reporting on her account and seeking corroboration through interviews, documents and other sources,” according to the story. “The Times interviewed Ms. Reade on multiple days over hours, as well as those she told about Mr. Biden’s behavior and other friends. The Times has also interviewed lawyers who spoke to Ms. Reade about her allegation; nearly two dozen people who worked with Mr. Biden during the early 1990s, including many who worked with Ms. Reade; and the other seven women who criticized Mr. Biden last year, to discuss their experiences with him.”

The Post and The AP both reported taking similar steps before publishing.

Now, there are some problems with Reade’s claims, as all three articles point out. For one thing, she told a different story just a year ago when she was one of several women who talked about Biden’s habit of engaging in inappropriate but non-sexual touching. For another, although there is some evidence that she told others Biden had sexually assaulted her at the time it supposedly happened, that evidence is less than compelling — again, as might be expected in trying to reconstruct what took place between two people many years after the fact. Biden’s campaign has staunchly denied it happened, no other women have come forward, and the allegations don’t seem to fit what we know about him. Another complicating factor is Reade’s odd admiration at one time for Russian president Vladimir Putin.

To repeat: None of this disproves Reade’s claims. But in the absence of any evidence beyond what she is saying, it makes sense for news organizations to sift through what she has said previously as well as what others are saying.

So where does this leave the media? It’s clear that the Trump campaign will use Reade’s allegations to try to neutralize Democratic attacks on the president’s long, sordid, well-documented record of sexual assault against numerous women — a record that includes an ongoing civil case charging him with rape.

If Reade’s claims are proven to be true, they still fall far short of President Trump’s grotesque misconduct. Still, the story makes it harder for Biden and the Democrats to take the high road. Donald Trump Jr. can hardly contain his glee.

As with so many other issues involving coverage of Trump, the challenge for the media is to continue reporting on the allegations against Biden thoroughly and fairly without devolving into false equivalence. Tara Reade deserves to be treated with respect, and her allegations need to be taken seriously. But Trump’s record of sexual misconduct is much worse than Biden’s and must be seen in that perspective.

The outcome of the November election will almost certainly turn on other matters, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the economy and Trump’s conduct and misconduct during his chaotic presidency. If no new evidence emerges and if no other women step forward, Reade is likely to recede into the background. Her story will continue to resonate on Fox News, OAN and other media outposts within Trumpland, but that’s not going to change the outcome of the election.

Still, if this proves to be the beginning of something bigger, Democrats may regret settling on Biden as early as they did.

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My half-hearted argument in favor of The New York Times’ double endorsement

I’m not going to try to defend The New York Times’ decision to punt and endorse two Democratic candidates for president.

In watching the endorsement process play out Sunday night on “The Weekly,” it seemed to me that the editorial board members’ main goal was to stop the frontrunner, Joe Biden, whom they see as too old and too vague. By endorsing both Elizabeth Warren and Amy Klobuchar, the Times diluted the boost it might have given to Warren, who is — along with Bernie Sanders — the strongest challenger to Biden.

But if you read the entire 3,400-word editorial, you’ll find a semi-respectable argument for the double endorsement at the very end:

There will be those dissatisfied that this page is not throwing its weight behind a single candidate, favoring centrists or progressives. But it’s a fight the party itself has been itching to have since Mrs. Clinton’s defeat in 2016, and one that should be played out in the public arena and in the privacy of the voting booth. That’s the very purpose of primaries, to test-market strategies and ideas that can galvanize and inspire the country.

Essentially the Times sees itself as endorsing candidates in two separate Democratic primaries — the progressive primary and the moderate primary. Seen in this light, the Times is hoping ahead of the Feb. 3 Iowa caucuses to give a boost to Warren against Sanders and to Klobuchar against Biden and Pete Buttigieg. That makes some sense, though I still think a single endorsement would have been better. Still, if the two-primaries argument had been stated more explicitly, in the lead, the Times could have spared itself some of the head-scratching and mockery it’s being subjected to today.

As for “The Weekly,” I found the hour fascinating, with the participants — led by deputy editorial-page editor Katie Kingsbury, subbing for James Bennet, whose brother Michael is (believe it or not) a presidential candidate — coming across as thoughtful and serious. I saw some Twitter chatter suggesting that the participants seemed elitist and out of touch, but that strikes me as an inevitable consequence of the the setting and the process. How could it be otherwise?

And let’s give the Times credit for dragging the traditionally secretive endorsement process out into the open, including transcripts of the interviews with each of the candidates.

Let’s just hope the Times restricts itself to one endorsement this fall.

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Pundits wonder if Warren’s good night may have come too late

Elizabeth Warren in April 2019. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Elizabeth Warren rose above her dispute with Bernie Sanders over who said what and offered a powerful argument about gender and politics at Tuesday’s Democratic presidential debate. But it might be too late to matter.

That, at least, appears to be the consensus in my quick scan of political punditry following the final candidates’ forum before the Iowa caucuses on Feb. 3.

The debate probably didn’t shift many votes. As Nate Silver put it at FiveThirtyEight, “it wasn’t a game-changer,” saying that even though Warren won on substance, Joe Biden may have been the overall winner because his front-runner status wasn’t challenged. But for Warren fans who’ve been disheartened by her slide in the polls since last fall, Tuesday was a good moment.

The question of who was telling the truth regarding Warren’s claim that Sanders had told her a woman couldn’t be elected president was left unresolved, and in a particularly unsatisfying manner — which I’ll get to in a bit. First, though, here’s how Warren moved past the he-said/she-said issue.

“So can a woman beat Donald Trump?” asked Warren (transcript). “Look at the men on this stage. Collectively, they have lost 10 elections. The only people on this stage who have won every single election that they’ve been in are the women. The only person on this stage who has beaten an incumbent Republican anytime in the past 30 years is me, and here’s what I know. The real danger that we face as Democrats is picking a candidate who can’t pull our party together or someone who takes for granted big parts of the Democratic constituency.”

Amy Klobuchar chimed in effectively, saying that “every single person that I have beaten, my Republican opponents, have gotten out of politics for good” — although she did have a hold-your-breath moment when she couldn’t summon up the name of Kansas Gov. Laura Kelly.

Warren, by citing her gender as a political strength, Emma Green wrote at The Atlantic, “managed to move the conversation to a new level — past any disagreement with Sanders, past a referendum on what happened to Clinton in 2016, past a debate over how sexist America really is.”

Eugene Robinson of The Washington Post called it “the best line of the night.” Frank Bruni of The New York Times said that Warren and Klobuchar “turned the stubborn, sexist notion that their presence and presidential ambitions were exotic on its head, citing yardsticks by which they were demonstrably superior to their male rivals.” And James Pindell of The Boston Globe pulled up the significant fact that 57% of Iowa caucus-goers are expected to be women.

Now, about the actual exchange between Warren and Sanders, who are vying to emerge as the leading progressive in the race. There is a school of thought, especially among those who support one or the other, that the matter of whether Sanders said what Warren claims is of little account, and that we should move on.

Is it the most pressing issue in the race? Of course not. But Sanders and Warren are each accusing the other of lying, and that’s not nothing. Yet moderator Abby Phillip of CNN bizarrely cut short their exchange and endorsed the idea that it’s Sanders who’s lying and Warren who’s telling the truth.

“So Senator Sanders, I do want to be clear here,” Phillip said after Sanders’ initial denial. “You’re saying that you never told Senator Warren that a woman could not win the election?”

Sanders: “That is correct.”

Phillip: “Senator Warren, what did you think when Senator Sanders told you a woman could not win the election?”

What? I honestly couldn’t tell whether Phillip’s question to Warren was her snarky way of labeling Sanders as a liar or if she was just robotically reading the script. Either way, it was the low moment of the debate. “It was tantamount to calling Sanders a liar,” wrote Tom Jones of Poynter Online. As Jim Geraghty put it at National Review: “The right question in that situation was, ‘Senator Warren, did Senator Sanders just lie?’”

At The Bulwark, Jonathan V. Last saw Phillip’s performance as part of the media’s determination to give Warren a pass on what he argues is her lack of honesty about matters such as her claimed Native American heritage and whether she was fired from a teaching job because she was pregnant.

“CNN has two candidates calling each other plain liars about a factual matter on a story that CNN broke. Yet they didn’t follow up by pressing the candidates to get to the bottom of who was lying on their stage,” Last wrote, adding: “Are you sensing a pattern? It sure looks as if Warren has a habit of making up claims of victimhood to advance her interests. And no debate moderator has pushed her on it.”

Debate moderators have a tough job, of course, but I thought the Tuesday crew fell short in a number of ways. CNN’s Wolf Blitzer started off by essentially demanding to know whether the candidates were tough enough to be commander-in-chief given that the United States and Iran are “on the brink of war.” Blitzer offered no acknowledgment that the crisis was precipitated by President Trump’s reckless actions, backed up by apparently false claims. The question really should have been about judgment rather than toughness — which, in fact, is how the candidates answered it.

Moreover, we didn’t hear a peep from the moderators about the trillions of dollars that have been spent on the endless wars the U.S. has been fighting since 2001 (or 1992, if you prefer), or the cost of the tax cut for the wealthy ($2.3 trillion over 10 years, according to Politico) that still stands as Trump’s sole legislative accomplishment.

Yet when it came time to ask Sanders about the cost of his Medicare for All plan, Phillip didn’t hesitate to put it this way: “How would you keep your plans from bankrupting the country?”

The third moderator, 31-year-old Brianne Pfannenstiel of the Des Moines Register, did a respectable job. Maybe in the future all debate moderators should come from local news organizations.

Three weeks from now, some ballots are finally going to be cast. The contest feels thoroughly nationalized, and the debates are a large part of the reason. Will organizational strength matter? It might, especially in Iowa, where caucus-goers are required to sit for hours and where second and third choices sometimes matter. And then it’s on to New Hampshire.

This is no way to pick a president. For now, though, it’s all we’ve got.

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Cable pundits agree: Tuesday was a big night for Klobuchar and Buttigieg. Will it matter?

Amy Klobuchar earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Gage Skidmore.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Amy Klobuchar was having her moment. The Minnesota senator, an also-ran since entering the presidential race in the middle of a snowstorm last February, turned in her strongest debate performance Tuesday night. And now she was pressing her advantage, appearing on all three cable news outlets to repeat her message that Elizabeth Warren isn’t the only candidate with big ideas. Moderates can have them, too.

“There’s not just one idea out there. There are many,” she said on CNN. Klobuchar offered some pointed criticism of Warren as the night wore on, telling MSNBC’s Chris Hayes, “Her way or no way is how it feels every single time,” and Fox News’ Shannon Bream, “Your idea is not the only idea.”

Following Tuesday’s marathon Democratic debate, I spent an hour — 20 minutes each — with CNN, MSNBC and Fox News to get a feel for the instant take on what had just transpired. What I heard may or may not shape the conversation about the campaign in the days ahead. But the consensus was that Klobuchar and Pete Buttigieg had a good night — and that, given Joe Biden’s continued inability to take charge of the race, one of them may emerge as the moderate challenger to Warren and Bernie Sanders, the leading progressives.

“To the extent that they gain, it could be at Biden’s expense,” Democratic analyst David Axelrod said on CNN. Added his nonpartisan colleague Gloria Borger: “In some ways Buttigieg explains Biden better than Biden explains Biden.”

On MSNBC, the message was the same, with Washington Post political reporter Robert Costa saying there was “a real impression tonight about Mayor Buttigieg trying to compete for that Biden vote.”

On Fox News, Bret Baier showed some clips of Biden’s “word salad” performance and said, “Joe Biden did not have a good night.” If Biden continues to fade, Baier added, Democrats will want to have the option of a moderate like Klobuchar or Buttigieg to go up against Warren or Sanders — who, Baier said (this was Fox, after all), are part of “the progressive far left.”

The big question is whether these predictions of a Klobuchar and/or Buttigieg breakout will become reality, or if they’re wishful thinking. Klobuchar may not even qualify for the next debate. The media thrive on conflict and a simple story line. In the most recent polls, Warren and Biden have established themselves as the front-runners, with Sanders not too far behind. A Biden-versus-Warren race satisfies the media’s desire for a clash between an establishment moderate trying to hang on against an insurgent progressive — but not if Biden can’t hold up his end.

Thus, Tuesday was the best opportunity for the second-tier candidates to emerge, with Klobuchar and Buttigieg making the most of it.

Buttigieg, oddly enough, had his best moment during the debate by going after Beto O’Rourke, who has been a non-factor in the campaign. O’Rourke is pushing a mandatory gun buyback plan that Buttigieg has called unworkable as well as a distraction from more modest measures that might actually get passed.

“Let’s … lead and not be limited by the polls and consultants and focus groups,” O’Rourke told Buttigieg during the debate — which brought a withering retort from Buttigieg.

“I don’t need lessons from you on courage, political or personal,” Buttigieg said, a response that, among other things, was a not-so-subtle reminder of his military service.

During a post-debate appearance on CNN, Chris Cuomo tried to get Buttigieg to expand on his criticism of O’Rourke, but Buttigieg wasn’t going there. Instead, he stuck with his talking points that he is “the best positioned to beat Donald Trump,” and that Democrats win when they embrace generational change.

Klobuchar, on the other hand, was only too happy in her post-debate interviews to keep bashing Warren, for whom she has “a lot of respect.” (But of course!) In her interview with Chris Hayes, Klobuchar cast her own proposals to add a public option to the Affordable Care Act and rein in the pharmaceutical industry as ideas as worthy of discussion as Warren’s embrace of Medicare For All — and, ultimately, more practical. Of Warren’s oft-repeated contention that the moderates aren’t willing to fight, Klobuchar added, “I’ve really had it with that.”

Next it was on to Fox News, where Klobuchar repeated her criticisms in an interview with Shannon Bream. Klobuchar also made a pitch for right-leaning Fox News viewers who would presumably be out of reach for her more progressive adversary.

“There are a lot of moderate Republicans who agree with me,” she said, “and a lot of independents, and even some conservative Republicans.”

Thankfully, Klobuchar left out the right-wing conspiracy theorists who watch Fox’s prime-time lineup every night.

My own take? Warren was not perfect, but she was basically OK. The media are throwing a fit, not because she won’t answer their question about the tax increases that would be needed to pay for Medicare For All, but because she refuses to accept their framing. She’s answered the question: Medicare For All would result in lower overall costs for the middle class. She might be wrong, but you can’t call that an evasion.

Biden was so-so, showing some emotion over the false smears the Trump camp has directed at him and his son Hunter over Hunter’s business interests in Ukraine and China. Biden’s yelling at Warren and waving his hand in her face was, uh, interesting.

And Sanders, two weeks after suffering a heart attack, turned in maybe his best debate performance — making his points with his usual gusto, but also showing a warm and funny side, especially when Cory Booker noted that Sanders is in favor of medical marijuana.

“I’m not on it tonight,” Sanders responded.

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