A year of unimaginable loss

Click here to watch video at WSJ.com

A year ago at this time I was recovering from the worst cold I’d had in years. Later, I thought maybe I’d had COVID-19 without realizing it. But it was impossible. I was with a lot of people. I would have become my very own super-spreader event.

And here we are at 500,000 deaths. On Monday I watched a video of President Biden, Vice President Harris and their spouses paying their respects while a military band played “Amazing Grace.” And, just as I had during the inauguration, I briefly got choked up.

At some point, I’m sure we’ll become accustomed to simple human decency at the White House once again and will start asking questions about Biden’s actual management of the pandemic. But I’m not there yet.

The Washington Post deletes an embarrassing anecdote about Kamala Harris

This should have been caught. The Washington Post recently updated a 2019 story about now-Vice President Kamala Harris and her sister that included an anecdote about Harris laughingly comparing life on the campaign trail to being a prison inmate begging for water. In order to recycle it as part of an inauguration package, that embarrassing detail was eliminated and new information was added.

But the Post didn’t change the URL. As a result, a moment that Harris probably wished would be forgotten was, well, forgotten, as it disappeared down the black hole of the internet.

Eric Boehm of Reason magazine, a libertarian publication, found it, though, and the Post had to backtrack, restoring the original version and republishing the new version with a different URL. New York Times media columnist Ben Smith took note, tweeting, “This is pretty weird.”

Although I don’t think it was a good editorial decision to delete Harris’ tasteless remark in the updated version, that was the Post’s prerogative. But it shouldn’t have required an inquiry from Reason to restore the original. I can understand why it happened — someone wasn’t paying attention to the technical details. But for all the Post’s vaunted technology, you’d think it wouldn’t be that easy to publish a new story using the old URL.

Boehm writes that the “disappearance suggests something about the Post, and about the way traditional political media are preparing to cover Harris now that she’s one heartbeat away from the presidency.” Well, maybe. I hope not. As I said, this sounds like a screw-up rooted more in technology than editing.

There’s also some cosmic connection between the Post’s error of judgment and The Boston Globe’s unveiling its right-to-be-forgotten initiative. Although I think the Globe is doing the right thing, what happened at the Post is a reminder that you have to be careful about rewriting the past.

At last: President Biden and Vice President Harris

That was a deeply moving, even emotional, event. Like many of us, I had waited for this day for four years. We still have a long way to go. But with Joe Biden and Kamala Harris in office, and with the worst president in history now gone, we have a chance at a new beginning.

Georgia signals some hope, but Trump madness remains vigorous

The Proud Boys in Washington last month. Photo (cc) 2020 by Geoff Livingston.

Previously published at GBH News.

And so today, at least for a few hours, we descend once again into the madness.

The past four days have been as dizzying as anything we’ve experienced as a nation, and would be seen as such if we hadn’t been dealing for the past four years with the terrible consequences of electing Donald Trump as president in 2016.

On Sunday, we learned that Trump had tried to muscle Georgia’s top election officials into awarding him the state in his ongoing efforts to overturn the results of the November election — surely an impeachable offense, and most likely a federal and state crime as well.

But life as we have come to know it during the Trump era rolled on. Republicans on Capitol Hill continued with their seditious plot to supersede the Electoral College, a tragicomedy upon which the curtain will rise later today. Thousands of MAGA protesters are arriving in Washington to urge them on. Meanwhile, the COVID pandemic is out of control, the economy remains in shambles and we learned once again that police officers can shoot a Black man in the back without much in the way of consequences.

And yet.

On Tuesday evening, not long after the polls had closed in Georgia, it started becoming clear that we may be in for a period of — what? Not normality. The radical right, as Washington Post media columnist Margaret Sullivan has properly suggested we label the MAGA wing of the Republican Party, won’t allow for that. But relative calm at least.

It may be no exaggeration to say that the outcome of the George Senate runoff elections was as crucial to our survival as a constitutional republic as the outcome of the presidential election two months ago. As of early this morning, the Rev. Raphael Warnock has defeated the Republican incumbent, Kelly Loeffler, for one of the seats, and the other Democratic challenger, Jon Ossoff, appears likely to be declared the winner in his race against Sen. David Perdue.

With Warnock’s and Ossoff’s victories comes control (barely) of the Senate. Though each party will hold 50 seats, the incoming vice president, Kamala Harris, will be able to break tie votes. That would be a big deal in any case, but it looms even larger given the dangerous abyss into which the Republican Party has fallen.

At the liberal website Talking Points Memo, Josh Marshall writes that “it allows Joe Biden to assemble a government. I think people have been underestimating the likelihood that a Republican senate would simply refuse to confirm major Biden appointees, forcing the President to try to wing stuff together with recess and vacancies act appointments that would themselves become tied up in the courts.”

We can’t underestimate what Biden will be up against once he’s sworn in. On Tuesday night I spent about an hour and a half watching Newsmax, which, along with OANN, has stolen a large chunk of the MAGA audience from Fox News because the journalists at Fox have remained at least somewhat tethered to reality.

Not long after the polls closed, Newsmax analyst Mark Halperin (remember him?) said that if the exit polls were “close to accurate,” then the Republicans would win. But an hour or so later, as it started to become clear that Republican turnout in Georgia wasn’t going to be enough to keep Perdue and Loeffler in office, the talking heads started to lay out the case that the results would be illegitimate.

For instance, Dick Morris (remember him?) took solace in figures that showed about 2 million early voters in Georgia had done so in person whereas just 1 million had voted by mail. “It’s a lot easier to fake mail-in voting than in-person voting,” he said, dumping a few buckets of poison into the well.

Another guest, U.S. Rep. Mo Brooks, R-Ala., a leader of today’s rebellion against reality, actually called on the Senate not to seat Warnock and Ossoff even if they won. “It’s one thing for those ballots to be accurately counted; it’s another thing as to whether those ballots are legal,” he said, claiming without any evidence that there were “a massive number of illegal ballots in the system.”

Former Trump aide Sebastian Gorka (remember him?) tied the Senate race and the presidential election together by claiming “election fraud and quote unquote irregularities” and citing disproven allegations of votes being “pulled out from under tables.” Gorka also demonstrated a Trumpian facility for childish insults, calling Ossoff a “milquetoast Beto” and a “Justin Trudreau knockoff” and Warnock an “utter, utter radical.”

We can’t underestimate the effect of all this on the 40% of the public that remains in thrall to Trump and Trumpism. Whereas elite conservatives like Rich Lowry (“Republicans have likely lost control of the Senate, but will have the consolation prize of being able to marinate for hours tomorrow in delusional schemes”) and Tom Nichols (“the majority of the Republican Party and its apologists are advocating for the overthrow of an American election and the continued rule of a sociopathic autocrat”) rage against the president, Trump’s supporters have directed their own rage at the legitimately elected government of the United States.

Or as the pro-Trump conspiracy site Gateway Pundit puts it: “Pray for Vice President Pence to make the correct decision and save our nation from corrupt banana-republic elections that will undoubtedly be our future if this election is allowed to stand.”

Today’s attempted coup will end in failure. According to most reports, there will be more than enough Republican senators who’ll join with their Democratic colleagues to stop the madness. And if that doesn’t work, the Democratic House will put an end to it. But even with Republicans out of power in the House, the Senate and the presidency, we remain in a dangerous moment.

“America is in a precarious spot,” writes Boston College history professor Heather Cox Richardson. “But Americans have finally woken up. Democracy is not a spectator sport, and people are now speaking up, demanding that our leaders listen to us, and insisting that officials as well as ordinary Americans answer to the law.”

Crucial to navigating that future will be the role of the media. New York University journalism professor Jay Rosen argues that much of the press would like nothing better than a return to the good old days — Democrats versus Republicans, balance and a retreat from the activism it embraced during the worst of the Trump presidency.

“Powerful forces favor a restoration,” Rosen writes. “It is by far the most likely outcome. After coping with an avalanche of news, an excess of controversy, and a hate campaign against them for five years, journalists would no doubt welcome a return to regular order, and a more human pace.” He adds: “Trump screwed with the ‘both sides’ system by busting norms and lying all the time, but that has only increased the longing to have the old constructs back.”

In theory, I agree with Rosen that the media can’t go back to the way things were. In practice, I’m not sure what that looks like. Already, I’ve seen pushback against normal journalistic vetting such as Politico’s recent story about the millions of dollars in corporate speaking fees earned by Biden’s choice for treasury secretary, Janet Yellen. I’m sorry, but that’s a perfectly fine story as long as we don’t make too much of it.

What I’d like to see is a refusal to take the Republicans’ bait on phony Democratic scandals (Hunter Biden, anyone?); a willingness to cover the Republicans in good faith when they act in good faith, but an equal willingness to denounce radical measures not based in reality; and an unwavering defense of democracy.

Fourteen more days.

With the outcome out of our hands, this would be a good time to relax — if you can

Photo (cc) 2020 by Adam Schultz/Biden for President

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.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Why I’m optimistic about Election Day — but pessimistic about our nation’s fate

2012 NASA photo via Wikimedia Commons.

Previously published at GBH News.

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.

But the alternative is unthinkable.

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about this post on Facebook.

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

Previously published at GBH News.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Biden delivers with a heartfelt, uplifting speech for the ages

Photo via @joebiden on Instagram.

Joe Biden delivered a fantastic, powerful and uplifting speech. I’m blown away. It was perfectly suited to who he is. He may not be an orator on the level of Barack Obama, but Obama couldn’t have given a speech that was so personal and intimate.

Not only was it the best speech of Biden’s life, but I also thought it was the best speech of the week — outshining some truly terrific moments from both Obamas and from Kamala Harris. I don’t see how the Democrats could possibly have done any better than they did with their virtual convention.

A word we’ve heard a lot this week is “empathy.” I don’t think we’re going to hear it much next week. Or see it, for that matter. Can we finally bring the Trump nightmare to a close?

Talk about this post on Facebook.

Obama brings the heat, and Harris provides the light

I thought former President Obama and Sen. Kamala Harris offered an interesting juxtaposition tonight. Obama’s unsmiling speech was stark — appropriately so, given that we really are in danger of losing our democracy.

That gave Harris the chance to take a contrasting approach and end the night with a heavy dose of inspiration and uplift. And she delivered in the midst of an empty hall. You can only imagine what the reception would have been like if she’d been speaking in a packed convention center.

I also liked her reference to “the beloved community,” a phrase associated with the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. that we hear in our church. It conjured images of a religious left, serving to remind viewers that the right doesn’t have a monopoly on faith.

Talk about this post on Facebook.