Trump’s morally repugnant response to the violence in Charlottesville

I’ve been trying to find the right context for President Trump’s repugnant response to the neo-Nazi violence in Charlottesville. To say that he failed the moral test of being president doesn’t quite get at it, because he’s failed every moral test ever put in front of him. But this was by far his most important test, so it’s much worse than his previous failures, even if his actual words were no different from what he’s said and hasn’t said before.

His performance Saturday was deliberate and perverse. The most plausible explanation is that he was consciously, specifically trying not to alienate the ignorant racists and white supremacists who comprise a large part of his base. I’m glad that other Republicans, including Ted Cruz, gave evil its proper name. But will they take action against Trump? Not likely.

Many sides. Many sides.

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Cruz looks like a genius after Trump’s NATO outburst

Ted Cruz earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Nathan Congleton.
Ted Cruz earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Nathan Congleton.

Previously pubished at WGBHNews.org.

There is no one in politics better at playing a bad hand than Ted Cruz. Even before we learned that Donald Trump had given a deeply disturbing interview to the New York Times in which he walked away from our NATO commitments, I thought gettingbooed off the stage was likely to prove a good career move for Cruz. Now he looks like a genius.

We’ve all said this a million times over the past year, but Trump’s remarks about NATO struck me as disqualifying in a way that his previous ill-considered outbursts were not. Republicans may have cringed at his racist, violence-loving rhetoric, but ultimately they don’t care if he’s disparaging Latinos, Muslims, or women. But to undermine NATO—why, that’s the sort of thing they would falsely accuse President Obama of, or Hillary Clinton.

If these people had any principles, Paul Ryan today would endorse Clinton. Mike Pence would quit the ticket. Of course that won’t happen. But conservatives who are not institutionally tied to the Republican Party are going to rage about this for the rest of the campaign. Even before the NATO outburst, for instance, the Washington Post‘s Jennifer Rubin, a hardline conservative, offered some advice to Clinton on how she could win over Republicans. And here is a leader of the anti-Trump conservative movement, former George W. Bush speechwriter David Frum:

There are many lowlights to ponder in the Trump interview, but here’s one that really stuck out:

When the world sees how bad the United States is and we start talking about civil liberties, I don’t think we are a very good messenger.

My God. This is exactly the sort of rhetoric that Republicans have been falsely accusing Democrats of using for years. Obama apologized! And, needless to say, Trump is just plain wrong. We have many faults, because we’re a country and because we’re human. But very few nations are as free as the United States. Trump wouldn’t need to build a wall if so many people weren’t trying to come here.

If you haven’t already, please have a look at Franklin Foer’s recent piece in Slate on the ties between Trump and Russian President Vladimir Putin. Finally, I will close by reprising anti-Trump conservative Tom Nichols’s tweetstorm from two months ago.

Iran, nukes, and fear: A potent op-ed combo platter

Compare and contrast. In the New York Times, Senator Ted Cruz whips up the fear regarding the nuclear deal between the United States and Iran:

The mullahs’ policy is, by their own admission, unchanged. It is the same one that inspired the so-called revolutionaries of 1979 to take 52 Americans as hostages for 444 days, and motivated murderous attacks on Israelis and Americans from Buenos Aires to Beirut to Baghdad over the subsequent decades. The only thing that is changing now is the potential scale of this violence, as they seek to replace truck bombs and roadside explosive devices with the most destructive weapons on the planet and the means to deliver them.

In the Boston Globe, Stephen Kinzer writes that what hardliners in both countries really fear is that the nuclear deal might actually work:

Extremists in the United States and Iran have joined to derail this 10-month-old deal. They share a horror scenario: an Iran that is successfully integrated into the Middle East and the wider world, increasingly free at home and responsible in its neighborhood. Militants in Washington fear that this would give Iran a regional role commensurate with its history, size, and power, while they wish to see it tied down forever. Militants in Tehran fear that cooperating with the outside world will erode their authority and possibly lead to collapse of the Islamic Republic. These are reasonable fears.

Conservative pundits spurn Kasich’s strong performance

John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.
John Kasich in New Hampshire earlier this year. Photo (cc) by Michael Vadon.

Previously published at WGBHNews.org.

Tuesday night’s Republican presidential debate was a useful reminder — as if I needed one — that these events are not being staged for my benefit.

Late in the proceedings, John Kasich put the finishing touches on what I thought was a strong performance by name-checking the conservative Catholic theologian Michael Novak in arguing that the free-enterprise system needs to be “underlaid with values.” No, I haven’t read Novak, but I was intrigued. Earlier, Kasich had what I thought was an effective exchange with Donald Trump over immigration. (The Washington Post has published a transcript here.)

To check in with the conservative media today, though, is to learn that some on the right think Kasich all but disqualified himself.

“Kasich espoused positions that can charitably be called compassionate conservatism, less kindly mini-liberalism of the sort that he says he practiced so successfully in Ohio when ‘people need help,’” writes the economist Irwin M. Stelzer at The Weekly Standard. Adds Paul Mirengoff of Powerline: “John Kasich annoyingly kept demanding speaking time. He used some of it to remind everyone that he’s the least conservative candidate in the field.”

A neutral analyst, Boston Globe political reporter James Pindell, thinks Chris Christie’s strong showing in the unwatched (by me, anyway) undercard makes him a good bet to replace Kasich in future debates. Kasich, Pindell notes, “backed increasing the minimum wage, bailing out big banks, and allowing 11 million illegal immigrants to stay in the country. It is hard to see how many Republicans will go along with the sentiment.”

Clearly Kasich — a top lieutenant in Newt Gingrich’s conservative revolution of the mid-1990s — has been recast as a hopeless RINO. And the notion that he might be the most appealing candidate the Republicans could put up against Hillary Clinton is apparently not nearly as interesting to conservative stalwarts as his heterodox views, summarized by the PBS NewsHour.

As the debate opened, all eyes were on the moderators. Would they manage to avoid the anti-media controversies that befell the CNBC panelists a couple of weeks ago while still managing to maintain a firm hand? My answer is that they partially succeeded. They avoided the snarky, disrespectful tone of the CNBC debate, and the candidates responded with a substantive discussion of the issues.

But on several occasions the panelists were just too soft. One example was Neil Cavuto’s exchange with Ben Carson in which he tried to press Carson on questions that have been raised about his truthfulness. Carson didn’t really answer, and before you knew it he was off and running about Benghazi.

Cavuto’s follow-up: “Thank you, Dr. Carson.”

Then there was the rather amazing question Maria Bartiromo asked Rubio toward the end of the debate, which I thought was well described by Max Fisher of Vox:

https://twitter.com/Max_Fisher/status/664292269554438144

Who won? After each of these encounters, the pundits keep telling us that Rubio is on the move. And yes, the Florida senator has risen in the polls, though he’s still well behind Trump (who informed us that he and Vladimir Putin are “stablemates”) and Carson.

But Rubio’s over-rehearsed demeanor may not wear well. I thought his weakest moment on Tuesday came when Rand Paul challenged him on military spending. The audience liked Rubio’s militaristic response. Paul, though, appeared to be at ease as he offered facts and figures, while Rubio just seemed to be sputtering talking points.

As for Jeb Bush, well, the consensus is that he did better than he had previously, but not enough to make a difference. “He may have stopped the free fall,” writes Jennifer Rubin, The Washington Post’s conservative blogger, “but he was outshone once again by competitors.” The questions about Bush’s continued viabililty will continue.

Carly Fiorina turned in another in a series of strong performances. But they don’t seem to be helping her much in the polls, and there was nothing that happened Tuesday night to make me think that’s going to change.

John Dickerson of Slate, who is also the host of CBS News’ Face the Nation, seems to believe the race will ultimately come down to Rubio’s mainstream conservatism and the much-harder-edged version offered by Ted Cruz, who once again showed he’s a skilled debater.

If that’s the case, let’s get on with it. Tuesday night’s event featured eight candidates — a bit more manageable than the previous three debates, but still too large to sustain a coherent line of thought. (What was that about Michael Novak again, Governor Kasich?)

For that to happen, though, Trump and Carson are going to have to fade. And despite months of predictions (including some by me) that their support would collapse, they remain at the top of the heap. As long as that’s the case, Rubio versus Cruz means precisely nothing.

“The Democrats are laughing,” Cruz said at one point in response to a question about immigration. In fact, the Republicans have given their rivals plenty of comedic material during in 2015. The question is whether that will change in 2016 — or if Hillary Clinton will be laughing all the way to Election Day.

A good night for Bush and a bad one for Trump

I hadn’t expected to watch Thursday night’s Republican debate. But it turned out to be available on my flight to San Fransciso, my credit card was twitching in my hand, and so…

For what it’s worth, I thought Jeb Bush was the winner and Donald Trump the loser. There were three adults on stage: Bush, Chris Christie and John Kasich. Christie positioned himself as a bad man for bad times, ready to cut your Social Security and take away your civil liberties, and that never appeals to voters. He certainly got the better of it stylistically with Rand Paul, but I suspect most Americans like the idea that the government can’t spy on you without a warrant.

Which leaves Bush and Kasich. Both were calm, amiable and, in my view, quite appealing. But Kasich, the governor of Ohio, seemed more like the guy who should be welcoming the candidates to his home state, not an actual candidate. Bush seemed happy to be there and fundamentally optimistic in his outlook. He made no obvious errors. It was the biggest event of the campaign so far, and he did well.

Now I realize that Trump has made a shameful and shameless buffoon of himself on numerous occasions, and his poll numbers have only gone up. But I thought the Fox News moderators did an excellent job of forcing him to talk about the fact that he’s not much of a Republican or a conservative. Not that he cared — he responded to everything with his usual bluster. But that, more than a litany of offensive Trumpisms, is going to take a toll on his campaign. He could run as an independent, of course, but I strongly suspect he’ll be a much-diminished figure six months from now.

The post-debate punditry seemed to focus on Marco Rubio. I agree that he didn’t embarrass himself, but he struck me as stiff and overly prepared in the manner of someone who was a little too young and inexperienced to be up there.

Of the rest, Scott Walker disappeared into a miasma of blandness, Ted Cruz should disappear, Rand Paul failed to meet even the extremely low level of plausibility set by his father (although, as I said, I’m mostly with him on civil liberties and his opposition to foreign intervention) and Ben Carson made me wonder what all the fuss was about two years ago.

And Mike Huckabee is just a hate-mongering disgrace.

A loose, funny and partisan SOTU. But will it matter?

President Obama delivering his State of the Union address.
President Obama delivering the 2014 State of the Union address Tuesday night.

This commentary was published earlier at WGBH News.

President Obama’s fifth State of the Union speech wasn’t his best, but it may have been his most entertaining. Freed from the illusion that Republicans will ever work with him, the president last night was upbeat, funny and slashingly partisan.

He paid tribute to House Speaker John Boehner as “the son of a barkeep,” forcing a pained smile and upraised thumb from his longtime nemesis. He rambled about the glories of Obamacare so that Republicans could be seen sitting on their hands for as long as possible. And, in my favorite moment, he pulled a rhetorical switcheroo that put Republicans in the position of having to applaud gay people if they also wanted to be seen paying tribute to our Olympic athletes.

“We believe in the inherent dignity and equality of every human being, regardless of race or religion, creed or sexual orientation,” Obama said. “And next week the world will see one expression of that commitment when Team USA marches the red, white and blue into the Olympic stadium and brings home the gold.” USA! USA!

It was an interesting gambit — a way for a president whose poll numbers have fallen to show dominance over a group of people who are even less popular than he is. According to the most recent ABC News/Washington Post survey, 49 percent of the public hold a favorable view of Obama and 50 percent hold an unfavorable view — down from the 60-37 spread he enjoyed about this time a year ago. But an ABC/Post poll also found recently that 71 percent of Americans disapprove of how congressional Republicans are doing their jobs, compared to just 25 percent who approve. (Congressional Democrats do only slightly better, but they were not Obama’s target Tuesday night.)

The pundit class, both liberal and conservative, took note of Obama’s loose mood.

“Gone from the speech was what I’d heard in pretty much every other Obama State of the Union, pressing bipartisan cooperation, finding common ground, pushing points of agreement,” wrote Josh Marshall, editor of the left-leaning Talking Points Memo. “There wasn’t a contrary note. It was more just ignoring the whole thing, as though the President were saying, ‘Okay, guys, I get it. You won’t do anything. Okay. Fine.’ Basically, let’s not play that charade anymore.”

Observing the same phenomenon through the other end of the ideological prism was Rich Lowry of the conservative National Review, who put it this way: “If this is the imperial presidency, it wasn’t a very imperial speech. It was small in every way. It wasn’t eloquent and didn’t even seem to try. Instead it was conversational, including a joke about calling your mother.” Added Ron Fournier of the nonpartisan National Journal: “Is that all there is? … It was a good speech about a modest agenda delivered by a diminished leader.”

On the more substantive elements of the State of the Union, media reaction focused mainly on the president’s determination to work around congressional gridlock through the use of executive orders to raise the wages of employees who work for federal contractors and to combat climate change, among other things. On this front there is some confusion. Is it no big deal given that Obama has actually used such orders far less frequently than his predecessors, as Dan Amira of New York magazine has noted? Or has he exceeded his authority by taking bold actions such as rewriting parts of the Affordable Care Act without the necessary congressional approval, as conservatives such as Charles Krauthammer argue?

Leave it to Wall Street Journal columnist Ted Cruz — wait, that Ted Cruz? — to offer a distinctly nuance-free perspective. “Of all the troubling aspects of the Obama presidency,” he wrote, “none is more dangerous than the president’s persistent pattern of lawlessness, his willingness to disregard the written law and instead enforce his own policies via executive fiat.” Expect to hear a lot of that in the days and weeks ahead.

Perhaps the most disheartening aspect of the State of the Union was Obama’s near-silence on gun violence, a year after he tried and failed to push Congress into acting following the school massacre in Newtown, Conn. “Obama devoted a whole 67 words to gun control, offering no specifics in a speech that was stuffed with specifics on other issues,” complained Roger Simon of Politico.

And without question, the most memorable and emotional part of the evening came toward the end, when the president acknowledged Army Ranger Cory Remsburg, recovering from grievous injuries suffered in Afghanistan during his 10th deployment, as described by Ernesto Londoño of The Washington Post. We’ll remember that long after Obama’s words are forgotten.

The immediate reaction to the speech was favorable. According to a CNN/ORC snap poll, 76 percent had either a “very positive” or “somewhat positive” reaction to the State of the Union, and the president got a 17 percent bump — from 52 percent before the speech to 69 percent after — in terms of whether his policies would move the country in the right direction.

But such findings tend to be ephemeral at best. If we know one thing about the Obama era, it’s that the president can give a good speech and that it rarely makes a difference in his ability to move congressional Republicans.

“A man who entered the White House yearning for sweeping achievements finds himself five years later threatening an end run around gridlock on Capitol Hill by using executive orders, essentially acknowledging both the limits of his ability to push an agenda through Congress and the likelihood that future accomplishments would be narrow,” wrote Carl Hulse of The New York Times.

On Twitter, John Robinson, former editor of the News & Record in Greensboro, North Carolina, put it much more succinctly:

Official White House photo by Pete Souza.

Hold the uplift, and make that shower extra hot

9780399161308_custom-4ec8d3a4e862d4dbc42dedad106a97aecb8dda44-s2-c85Earlier this month my wife and I were watching the news when Patrick Leahy came on to talk about something or other — I don’t remember what.

Leahy, 73, has been a Democratic senator from Vermont for nearly four decades. Normally that stirs up feelings that, you know, maybe it’s time for the old man to go back to the dairy farm and watch his grandchildren milk the cows.

But I had been reading Mark Leibovich’s “This Town.” And so I felt a tiny measure of admiration for Leahy stirring up inside me. He hadn’t cashed in. (His net worth — somewhere between $49,000 and $210,000 — makes him among the poorer members of the Senate, according to the Center for Responsive Politics.) He hasn’t become a lobbyist. He apparently intends to die with his boots on.

That amounts to honor of a sort in the vomitrocious Washington that Leibovich describes in revolting detail — a town of sellouts and suckups (“Suckup City” was one of his working titles), a place where the nation’s business isn’t just subordinate to the culture of money and access, but is, at best, an afterthought.

If you plan to review a book, you shouldn’t “read” the audio version. I have no notes, no dog-eared pages to refer to. So consider this not a review so much as a few disjointed impressions of “This Town,” subtitled “Two Parties and a Funeral — Plus, Plenty of Valet Parking! — in America’s Gilded Capital.”

Mark is an old acquaintance. He and I worked together for a couple of years at The Boston Phoenix in the early 1990s before he moved on to the San Jose Mercury News, The Washington Post and, finally, The New York Times. (Other former Phoenicians who’ve reviewed “This Town”: Peter Kadzis in The Providence Phoenix and Marjorie Arons-Barron for her blog.)

There are many good things I could say about Mark and “This Town,” but I’ll start with this: I have never known anyone who worked harder to improve. It was not unusual for me to leave the Phoenix in the evening while Mark was working on an article — and to come back the next morning to find him still at it. The result of all that labor is a finely honed sense of craft that most of us can only aspire to.

As virtually every reviewer has pointed out, “This Town” begins with a masterful description of the funeral service for “Meet the Press” impresario Tim Russert, an ostensibly mournful occasion that provided the media and political classes in Washington with an opportunity to carry out the real business of their community: talking about themselves and checking their place in the pecking order.

There are so many loathsome characters in “This Town” that you’d need an index to keep track of them all. And Leibovich puckishly refused to provide one, though The Washington Post published an unofficial index here. For my money, though, the lowest of the low are former senator Evan Bayh and former congressman Dick Gephardt — Democrats who left office but stayed in Washington to become highly paid lobbyists. Bayh, with his unctuously insincere laments over how broken Washington had become, and Gephardt, who quickly sold out every pro-labor position he had ever held, rise above (or descend below) a common streetwalker like Chris Dodd, who flirted not very convincingly with becoming an entrepreneur before entering the warm embrace of the film industry.

Also: If you have never heard of Tammy Haddad, Leibovich will remove your innocence. You will be sadder but wiser.

Because Mark is such a fine writer, he operates with a scalpel; those of us who have only a baseball bat to work with can only stand back in awe at the way he carves up his subjects. Still, I found myself occasionally wishing he’d grab his bat and do to some of these scum-sucking leeches what David Ortiz did to that dugout phone in Baltimore.

Mike Allen of Politico, for instance, comes off as an oddly sympathetic character despite the damage he and his news organization have done to democracy with their focus on politics as a sport and their elevation of trivia and gossip. (To be sure, Leibovich describes that damage in great detail.) I could be wrong, but it seems to me that that Mark was tougher on Allen in a profile for the Times Magazine a few years ago.

Thus I was immensely pleased to hear Mark (or, rather, narrator Joe Barrett) administer an old-fashioned thrashing to Sidney Blumenthal. It seems that Blumenthal, yet another former Phoenix reporter, had lodged a bogus plagiarism complaint against Mark because Blumenthal had written a play several decades ago called “This Town,” which, inconveniently for Sid Vicious, no one had ever heard of. More, please.

I also found myself wondering what Leibovich makes of the Tea Party and the Republican Party’s ever-rightward drift into crazyland. The Washington of “This Town” is rather familiar, if rarely so-well described. The corruption is all-pervasive and bipartisan, defined by the unlikely (but not really) partnership of the despicable Republican operative Haley Barbour and the equally despicable Democratic fundraiser Terry McAuliffe.

No doubt such relationships remain an important part of Washington. But it seems to me that people like Rand Paul, Ted Cruz and their ilk — for instance, the crazies now talking about impeaching President Obama — don’t really fit into that world. And, increasingly, they’re calling the shots, making the sort of Old Guard Republicans Leibovich writes about (Republicans like John Boehner and Mitch McConnell, for instance) all but irrelevant.

But that’s a quibble, and it would have shifted Mark away from what he does best: writing finely honed character studies of people who have very little character. “This Town” is an excellent book that says much about why we hate Washington — and why we’re right to keep on doing so. Hold the uplift. And make sure the shower you’ll need after reading it is extra hot.