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The Race is On, and Off to a Slow Start

The Democratic party held its first presidential primary debate Wednesday night with ten candidates on the stage, and another ten slated for the stage in tonight’s part two, and another six or so contenders are being left out of the mix. What’s sure to be a prolonged reality show got off to a rather boring start, we thought, but it might gain steam as the contestants begin getting voted off the island.
The debate started off with some embarrassing technical problems from the National Broadcasting Company, and the format that followed was also problematic. Each candidate was given 60 seconds to explain how he or she would solve such complicated problems as climate change and gun violence and a majority-Republican Senate, which is more than we could do even in our very fast-talking high school and college debate days, and they each wound up with less than eight minutes of air time to talk to the Democratic primary electorate. As a result we don’t think anyone clearly lost or won, but that didn’t stop all the pundits from picking winners as losers.
We were most impressed by Ohio Rep. Tim Ryan, who talked about how the Democrats need to regain their former reputation as the party of the working class instead of the Ivy League and Hollywood and certain racial and sexual identity groups, and Minnesota Sen. Amy Klobuchar, who stressed her record of winning in Republican precincts and getting bills passed and signed with bipartisan support, but we’re still registered Republicans and won’t be voting in the Democratic primary. Our many Democratic friends probably saw it differently.
The polls say the front runner of the ten randomly picked candidates who had met the party’s threshold for inclusion in the debates was Massachusetts Sen. Elizabeth Warren, and she didn’t make any glaring mistakes, but neither did she say anything that people will remember when the voting starts in the Iowa caucus some eight months from now. Hawaiian Rep. Tulsi Gabbard and New Jersey Sen. Corey Booker seem to have at least improved their name recognition numbers, judging by the Google search results, along with New York City Mayor Bill DeBlasio and former San Antonio mayor and Housing Secretary Julian Castro, but none of them scored a knockout.
Gabbard is young and surprisingly physically attractive by political standards, and she also has an impressive military record that the aged and ugly and draft-dodging President Donald Trump can’t compete with, but she lost us when she made clear that she was even wimpier than Trump about enforcing a Pax Americana on a question about Afghanistan. Booker seems a bright fellow, but he also seems to exemplify the identity politics that Ryan rightly warned against. The white DeBlasio got a lot of Google searches when he mentioned his black son, but we think he’s been a disastrous mayor of New York City, even if he probably would win New York City and New York state’s votes by a landslide. Castro probably endeared himself to Spanish-speaking Democratic voters with some Spanish lines, and dealt a clear blow to former Texas Rep. Beto O’Rourke’s efforts to court that constituency, but we don’t habla much espanol and weren’t much impressed.
We were slightly surprised that none of the candidates went on at much length about Trump, although it’s a given that none of them like him and it’s pointless to argue about who hates him the most, but we were even more surprised to see that none of them took aim at former Delaware Senator and Vice President Joe Biden, the front runner in all the polls who will hold center stage in tonight’s debate. The other nine candidates who qualified to share the stage with Biden will probably be more critical, but for now the Democrats don’t seem to be forming their usual circular firing squad.
At this point, we’re only hoping our Democratic friends choose the least kooky of their options.

— Bud Norman

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Looking Forward to a Tricky Situation

President Donald Trump said in an impromptu news conference Wednesday night that he was looking forward to testifying under oath to special counsel Robert Mueller about the “Russia thing,” which is a perfect example of why he should be dreading such an ordeal.
Trump added that his eagerness was “subject to my lawyers and all that,” but his lawyers would have advised him not to volunteer for the grilling that they’ve surely been doing their best to avoid. They probably couldn’t find any legal grounds to spare Trump from testifying, and the political consequences for not doing so would be unavoidable in any case, but the self-proclaimed master deal-maker has just robbed his attorneys of whatever leverage they might had to negotiate any limits on the questions that can be asked. There was even talk about limiting the special counsel to written questions, which would have allowed Trump’s lawyers to vet the written answers, but that faint hope has now vanished.
Letting Trump spontaneously answer Mueller’s questions is potentially disastrous, given his well-known penchant for blurting out the most blatant and easily disproved lies, such as he did several times in that impromptu news conference. He also has an unfortunate knack for blurting out damning truths, such as when he disregarded the White House staff’s carefully worded lies about firing Federal Bureau of Investigation director James Comey because he had been so unfair to Democratic presidential nominee Hillary Clinton during the campaign and told the National Broadcasting Company’s Lester Holt that he fired the guy because of the “Russia thing.” Worse yet, Trump also a worrisome cocksureness that he doesn’t need anybody’s advice and can talk himself out of any situation.
Trump has indeed talked himself out of a lot of tricky situations over the years, and he somehow talked himself into the White House, but he’s also wound paying out of many millions of dollars settling race discrimination and divorce and fraud and a wide variety of other lawsuits. The current situation is the trickiest Trump has ever faced, with far greater potential consequences and a far more formidable foe.
All the right-wing talk radio hosts and the rests of Trump’s apologists would have you believe that Mueller and his team of lawyers and investigators are part of a “deep state” conspiracy out to destroy Trump with “fake news,” but even if you believe that you have to believe he is formidable indeed. He’s a life-long Republican and long-married Eagle Scout whose reputation for boring probity was impeccable until recently, after earning a master’s degree he volunteered to the Marines and wound up earning medals for valor a Purple Heart in Vietnam before earning his law degree, and his career in public service saw him rise through the United States Attorney’s Office and the FBI through both Republican and Democrats, culminating in his appointment to FBI director by Republican President George W. Bush and being re-appointed to an unprecedented second term by Democratic President Barack Obama.
The Trump apologists would also have you believe that Mueller’s team of lawyers and investigators are also a bunch of Clinton-loving conspiracists out to get the president for purely partisan reasons, and indeed some of them had contributed to her campaigns, just as Trump’s lawyer and family and Trump himself have done in the past, but they rarely mention that all of the staff have excellent credentials and much success in prosecuting such matters as money-laundering and Russian gangsterism and campaign law violations. The questions Trump will be giving spontaneous answers to will be carefully considered, expertly asked, and backed up by all they’ve learned from subpoenaed documents and the testimony from campaign and administration officials who have already been indicted or pleaded guilty to charges brought by the special counsel.
They won’t be so easily dodged as those less carefully considered and expertly asked questions he’s always getting from those pesky and relatively uninformed reporters, either. The Trump apologists usually respond to the most vexing questions about Trump by changing the subject to something that either Clinton or Obama had done, or ignoring it as “fake news,” or alleging that “deep state” conspiracy, but Trump will have no choice but to offer a real answer when he’s under oath. Taunting nicknames and assurances that “there was no collusion, everybody says so, that I can tell you, believe me” won’t help, either, in response to questions about a specific meeting with a specific person at a specific time.
Based on all the “fake news” stories by relatively uninformed pesky reporters that the White House has had to eventually admit are all too true, we expect some of those very specific questions are going to require a very carefully considered answer. Carefully considered answers aren’t Trump’s style, however, as he prefers to blurt out damnable lies or damning truths.
Our guess is that all the “fake news” outlets and other Trump critics are going to find something damnable or damning in the all-too-real transcripts of the testimony that will eventually be made public, and that the talk radio talkers and the other Trump apologists will dismiss what’s damnable as no big deal and and deny what’s damning as a “deep state” conspiracy. The rest of the country, by our best guess, will be skeptical of everything trump says except for the damning parts.
Which is not to say that Trump won’t eventually talk himself out of this mess. He’s talked and paid himself out of plenty of tricky situations before, and there’s a certain segment of the population that wouldn’t care if he went out and shot someone on New York’s Fifth Avenue, and a lot of the country doesn’t seem care about much anything political these days. No matter how damnable or damning Trump’s testimony under oath might be, we know a lot of people who will still be glad that at least Clinton isn’t the president.
Our old-fashioned Republican souls also shudder at the very thought of another Clinton presidency, but we still don’t think that a sometime Democrat and sometime Reform Party member and relatively recent Republican who is thrice-married and regales a Boy Scout jamboree with tales of orgies on yachts and dodged the draft and devoted his life to a ruthless pursuit of private gain and prides himself on flouting previous standards of probity is going to make America great again. We have no idea how it’s going to turn out, but we do know Trump is facing a more formidable foes than himself ┬áin Mueller and the truth, and it’s a very tricky situation.

— Bud Norman

A Question of Temperament

The Los Angeles Times newspaper and Vanity Fair magazine have both published recent stories that raise credible doubt on President Donald Trump’s temperamental fitness for his job, and the Republican chairman of the Senate intelligence committee has publicly raised the same concerns and insisted that most of his colleagues share them. Even with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down, all the opinion polls show that a majority of the public is also worried that there’s something not quite right about the president.
Of course Trump has counter-punched with “tweets” and defiant statements, as is his wont, but not in a way that will reassure any of those worriers. He’s griped to a pool of reporters that “It’s frankly disgusting the way the press can write anything it wants,” sent “tweets” threatening to revoke a national broadcasting network’s right to air stories he dislikes, and come up with a mocking nickname for that impudent Republican Senator who dare call him childish. He also “tweeted” complaints about Puerto Rico, where the death toll from a recent hurricane now stands at 45 and is climbing due to all the people who still don’t have clean water to drink, and that his generosity to the island’s American citizens won’t last forever. The hard-core fans will surely love it, as they hate the media and longstanding Republican office holders and those ungrateful Puerto Ricans as much as Trump does, but we expect the rest of the country and the rest of the world will see it differently.
Although we’ve long been critics of the media in general and the National Broadcasting Company in particular, all of those “fake news” stories Trump is railing against sound all too believable to us, and regardless of what errors they might contain we we don’t think that the First Amendment right of the press to write whatever they want is frankly disgusting. Until recently we unaware of the existence of Tennessee Sen. Bob Corker, but what we’ve learned since his feud with Trump started suggests he’s mostly our kind of Republican, and Trump calling him “Liddle” Bob Corker doesn’t undercut the Senator’s claim that the White House has lately become an “adult day center.” Trump has also lately been feuding with his Secretary of State, challenging him to an Intelligence Quotient test if the “fake news” that he had called him a “moron” was true, and later told told reporters he “doesn’t like to undercut people,” but unless you’re a die-hard fan that’s not likely reassuring.
Puerto Ricans have made plenty of mistakes that have compounded their recent misfortune, but the federal government has also imposed plenty of mistakes on them as well over the years, and the complicated arrangement with the island and the 50 states obliges us help its still endangered Spanish speaking but fully-American citizens.
Even with the stock market up and the unemployment rate down we expect the national and international worries about Trump’s temperament will continue. There are also worries about the nuclear brinkmanship with North Korea, how all those ongoing feuds with Republicans and Democrats alike will lead to any useful legislation, as well as those nagging investigations into whole “Russia” thing, and it would challenge even the most presidential of temperaments, which really is worrisome unless you’re a die-hard supporter.

— Bud Norman

Your Candidates For Commander-in-Chief, Alas

While President Barack Obama was making another stop on his diplomatic trip to the Far East Wednesday, his would-be successors were appearing on the MSNBC cable network’s “Commander in Chief Forum,” with both spending a half-hour or so answering a series of questions about defense and foreign policy from the National Broadcasting Company’s Matt Lauer and selected members of a an audience comprised mostly of military veterans. None of it, needless to say, was at all reassuring.
A dear friend’s 70th birthday party and a principled lack of cable access kept us from watching the event live, but thanks to the modern miracle of YouTube we were able to watch all the grilling of both Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton and Republican nominee Donald J. Trump, and without commercial interruption at that. We can’t recommend you do, though, as the lack of direct confrontation between the candidates made for rather dreary viewing.
An unfavorable coin toss determined that Clinton would be given the first half-hour, ending that remarkable 6-for-6 coin-flipping streak that helped her win the Iowa caucus, and her bad luck didn’t end there. She had a well-crafted introductory statement about her long experience in foreign affairs as a First Lady and a member of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee and as Secretary of State, and how it has honed her judgment, but that just walked right into Lauer’s first question about that unindexed and yet ongoing e-mail scandal of hers. She had a well-rehearsed answer acknowledging that it had been a mistake to use a private server for many of e-mail communications, insisted she had used only the government server for anything with a “header” indicating it was classified. She clearly hoped that no one would know that much classifiable information was coming to her attention before it could be classified, and that someone with better judgment would have treated it as such, and that there are plenty of other holes in her story. Alas, the next audience member was an Air Force veteran whose work had required security clearances, and who was convinced that he would have been jailed for the actions Clinton has now admitted, so she had to run through yet another variation on the same unconvincing lines.
Lauer then asked about Clinton’s vote as a senator in favor of the Iraq War, which is by now such an unpopular affair that the Republican nominee is bragging that he had always opposed it and that George W. Bush had lied the country into the mess. Clinton once again apologized for the vote, and rightly noted that Trump’s claims to have been opposed all along are completely baseless, then made a plausible argument that her willingness to admit and learn from mistakes has improved her judgment. Although still on the defensive she seemed to be punching back at that point, but the next question was about that awful deal the Obama administration struck with the Iranians on their nuclear weapons programs.
Clinton first noted about how she had worked to impose harsh sanctions on the Iranian government, without acknowledging that the sanctions had begun under the previous administration, then boasted that had succeeded in forcing Iran to the negotiating table. Given the worse-than-Nevill-Chamberlain sort of appeasement that resulted from the negotiations this hardly seems a success, but at least the worst of the deal was finalized by her successor as Secretary of State. She’ll be very tough in enforcing that awful package of appeasement, Clinton assured the audience, and she also talked tough about Iran’s many other outrages, and we had a certain sense that she was trying to put at least some distance between herself and the Obama administration.
There was also talk about the sorry state of the Veterans Administration, which Clinton can’t be readily blamed for and which she seemed plenty outraged about, and when asked to explain her policy toward the Islamic State “as briefly as you can” she sounded very hawkish even as she promised there would be no ground troops in either Iraq or Syria. She also talked about going after Islamic State leader Bagu al-Baghdadi, “just like we did with Osama bin Laden,” reminding the audience of the Obama administration’s biggest hit of the past seven-and-a-half-years, and finished with a vow to be tough on terrorism but making no promises to prevent it altogether.
Even Trump’s most media-averse admirers would be hard pressed to find fault with Lauer’s performance, which kept Clinton on the defensive through most of the interview. A more thorough interrogation about the e-mails would have required the hours that Republican congressional investigations spent on the matter, so we’ll also give Lauer some reluctant credit for compressing it into a few challenges about her most outrageous claims. Even Clinton’s most die-hard detractors would have to admit that she seemed quite feisty in her defense, however, with none of the coughing fits or fatigue or seizures or other afflictions that have lately been talked about all over the internet, and unless you’re already well aware of what she was talking there were no takeaway gaffes. We imagine that her most avid fans were well pleased with the performance, that her most disdainful detractors were not at all swayed, and that anyone in the undecided ranks would be waiting to hear what the Republican might say.
What the Republican had to say was hard to parse, as usual, but so far as we can tell it boiled down to him saying that everything was going to be great with him in charge, believe him. Asked what experiences he had to demonstrate the judgment to run America’s foreign he mentioned his vast business empire, which includes deals in countries overseas, some of which of are really taking advantage of the rest of the United States, believe him, so surely he could tell when it was necessary to put American military lives in harm’s way. He reiterated his lie that he was speaking out against the Iraq War before it was launched, citing an interview in GQ magazine that appeared about a year into the war as proof, and added that the Obama administration’s withdrawal from Iraq was also a “total disaster.” Trump was asked about his well-known propensity to say outrageous things, and his own recent admission that he has occasionally chosen wrong words, and how that might affect his performance as a head of state, and Trump went on about how certain wrong words were needed to defeat all those more qualified Republican candidates that stood in his way to the nomination. He then mentioned his recent trip to Mexico, where he was respectfully greeted with diplomatic protocol and didn’t say anything to get him kicked out, then bragged that the trip had been so successful that some Mexican official who arranged the trip was fired due to the Mexican public’s ensuing outrage over the invitation.
Lauer revived an old Trump quote claiming to know more about the Islamic State than the American military’s generals did, and Trump noted that the generals have no been successful thus far, although he blamed Obama and Secretaries of State Clinton and John Kerry for the failure, and that there might well be an entirely different group of generals he’ll be dealing with that, and that they’ll be the types who won’t have MacArthur and Patton spinning in their graves. He even suggested that his secret plan for defeating the Islamic State will await the 30 days he’s giving the generals to come up with their own plan, and that their might might even be incorporated into his secret plan, but in any case it’s going to be a great plan, believe him.
Whatever that plan might turn out to be, be assured that if it amounts to any military action at all it’s going to include plenty of old-fashioned plunder. Trump has embraced the far-left’s chants about “Bush lied, people died,” but he clearly has no use for that “No blood for oil” slogan, and explained that “I’ve always said we shouldn’t be in there, but if we’re going to get out, take the oil.” At this point Lauer made a rare interruption to ask how that might be accomplished, and Trump acknowledged that some people would be “left behind” to get the job done, and Lauer didn’t ask how many of these people there would be, or how many soldiers and airmen would be needed to protect them, much less the many hundreds of miles of pipelines and supply lines need for the project, not to mention the fallout from the inevitable worldwide outrage over the planet’s mightiest military power claiming waging openly proclaimed wars of plunder.
A woman who was introduced as a Democrat and a graduate of the first West Point class to include women got to ask a question about illegal immigrants being allowed in the military, seeming to favor the idea herself, and she got a big hand for that first woman West Pointer distinction, and with his usual keen sense of the crowd Trump said he would work with that. The next questions were about Russia, though, and not so easily handled.
Whatever concerns the people of Mexico or those unfortunate oil-rich lands currently held by the Islamic State might have about a Trump administration, the future of Russo-American relations look rosy indeed, believe him. Trump once again confidently predicted he would have “a good relationship with Putin, and a very good relationship with Russia,” again promised that “as long as he says good things about me, I’ll say good things about him,” protested an interjection by Lauer about the likelihood that Putin’s government hacked the Democratic National Committee by saying “nobody knows that for a fact,” lamented that Obama and Putin were photographed exchanging icy stares during the Group of 20 summit, and seemed sure he’d get a more respectful Air Force One greeting from the Russians than Obama got from the Chinese. Trump suggested a possible alliance with the Russians against the Islamic State, made no mention of Russia’s aggression in Georgia and the Ukraine and threats against much of the rest of the former Soviet empire, and when asked about such issues he said “it’s possible” that Putin will abandon his revanchist ambitions in the event of a Trump administration.
Trump was also asked about the VA, a problem he also cannot be credibly blamed for and is plenty outraged about, and he offered what seemed a sensible idea of providing vouchers for veterans to seek care in the private sector when waiting lines at the government-run doctor’s office became dangerously long. Clinton had scored some points with the veterans by opposing “privatization,” which according to the polls even scares veterans in this day and age, and we note that Trump took pains to insist his plan wasn’t “privatization.” We’d prefer a capitalist-minded Republican who’d embrace the term and make the compelling case for it, and there’s no better case to be made for it than government-run health care, but these days that’s too much to ask for. One of the last questions was about the large number of sexual-harassment charges being alleged in the military, and Trump was reminded of a “tweet” that read “What did these geniuses think when they put men and women together?,” and he defended it by saying “Many people say that.” He added that it was necessary to keep the military court system, and then later that we need to establish a military court system, and he did come out forthrightly in favor of imposing consequences for sexual assaults.
Lauer’s now being pilloried by the left for failing to press Trump on many of these statements, but from our never-Trump perspective on the right we’ll grudgingly concede that it would have been awful hard to compress all the questions into a mere half-hour. With about two-thirds of Clinton’s interview spent on the defensive we’ll have to kick our feet against the sand and lower our heads and say it seemed fair enough, all in all, and that the candidates had only themselves to blame.
Trump probably came out of it slightly better than even, poll-wise. Trump’s so-loyal-he-could-shoot-someone supporters got the the “take their oil” rhetoric they’ve come to expect, while Trump’s most die-hard opponents will glumly concede that at least he didn’t repeat his talk about the indiscriminate torture of detainees and the killing of their civilian relatives and the neo-con overreach of the past 16 years of American foreign policy, and the sensitive souls of the Huffington Post were even worried that might have seem slightly presidential to those who can’t spare the time to think through the implications of that “take their oil” policy. Most of Trump’s most disdainful opponents won’t bother with that, either, but in any case they’ll not be swayed.
Clinton and Trump will face each other head-to-head later this month, unless Clinton succumbs to fatal illness or Trump finds some scheduling or moderator issue as an excuse to dodge it, depending on which internet rumors you prefer to believer, and that might be more fun. At this point, though, we don’t expect it will be any more reassuring.

— Bud Norman