Another What-If Episode

Many of the old television shows that used to take up far too much of our childhood would occasionally encounter a creative lull about mid-season and resort to the old gimmick of having the characters transported by harp music and a wavy dissolve into some alternate reality. What if the guys at WJM had met the irresistible Mary Richards when they were single, or Felix and Oscar had never met? What if Gilligan or the Skipper had bothered to check the damned weather forecast before that three-hour cruise?
The Republican Party’s reality show of a presidential nomination race was reduced to the same hackneyed formula Thursday night, inviting viewers to imagine the storyline without the love-him-or-hate-him star-of-the-show-as-always Donald J. Trump. Being on the booing-and-hissing side of the divide of the show’s fans, we happily accepted the invitation.
If you’ve been binge-watching the series thus far with the same rapt attention as ourselves, you already know that Trump wrote himself out of the script because the episode was being broadcast by the Fox News Network, which always elicits booing and hissing from the left and is now the hated by the supposed savior of the right because it employs Megyn Kelly, a most comely and seemingly competent broadcast journalist who had the lese majeste in an earlier to episode to ask Trump about his longtime habit of calling her less comely sisters by such names as “‘fat pigs,’ ‘dogs,’ ‘slobs,’ and ‘disgusting animals.'” When Trump responded afterwards that the seemingly calm and undeniably comely Kelly had “blood coming out of her eyes” and “blood coming out of her wherever” it seemed to us to prove her implied point yet nonetheless improved his poll numbers, and viewers will recall it it was one of the highest-rated episodes ever. Trump declined the long-anticipated sequel, with all his fanzines proclaiming it a stroke of tactical genius, and next Monday night’s much-anticipated “Iowa Caucus and Actual Voting” episode might yet prove it so, but we’re hopeful the next episode will reawaken to a different storyline.
Trump might have reasonably calculated that he would be all the more conspicuous by his absence from Thursday night’s episode, but he was only mentioned in passing. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz, the main rival for the love-him-or-hate-him starring role, got some laughs by doing some Don Rickles shtick and saying “that concludes the Trump portion,” and former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, who is the embodiment of the hated “establishment” hovering over the whole series even in the harp-music-and-wavy-dissolve transition to an alternate reality, sounding quite reasonable and even statesmanlike as he noted the higher tone of the proceedings. For the most part, it was pleasantly easy to close one’s eyes and imagine what it would have been like in an “It’s a Wonderful Life” where Donald J. Trump had never been born. All the candidates would still be talking about the unavoidable costs of both illegal and legal immigration to be weighed against their widely doubted benefits, there would still be same unavoidable discussion about Islamic terrorism and all the other international problems the Democrats don’t seem to want to talk about, there would d be the same talk about free markets and individual liberty, only without all the bragging by the front-runner about the politicians he’s bought off and the powers he would seize, the hated “establishment” would still be hated no matter how reasonable and statesmanlike it sounded, and the storyline would still be lively enough to generate some ratings.
Even in the would-be world of Thursday night’s debate there was a love-him-or-hate-him character in Cruz, and although we’re inclined to love him we think he got the worst of his first night in the crossfire. His opening bit about Trump’s tiring insult comic act played well enough, but a later attempt at ironic humor seemed to backfire when the audience didn’t seem to get his joking threat to leave the stage if he got any more tough questions. His reasonable arguments for his consistent resolve on illegal immigration inevitably got bogged down in talk of amendments and parliamentary procedure and all that stuff that even federal neophytes are bogged down with, and his blunt talk about those ridiculous ethanol subsidies that are so beloved in first-in-line Iowa and hated everywhere else probably did him little good in Iowa but boosted him past the absent Trump everywhere else, so some blows were clearly landed. He came off with the requisite ratings-grabbing feistiness, and landed a few blows of his own here and there, but he probably should have more relished the villain’s role.
There were some good lines by the unimportant New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie, the bumptious but establishment guy, and Ohio Gov. John Kasich, the establishment but bumptious guy, and even the loony libertarian Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, and as always we thought retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson was quite good with his brief few lines, and Bush somehow didn’t come across the least bit villainous, but the surprising co-star of the night was Florida Sen. Marco Rubio. Longtime fans of the show know Rubio was the handsome and youthful character who was once the true-blue conservative hero of an earlier season but then fell in with the Gang of Eight who conspired to unleash the immigrant hordes upon America, and has since been on a mission of penance, but he made a good accounting of himself. He swore his newfound toughness and noted the similarly evolving position of the anti-immigrant horde Trump, who bravely chose to not be around to defend himself from the undeniable charge, and he rightly noted that he was at least more anti-immigrant horde than Bush or any of those other guys, and he bogged Cruz down in all that talk of amendments and parliamentary procedure, and he wound up sounding more electable in a general election than the rest of them.
After the next round of harp music and slow dissolves we’ll be back to real world where there really is a Donald J. Trump, and all that entails, and by late Monday night or early Tuesday morning we’ll find out how the story resumes. We’ve also been watching the Democrats’ mini-series, which is weirder yet, and we’re starting to worry that might be the weirdest of these reality shows.

— Bud Norman

A Good Night for Royals and Republicans

Due to our principled refusal to pay for cable television, and the National Broadcasting Company’s refusal to share its cable affiliates’ content over their internet without recompense, despite their constant rants about evil capitalism and corporate greed and the rapacious one percent and all that share-the-wealth drivel, and because every bar television in town was of course showing the Kansas City Royals battling the New York Mets in the second game of the World Series instead, we missed most of Thursday’s Republican presidential debate. The press accounts describe an interesting contest, though, and apparently it was mostly fought between the ten invited candidates and the panel of CNBC moderators.
Although it is our usual style to use the full name of an institution on first reference, no matter how much more familiar the acronym might be, we’ve made an exception here because we have no idea what CNBC stands for and don’t care to look it up. We assume the NBC is National Broadcasting Company, and that the C is for Cable or Communism or the first name of some executive’s mistress. In any case, the company seems to have gotten the worst of it, at least as far as the Republican audience was concerned. Some questions were booed, and all of the inevitable pushback by the candidates played well. Texas Sen. Ted Cruz reportedly started it off with a rant about the obviously pointed nature of the questions that brought sustained applause, and then Florida Sen. Marco Rubio got off a line about the media as the “ultimate Super-Pac” and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie interrupted by the moderator’s interruptions by saying it was rude even by New Jersey standards.
The Republican National Committee chairman “tweeted’ his own indignation about the the questions, but it’s worth noting that he signed off on CNBC and its choice of moderators despite their long records of on-air anti-Republican animus, so we can only hope that he was expecting the field would prevail against the questioners and it was all part of a diabolical plot. Or perhaps he’s prepping the eventual winner for the post-season, to borrow a sports metaphor, and knows that he or she will need to be inured to such biased questioning. It does seem to have been pretty biased, too, with almost every query framed according to such liberal assumptions as the 77 cent pay rate for women or the inevitable failure of tax-cutting as an economic stimulus or the Republicans’ supposed relative tolerance for deficit spending, or clearly intended provoke fights between particular candidates. In a debate ostensibly devoted to economic issues Ben Carson was asked about his past service on the board of a corporation that provided benefits to same-sex couples, with the clear implication that he was therefore a hypocrite for opposing same-sex marriage, and his characteristically soft-spoken but stiff-spinner reaction seems to have won that round as well.
So far as we can tell from the first round of stories, though, neither Carson nor fellow front-runner Donald Trump had the expected starring roles. Most of the pundits declared Cruz and Rubio the big winners, and given their past strong performances we’re not surprised. None of the candidates who most needed a strong performance are getting any rave reviews, except perhaps Christie, who won’t be the nominee, so our guess is that Carson and Trump will remain at the top of the next polls but that Cruz and Rubio will be the ones who still stand a chance despite having previously held elective office. We expect that CNBC’s ratings won’t much improve, either, and the Royals wound up winning convincingly enough to rest the bullpen that had been worn out by the previous game’s 14-inning victory, so all in all we’ll count it a good night.

— Bud Norman

About That Debate

Thanks to the miracle of the internet we were able to see or at least hear almost the entirety of the big Republican presidential debate, either on the Cable News Networks’ spotty web site or a local talk radio station’s somewhat more reliable feed, and we found it most entertaining. Although we’ll leave it to the pollsters to declare who won, our many years in the theater criticism business leave us unable to resist the temptation of writing a review.
Unaccustomed as we are to saying anything nice about CNN, we thought it wasn’t altogether horrible. Moderator Jake Tapper had an annoying habit of interrupting the good stuff about the Obama administration’s failures and indulging all the internecine criticism, and the first-rate conservative radio talker Hugh Hewitt, who has been called “third-rate” by Donald Trump after he flunked the host’s simple quiz about the Middle East’s leadership, only got a couple of questions in, and the time allowed to the overcrowded stage of candidates did seem wildly unequal, but at least there were no out-of-left-field questions about contraception or some other non-issues that were calculated to create a controversy intended to further some Democratic campaign theme. Most of the questions seemed fair enough, and exposed a wider range of opinions than you’ll likely find in the Democratic debates, if they ever get around to having one, and allowed the candidates to demonstrate this is a very deep and talented field that just might include a very good president.
There’s some grousing on the right that the first part of the debate was all about Donald Trump, but at this point there’s no using denying that he’s what the race thus far has been all about, so we see no reason why they shouldn’t get it over with at the beginning. Happily, we can say that Trump didn’t seem to fare well by the attention. He was asked about his habit of making unfavorable and utterly irrelevant comments about peoples’ appearances, and after hearing a disapproving comment by Kentucky Sen. Rand Paul, whom Trump had already stated shouldn’t be on the same stage with him due to his lower poll numbers, Trump snidely responded that “I never attacked him on his looks, and believe me, there’s plenty of subject matter right there.” This followed Paul’s golden opportunity to worry about entrusting America’s nuclear weaponry to someone whose “visceral response is to attack people’s appearance. Short, tall, fat, ugly. My goodness, that happened in junior high.” More formidable candidates such as former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush and current Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker and former computer industry executive Carly Fiorina also responded to Trump’s junior high name-calling with an even more effective dignity, and we saw Trump coming off as a small, petty, obnoxious man. His fans no doubt loved it, and apparently rushed to the Drudge Report to record their cheers, but we don’t expect the upcoming polls will reflect that the rest of the post-junior high country was impressed.
Trump did well with his signature issue of illegal immigration, and of course wasn’t shy to take some well-earned credit for broadening the parameters of that debate, but we thought several of his rivals showed equal passion about the issue even as they proposed more moderate solutions. Unless the the Republicans somehow wind up with Bush or Rubio, which seems unlikely, and the self-described socialist yet tough-on-immigration Vermont Sen. Bernie Sanders winds up with the Democratic nomination, which no longer seems so unlikely, the Republican will be on the popular side of the illegal immigration debate.
Not to say that she was the “winner,” a title that only more scientific polls than the one at Drudge can confer, but we must note that Fiorina is very, very good at this sort of thing. Throughout the proceedings she exhibited an impressive command of the facts and a logical response to them on a wide range of issues, offered a compelling life story of her rise from secretary in a small business to Chief Executive Officer of a leading high-tech company, a convincing account of her firing from that company and the lay-offs it made during a tech-sector downturn, and made a persuasive case that she’s a person whose intellect and character should be taken seriously. Our study of the classical art of rhetoric introduced us to the concepts of logosethos, and pathos, and Fiorina has achieved the trifecta.
She was especially good on her foreign policy, in regards to both Russia’s adventurism in Ukraine and the rest of the old Soviet Union and the even more rapidly deteriorating situation in the Middle East and the increasingly convoluted relationship between the two, and was impressively blunt and specific and  hawkish about the military spending that will be required to achieve it. We were reminded of the late British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher, and we can think of no greater compliment than that. Another high-point of the night was when CNN generously allowed her the opportunity to respond to Trump’s statement about her in an interview with Rolling Stone Magazine, of all people, in which he said of her, “Look at that face. Why would anyone vote for that? Can you imagine that face, the face of our next president? I mean, she’s a woman, and I’m not s’posteda say bad things, but really folks, come on. Are we serious?” The question to Fiorina about it conveniently followed one that had Trump doubling-down on his criticism of a obvious misstatement Bush had made about funding women’s health care during an interview about the narrower issue of Planned Parenthood, and after Bush’s apologies and clarifications Trump sneered “I heard what you said,” so Fiorina siezedthe opportunity to note that everyone in America also heard and fully understood what Trump had said about her. After nearly a full moment of deafening applause, Trump was reduced to his previous explanation that by “face” he meant “persona,” and the apologetic addendum that he he thought she had a “lovely face.” Already Fiorina had come out with a compelling campaign advertisement about her face, boasting that it’s 61-years-old and and that she’s “proud of every year and every wrinkle,” and featuring the faces of other women that Donald Trump wouldn’t treat to shrimp cocktails but otherwise deserve the full respect of anyone aspires to the presidency of the United States, and we don’t expect the insult will reap further rewards for Fiorina. Ordinarily we wouldn’t comment on such matters, but given the latest events in the news we’ll admit that to our 56-year-old eyes the 61-year-old Fiorina and her wizened and dignified persona strike us as quite fetching, even if her happily married status and our old-fashioned standards render that entirely moot, and at the risk of sounding junior high we think that the libidinous Trump and his absurd hairdo should thank his lucky stars that he’s so famously rich.
Another Fiorina triumph came toward the end of the evening, when the moderator asked an admittedly frivolous question about which woman should take the place of Alexander Hamilton on the $10 bill. A couple of the candidates persuasively argued that the former-slave-holding and Indian-oppressing Democratic hero President Andrew Jackson should be nudged aside from the $20 bill to make room for a woman, but all were willing to name some woman another who deserved the honor. Some suggested their wives or mother, others preferred Rosa Parks or Susan B. Anthony or various other politically correct heroines of recent decades, but the only woman on the stage felt free to say that both the $10 and $20 bills should stay the same. She dismissed the issue as mere symbolism and pandering to women as a special interest, when now constitute a majority of the electorate and have the same interest in men in sensible policies and sound leadership, and we note that the supposedly sexist audience at a Republican presidential debate gave her another prolonged applause.
The rest of the cast was pretty good, too, although only to an extent that’s not likely to change those upcoming polls. We though Bush as pretty combative, and New Jersey Gov. Chris Christie seemed to enjoy an outsized role in the production, at which point you can insert your own fat joke, but we’ve never figured either will play any role in the race. Bush has committed to positions on illegal immigration and the Common Core curriculum that the middle-of-the-country Republican electorate will never support, no matter how sincere or well-stated his arguments might be, and being from New Jersey Christie has similar heresies to overcome. Florida Sen. Marco Rubio was strong, but has the same illegal immigration problem as Bush and wasn’t nearly strong enough to overcome it. Former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee was good, as the veteran television presence always is, and we loved his defiance of the same-sex marriage ruling and the rest of his evangelical furor as much as the next Republican, but he doesn’t seem the right guy to deal with that $18 trillion deficit and the steady growth in government, and we don’t expect his performance will move him up in the polls. Ohio Gov. John Kasich, who convincingly claimed that he could deliver his bellwether state to the Republicans, also drifted too far afield from Republican orthodoxy to hope for any improvement in his standing. The other non-politician that has been polling well in this anti-politics year is retired neurosurgeon Ben Carson, whose low-key and soft-spoken and humble persona contrasts nicely with the garish and bombastic and braggadocios Trump, was a little too low-key and soft-spoken and humble to stand out in the debate, and had a few awkward moments explain his past opposition to fighting Al Qaeda in Afghanistan.
We’re still tentatively rooting for Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker, due to the three impressive electoral wins he pulled off while fighting tooth-and-nail against the combined national might of the public sector unions in a most righteous attempt to reform his long misguided state, somehow pulling off the God-given right-to-work in the process, and on the whole we thought he did all right. He didn’t command the stage nearly so much as we might have hoped, and we fear he might have even gone largely unnoticed, but at least there were no memorable gaffes. The somehow anti-establishmrny Texas Sen. Ted Cruz is another candidate we’re liking, and he also did well, but his performance likely did nothing to change his standing.
We also like the performances of former Texas Gov. Rick Perry, who has already dropped out of the race, and whiz-kid Louisiana Gov. Bobby Jindal, who lingers so far back in the polls he was relegated to the not-ready-for-primetime debate, which we admit we did not watch, so that’s how reliable a barometer our opinions are. Still, the evening’s entertainment left us with a hopeful feeling. At some point in the debate the charming Huckabee noted that no one seeking the Republican nomination is a self-described socialist or being investigated by the Federal Bureau of Investigation for using a private e-mail server for official business, and that he would have no hesitancy to to vote any of them against the possible Democratic nominees. This is one of those rare occasions when we agree with Huckabee, although we have to admit there would be some nose-holding involved in at least one case, and again we say that we enjoyed the show.
The Democratic episodes should be entertaining, too, if they ever get around to one. At the moment that Sanders guy seems the craziest of the competitors, and therefore the most likely to win, but Clinton still has all that money, and Vice President Joe Biden could conceivably inherit President Barack Obama’s die-hard fans and simultaneously capitalize on the anti-status quo sentiment that Sanders is currently riding, but we have no idea how that might turn out. If it turns out to be Fiorina and Clinton standing next to another on a debate stage, though, we think Fiorina would romp like that Ronda Rousey in the “mixed martial arts” game taking on Beth Correia.
No votes have yet been cast, and won’t be until next year, which we like to think is still a ways off, so we won’t reach any conclusion except that it was a good show.

— Bud Norman

Our Least Favorite TV Show

Donald Trump’s new reality show is even more annoying than the last one, which you could at least turn off. This time around he’s on all the channels, all the time, and even if you turn off the television altogether and try to escape into the serious news on the internet he’s all over all that as well.
The show is apparently quite popular, judging by the record-setting audience for a way-too-early Republican presidential debate and Trump’s sizable plurality in this silly season of political polling, and it’s not all surprising. Trump’s campaign has all the elements of a hit reality show, with a rude and insulting and self-absorbed main character, plenty of gaudy bling to be vicariously enjoyed, and of course constant conflict. Just like those “Real Housewives” of various places and that “Snooky” person from “Jersey Shore” or the assorted Kardashians and their transgendered celebrity neighbors and the well-toned deviants trying to be the “Survivor” in some hellish jungle or remote island, the more outrageously Trump behaves the greater his popularity becomes. Even his latest celebrity tiff, with Fox News’ appropriately pretty journalist Megyn Kelly, provoked by her tough-but-fair questions during the debates, and followed in the next day’s episode by Trump telling some friendlier journalist that “she had blood coming out of her eyes, blood coming out of her wherever,” seems to have helped his ratings.
This would be just another mildly depressing example of America’s cultural decline, but Trump’s new act is presidential politics, and what makes for a hit reality show is not what is needed to properly govern a great nation. Trump’s most avid admirers believe otherwise, and argue that confrontational trash-talking and a certain boorish forcefulness and nihilistic disregard for any and all conventions will get all those Wall Street conspirators and head-chopping Islamists and job-stealing Chinese and Mexicans in line the same way that all those other reality show stars imposed their will on their weaker co-stars. They’re unable to name any successful leader of a great nation who has acted according to this theory, while we’re able to reel off a number of leaders of failed states who did so, but at this point people are enjoying the show to much to pause for such considerations.
One fellow we know who’s reasonable enough that he’ll eventually make that pause, but in the meantime he’s saying how much he likes that Trump is willing to bluntly express his opinions. We noted that Trump is now bluntly stating many opinions are very different than the ones he was bluntly stating just a year or so, and would likely be bluntly stating a whole new set of opinions should he ever find himself in a position that forced him to confront reality, but the fellow still seemed to relish the bluntness. Another friend already isn’t likely to support Trump, but insists that a record audience for a Republican debate and the rest of the media attention can only help the party. We argue that having so many people cheering for a reality show star’s gratuitous insults and preening braggadocio and utter lack of real solutions to America’s many dire problems, and seeing the very distinguished lot of successful Governors and distinguished Senators who make up the rest of the field being reduced to co-star status, is not likely to enhance the GOP’s image. All of Trump’s apologists mention his willingness to “fight” the media and the party’s leadership, as if sending out schoolyard taunts via “Tweets” and growling like one of those professional wrestlers were akin to actual fighting, but if they were to take stock of the rest of Trump’s co-stars they’d notice that Wisconsin Gov. Scott Walker took on the public sector unions, Texas Sen. Ted Cruz has repeatedly defied his party leadership in a quixotic battle against Obamacare and deficit spending, and pretty much all of them are also pushing back against media bias without resorting to vulgarity.
We take some hope in the fact that it’s still way too early for presidential politics and this is the silly season of polling, and thus far most reality show stars have eventually returned to a well-earned obscurity, but we very eager for Trump to be cancelled.

— Bud Norman

Race and the Race

This column is being written on Martin Luther King Jr. Day, and is therefore racist. That would seem to be the message, at least, of the group in Burlington, Vermont, that protested a bank for being open on the holiday.

Working on Monday wasn’t our only racist act of the week. While attempting to purchase our weekly apres-church donuts at a local Mexican bakery on Sunday we were asked for some spare change by a man who appeared to be African-American, and we obliged him with a couple of quarters. According to one of the talking heads at CNN, who criticized Republican presidential candidate Mitt Romney for giving $50 to an African-American woman who had told him about her recent financial hardships, such largess “only plays into every sort of patronizing stereotype of black people.”

Racism is becoming ever harder to avoid, judging by other stories we’ve encountered in the news. During Monday night’s presidential debate in South Carolina the moderator Juan Williams charged former House Speaker New Gingrich with racism for decrying the record rate of food stamp usage during the Obama administration and suggesting that poor children of all races should be allowed part time jobs. We have never associated food stamps and poverty exclusively with minorities, and apparently our failure to do so is racist.

In case you’ve been wondering why the United States Department of Justice would intentionally allow Mexican drug gangs to purchase hundreds of weapons, at least one of which wound up killing an American law enforcement officer, please be advised that such questions are also racist. Attorney General Eric Holder helpfully explained to the New York Times that congressional critics of the “Fast and Furious” operation are motivated by animus toward him and the president “due to the nature of our relationship and, you know, the fact that we’re both African-American.”

More than three years into the current administration the unemployment rate for black men is 19 percent and the net worth of black households has declined 53 percent, but any suggestion that a change of policies might be called for is also deemed racist by Debbie Wasserman Schultz, the Florida congresswoman who moonlights as the chairwoman of the Democratic National Committee. The Democratic Party remains the “natural home” of minorities, Schultz told Bill Maher’s audience of trained seals, because “Republicans shun them.”

Many Americans seem to be growing weary of such accusations of racism, as evidenced by the lusty booing that Williams provoked the debate audience, but we expect they’ll only become more frequent as we approach Election Day.

— Bud Norman