Political Commentary

Vignettes and Vendettas

Returning home to California from a recent business trip in Pittsburgh, I needed some reading material to keep me occupied for several hours of flying, so I picked up “What Happened,” Hillary Clinton’s election postmortem that had been drawing mixed reviews in the media. I was interested to see whether Clinton could shed any insight into how things went so terribly wrong for a campaign that was supposed to be the surest “sure thing” since the Reagan era.

I managed to consume most of the book as my plane traversed the vast swathes of middle America where Clinton had gotten clobbered, where I grew up and lived most of my life, which many of us white-collar coastal types sneeringly refer to as “flyover country.” (A helpful suggestion: my fellow native Midwesterners don’t like that. Stop it.)

As I plunged deeper and deeper into Clinton’s retelling, it struck me that it neatly mirrored the backward-looking party she recently led: stuck in the past, alternately nursing old grievances and happier times, with no useful answer to the most important question of all: What now?

Before I go too far down that path, I should present some important disclaimers. As my regular readers already know, I am a Democrat. I supported Hillary Clinton, both in the primaries and certainly in the general election. I think she would have been a good president. And frankly, I think she got the shaft, particularly from the national political media, which—as Clinton rightly and quite bitterly notes in her book—focused so much attention on an absolutely stupid story (the ridiculous e-mail kerfuffle) as to drown out all other issues. Nobody in American public life since Richard Nixon has gotten the consistently lousy treatment from the media that Hillary Clinton has received for the last 25 years. The difference is that Nixon earned it.

So know going in that my natural inclination is to be sympathetic to Clinton, a fact which in retrospect may have colored my expectations about how the 2016 election would turn out.

That said, her book disappointed me. Although she paid lip service to taking responsibility for her own mistakes, much of the book was an exercise in settling scores: with Donald Trump, with James Comey, with the media, and even with a few individual members of Congress.

When Clinton wasn’t sniping at those who had wronged her—which, in fairness, was completely understandable given the bad treatment she received from them—she spent much of the rest of the book telling tedious anecdotes. It’s nice that she and her staff celebrated birthdays together, but I didn’t buy her book to read all the details about the candles and the cakes.

Sprinkled in amidst all the touching but boring vignettes were the occasional nuggets of gold. For example, Clinton rightly calls out the national political media for focusing on garbage stories—e-mails and the “horse race”—rather than real issues, which is not a new complaint and is certainly a valid one. For what it’s worth, this columnist was as guilty of focusing on the horse race as anyone else, and I have had my share of disquieting moments when I have pondered whether my rosy predictions might have given some readers the mistaken idea that the election was in the bag. I will say this: her assertions that the media played a role, wittingly or not, in elevating Trump to the presidency have real merit, and her takedown of NBC’s Matt Lauer on that score was almost worth the sale price of the book by itself.

And I really did admire the honesty with which she wrote. Whether you agree or disagree with her statements, it is pretty clear that she wrote what she was really thinking and feeling.

On the whole, however, I thought the book fell short. I got the impression that she was still trying to convince people that she was a “normal” and “likeable” human being, but in relating anecdote after anecdote about all the famous elites she knows, this was a hard sell. It read as if she was still trying to fight against the caricature painted of her by her enemies, and I had to wonder why. At this point, to borrow a phrase she herself famously used, “what difference does it make?”

I suppose the thing that lost me the most was it read very much like a book written by someone who is still running. No, I don’t think Hillary Clinton will seek the presidency again, and I certainly hope she doesn’t after losing a slam-dunk race against the least-qualified, most buffoonish major-party nominee to seek the presidency in the history of the republic. That ship has sailed and I expect she understands that.

But in every story about some particular voter she met on the campaign trail, it struck me over and over again that Clinton, in her book, was still campaigning. Maybe it isn’t a habit that is easily broken, but in those moments, it read like the kind of book that candidates write when they are getting ready to run.

In the end, even with her political career clearly over, the key takeaway from “What Happened” is that Hillary Clinton just can’t stop running—not for president this time, but for understanding and vindication. I suppose that’s fine and well, and given what she’s been through, I don’t begrudge her a bit of self-indulgence and self-care.

But if you are looking for answers about what future candidates, or we as citizens, can do differently, you’ll have to infer them on your own. “What Happened,” as its title would suggest, fights the battles of the past, not the future—much like a Democratic Party that is still tearing itself asunder over whether the “Hillary wing” or the “Bernie wing” should inherit the shattered dreams of the glass ceiling that Clinton ultimately couldn’t break. It may be useful to look back, but only if we can apply the lessons of the past to the challenges of the future. Neither Clinton’s book, nor her party—my party—seem prepared to do that just yet.

On This Labor Day, Let’s Start Respecting Laborers

Since I began writing for the Observer a little over two years ago, I have done very little posting here on my own site. It seemed to me to be superfluous to write here for free when I could get paid for my writing.

However, on occasion, I stumble upon a topic that perhaps is better suited to my blog than for professional publication. And on this Labor Day, I would like to share an experience I had yesterday that seems to be a very appropriate topic for this holiday.

Recently, I moved to a new community in order to be closer to my day job, as my company is moving here in a few weeks, and I wanted to spare myself a dreary 45-minute car commute each way. I have been in the process of getting to know my new neighborhood. Part of that process, naturally, involves finding a good place to get breakfast on a Sunday morning, so I walked over to a little diner not far from my new home and sat at the counter, where a friendly young woman took my order.

The server was engaged in conversation with another customer, a middle-aged, white, male businessman, and she mentioned that when she had left work the previous day, she had forgotten to take her paycheck with her.

The businessman responded: “When you get into the professional world, there is this thing called direct deposit.”

I’m sure he meant nothing untoward by it and was oblivious to the many notions packed into such a statement. For those of us who are tremendously privileged, as he and I are, it is often easy to say things like that without thinking twice about it.

I don’t know the man’s background, but I do know mine. I grew up among union steelworkers, secretaries and servers. And I have never known any of them who are not in “the professional world.” They are engaged in professions for which they get paid; ergo, they are professionals.

But this man’s statement spoke volumes about how those of us in the white-collar world think about those who aren’t. It was dismissive. It carried the idea that if you wait tables, mop floors, drive nails (or paint nails), or do anything that doesn’t involve sitting in an office, you are less than a professional. You are less than.

His statement also carried the weight of the presumption that blue-collar jobs are just a weigh station in life until the “smart ones” find their way into the “professional world.” This is the exact sentiment that fuels opposition to a living minimum wage. “Oh, why should we pay McDonald’s workers $15 an hour? They’re just kids working their way through school.” This, of course, flies in the face of data showing that the average age of a food-service worker is nearly 30 years old.

The young server at the diner yesterday may well be waiting the counter now while she pursues an education that will enable her to enter into a white-collar career. Or she may not. She appeared to be about college age. She almost certainly was not a high-school kid waiting tables on the weekend, because she had an intricate tattoo on her upper arm, and California, like most states, does not allow individuals younger than 18 to be tattooed without parental consent. At any rate, this may or may not be a temporary career endeavor for her. It is possible that she will work this job or another service job for the bulk of her life. And if that is her choice, it deserves better than to be implicitly and thoughtlessly disrespected by someone who looks down his nose at what she does.

A lot has been said and written in recent months about the feeling of alienation that blue-collar people feel in our society. I think that to a great degree, this sentiment has been overused for the purpose of excusing or overlooking the blatant racism and sexism that helped propel Donald Trump to the presidency. That said, the disconnect between the white-collar and blue-collar worlds is palpable, as is the disdain that the former too often holds for the latter.

In America, we too often judge people to be successful based on whether they work with their hands or not. If you’ve gone to college and landed an office job, you are thought to be smart and successful. If not, you are often considered to have failed, or to be stupid. Well let me tell you something: the guy who fixes my car is not stupid. The older woman who cuts my hair has worked hard for years to perfect her craft. The server who keeps multiple orders straight while dealing with her share of difficult customers is quite talented. And the people who build the roads and the bridges and the trains we use to get to our comfortable offices know what they’re doing. They work hard every day to keep this country running. They do vital jobs. But we treat them with tremendous disrespect.

If we want to bridge the chasm between the white-collar world and the much larger blue-collar America—where the overwhelming majority do not earn bachelor’s degrees—it starts with those of us in the white collars respecting every person and every profession equally. If we can’t do that, we shouldn’t be surprised when they manifest their resentment in the most inconvenient places—such as the voting booth.

Responses to New Observer Column

It is my policy to respond to any e-mails I receive through ClistonBrown.com, so long as the e-mails are generally respectful and not threatening. However, I have received such a large volume of e-mail in response to my Observer column of May 31 (“It’s Okay If You’re A Republican“) that I have been unable to respond to each individual note, for which I apologize.

While a fair amount of the e-mails were abusive, and most were in disagreement with my column, I was pleased that so many of them were constructive and clearly written in an honest attempt to engage. If you took the time to write a thoughtful critique and I did not respond, I apologize, and I encourage you to stay in touch in the future.

In the next day or two, I plan to post on this site a general response to the comments I have received via e-mail and Twitter.

Whether you agreed with my latest column or not, thank you for reading and responding.

The Silliest Criticism Ever

Over the last quarter of a century, there have been countless allegations and criticisms hurled at Hillary Clinton. Some of them have had merit. Others have been silly. Not a small number have been outlandish. (“She murdered Vince Foster,” for example.)

But by far the most ridiculous criticism ever leveled at Clinton is that she may, on occasion, have said some nasty things about the women who went to bed with her husband. This bit of foolishness is rearing its head again today, as Donald Trump apologists attempt to draw a parallel between his outrageously sexist and porcine statements, revealed this weekend, and how Bill Clinton has behaved with women over the years. Inevitably, Clinton supporters counter that Bill Clinton, unlike Trump, is not running for office, and that Hillary Clinton is not to blame for his behavior. And Trump’s remaining apologists counter, “Yes, but she degraded the women her husband preyed on.”

First, Bill Clinton didn’t prey on anybody, despite Republicans’ repeated insistence over the years that he somehow tricked or pressured impressionable young women into bed. He committed adultery with consenting adults who, like him, should have known better.

Second, and this is an important point, wouldn’t anybody whose spouse cheated have some negative things to say about the person or people he/she cheated with?

Seriously, if you find yourself criticizing Hillary Clinton for voicing a poor opinion of her husband’s mistresses, do yourself and everyone else a favor and just stop talking. You’re being ridiculous.

The Debates Won’t Make A Nickel’s Worth Of Difference

Don’t be expecting too much from tomorrow’s presidential debate, or any of the debates. We live in a time in which most people already have their minds made up and can’t be swayed by anything. If Donald Trump climbs up on the moderator table, drops his pants and defecates right there, his supporters will cheer.

The country is locked into two ideological camps. People are going to tune in tomorrow night largely to cheer for their side, much like a sports contest. They’ll boo if their candidate gets a tough question, in the same way sports fans boo every call against their own team. Most of the few who don’t tune in to cheer or boo will just be watching to see if a train wreck occurs.

Rah-rahs and gawkers. That’s the American electorate. We have met the enemy, and it is us.

Twittered Out

It would be no exaggeration to say that I owe my position as a columnist with the New York Observer to Twitter. I happened to get into a Tweet-out with an Observer columnist about a year ago, and the editor noticed, took a look at my blog, and offered me the opportunity to write for him—an offer it took me roughly four-tenths of a second to accept.

By that time, I had been an avid Tweeter for some time and was beginning to grow a small following of people who liked my political analysis. I had a strict policy: nothing but political analysis. I soon found other serious political analysts liking and re-Tweeting my tweets, not to mention hundreds of regular Joes and Josephines with an interest in the topic.

Somewhere along the way, I went from learning how to master the medium to being mastered by it. I’m not sure exactly when that happened, but I soon found myself typing anything that I thought was going to get eyeballs, the more outrageous the better. And it worked. I kept getting new followers. It was still a modest following, but one that went up by about 30% in a year’s time.

It became addictive. It was like a sugar rush to throw out the snappy comeback and to get the cascade of likes and retweets. It meant I was finally being noticed; that I had something to say that people wanted to read. It was a giant ego boost to have all these people cheering me on whenever I landed a punch.

I found that I, introvert of introverts, had all kinds of new friends I’d never met. And suddenly, I was sucked in. I found myself compulsively checking my phone to see the latest Tweets. It began to be where I got most of my news and, increasingly, a disturbingly large share of my social interactions—a substitute for the real social interactions I increasingly failed to seek out in a new city.

Somewhere along the line, the line got crossed. It became personal. And I found myself getting into increasingly nasty arguments with trolls. Or was I the troll? I guess that would depend on one’s point of view, wouldn’t it?

The more invested I got in it, the less fun it became and the more it seemed like an unhealthy escape from real life. I began to treat occurrences on Twitter as if they really mattered to me personally. I actually stressed over whether somebody I’d never met, and never would meet, managed to get the better of me in an argument. I guess you could say the people on Twitter did matter and they do matter, because the people I interact with are indeed real people with real lives, but it’s dangerous to forget that you’ve got to live your life where you are. You can’t live it in the Twitterverse, even if it seems like a more interesting world than the one you actually inhabit physically. I began to forget that. Hell, I forgot it entirely.

So here’s the dilemma. How do I pull myself back from this overindulgence in Twitter without cutting off the opportunity to interact, to influence, and most importantly, to market myself as a political analyst and columnist with valuable things to say? How do I keep attracting an audience without overdoing the personal touch?

I guess that’s the trick, isn’t it? Maybe one day I’ll discover the answer.

Don’t Take Ryan’s Pledge At Face Value

Much has been made of House Speaker Paul Ryan’s pledge that he will not accept the Republican presidential nomination if an open convention chooses him this July. We are expected to believe that this mere statement has definitively settled the issue and that there are no circumstances under which the Wisconsin Republican will be the party’s nominee.

Hogwash. Ryan’s statement settled nothing. In fact, his recent behavior — making a highly publicized speech and cutting a web video in which he went out of his way to be statesmanlike — indicates the opposite. These moves give every appearance of Ryan making himself available as an alternative. Even his protestations of disinterest are part of the silly dance expected of candidates.

History shows us that declarative statements are not binding. In 1944, President Franklin D. Roosevelt released an open letter in which he said that if he were a delegate to that year’s Democratic convention, he would vote to renominate his vice president, the ultra-liberal Henry Wallace. Meanwhile, behind the scenes, Roosevelt was actively working with Wallace’s detractors to ensure the nod would go to Senator Harry Truman, who succeeded Roosevelt as president when FDR died months later.

Politicians lie about their intentions all the time, so why should we automatically believe Ryan?

Oh, but we are told that this pledge is so ironclad that if he broke it, he’d be finished in politics.

Nonsense. There are all kinds of ways to wiggle out of a pledge. Imagine we’re going on the third or fourth ballot at a chaotic GOP convention, and Ryan says this:

“As I have repeatedly said, I did not want the nomination. But many leaders in our party who I respect greatly have told me that I am the only person who can unite our party and lead us to victory in the fall. I cannot in good conscience refuse this call, and so it is with great personal reluctance that I have decided to accept my party’s nomination for president of the United States.”

There. It almost sounds noble, doesn’t it?

Never take any politician at face value if he or she disclaims any interest whatsoever in being president. If the nomination is gift-wrapped and handed to Ryan on a platter, he’ll take it, just the same way he took the speakership he said he had absolutely no interest whatsoever in taking. Don’t be naive. Ryan’s past pledge meant nothing, so why is this one guaranteed to be for real?

Cleaning Up Other People’s Messes

I live in an apartment complex in a town of about 75,000 people, right across the street from San Francisco Bay. It’s a nice place to live, and the scenery is astonishingly beautiful.

We have two shared laundry units in the complex, and this morning, when I went down to move some laundry from the washers to the dryers, I saw that somebody had left a mess of powdered laundry detergent all over the floor.

My initial reaction was to get upset with whoever had been so irresponsible as to leave such a mess for someone else to clean up. Aren’t we all taught, at some point in our lives, that if you make a mess, you should clean it up yourself?

Then I turned my thoughts to more practical considerations. It was only 9:30, and the complex office doesn’t open until 11, so it wasn’t going to get cleaned up anytime soon. And sometimes, when I am moving the laundry from the washers to the dryers, I inadvertently drop an occasional item on the floor. I realized that the only way this situation was going to get any better, for me or for anyone using the laundry room for the next couple hours, was if I went back to my apartment, grabbed a broom and dustpan, and cleaned the mess up myself.

Was it fair, or right, that I had to clean up somebody else’s mess so that I wouldn’t have to deal with it? No. It wasn’t fair, and it wasn’t right. But I realized I could either complain about somebody else shirking his or her responsibility, and still have the powder all over the floor, or I could clean it up myself. Those were the only options.

And then I thought about this situation as a metaphor for community and country, and I thought about all the homeless people I see on the streets of San Francisco five days a week when I commute to and from the city. No doubt many of these people are just unlucky, and no doubt many of them have issues they can’t cope with. And certainly, there must be some among them who are just too lazy to take care of themselves. No doubt, there are those among them who were shipped here from Nevada, where state budget decisions have led to a phenomenon called “Greyhound Therapy.” No, this doesn’t mean giving the mentally ill kindly service animals for their benefit. It refers to putting mental patients on a bus and shipping them off to San Francisco, where some might find help, but others inevitably end up on the streets. In the latter two cases, we have examples of people refusing to clean up their own messes.

And many of us see these people and see “lazy, irresponsible drunks/drug addicts,” and gripe about how they need to take responsibility for themselves. Maybe there are some who could or should. But in the meantime, while we complain, they continue to be in the streets, and this is bad for everybody—both for them and for the rest of us. While we bitch and moan about the “takers,” we also abdicate responsibility for our communities.

It doesn’t have to be that way. We can make a better society, if we are willing to get past what’s “fair” or “right” and just see a problem and take steps to solve it.

And it doesn’t have to be partisan either. The state of Utah, dominated by the Republican Party for generations, has all but ended chronic homelessness by essentially giving housing to the chronically homeless, no questions asked. By so doing, the state has saved itself many of the myriad costs associated with homelessness.

Sometimes, the only way to improve your own life, your relationships, your community, your society, your country, is to recognize that being part of a community—part of being alive and connected to other human beings—means that sometimes you’re going to have to clean up other people’s messes. To do otherwise is to cut off your nose to spite your face.

So let’s all pick up that broom and get to work.

President Obama Should Nominate Elizabeth Warren

We know, of course, that the Republican majority in the United States Senate is not going to approve any candidate President Obama nominates to the Supreme Court. With the death of Antonin Scalia, the conservatives have lost their 5-4 majority on the court and whoever is chosen to replace him will tip the balance. The Republicans would far rather take their chances on the coming election and wait it out in the hopes that they’ll be able to appoint another conservative in January 2017.

Of course, Twitter is abuzz today with all of the potential “blue state” Republicans and halfway reasonable GOP Senators who might be persuaded to join Democrats in approving a nominee, but this is a fantasy. These theories all leave out the facts that there will never be enough aisle-crossers to break a filibuster (which would require any nominee to get 14 Republican votes, not four), or that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) does not even have to call a vote.

So clearly this isn’t going to happen. The next president and the next Senate will select Scalia’s replacement, period.

With this understanding, President Obama and the Democrats should be thinking about how to gain the maximum political benefit from Republican intransigence. And the way to do that is to nominate Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) to fill the vacancy.

There is no question of Warren’s qualifications. The former Harvard Law professor has impeccable credentials, so Republicans could not claim she is unqualified. It would therefore become clear, if it wasn’t already, that they were blocking her for strictly political reasons, and this would diminish their standing with the few true swing voters.

But there are greater political benefits to be had. First, a Warren nomination would provide a jolt of energy to progressives who adore her, which could be crucial in terms of base turnout in the upcoming election. Secondly, nominating a fourth woman to the court would reiterate that Democrats are the party of equality.

Both Hillary Clinton and Bernie Sanders could take this ball and run with it, hammering the Republicans for blocking an eminently qualified (progressive, female) nominee. Meanwhile, the president can also exploit this situation to hammer the Republicans every day.

There is no need to worry about who would replace Warren in the Senate because, as noted above, there is no chance in hell the Republicans will approve her (or anybody) between now and the next presidential inauguration. So if the Republicans want to play hardball, the Democrats have a great way to win the war by losing the battle.

Supreme Court Becomes Top Issue In Election

The death of Justice Antonin Scalia has added a major new dimension to the 2016 elections, as what was previously theoretical is now an undisputed fact: the next president of the United States, and the Senate sworn in the first week of January 2017, will determine whether the Supreme Court will have a liberal or conservative majority. Scalia’s death leaves the court with four liberals and four conservatives, so the next justice will become the swing vote.

Of course, it must be immediately understood that the current Republican-controlled Senate will not approve any appointee that President Barack Obama nominates. With Republicans holding a 54-46 majority, the president would have to get four Republican Senators to support his nominee, with Vice President Joe Biden breaking the tie. While there may be a slight possibility of getting four Republicans, there is no chance whatsoever that the president would get the 14 Republican Senators he would need to break a filibuster. It probably won’t even come to that. It is doubtful that Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Kentucky) would even allow a nomination to come to the floor.

It is not difficult to predict how this issue will play out over the course of the election. Senators Ted Cruz (R-Texas) and Marco Rubio (R-Florida) will angle for votes by promising to filibuster any candidate the president nominates for the remainder of his term. They will also use this opening to undermine Republican presidential frontrunner Donald Trump by telling conservatives that they can’t trust Trump to appoint a “true conservative” to fill Scalia’s vacated seat. All the other Republican candidates will also promise to appoint a “strict, constitutional conservative,” but Cruz and Rubio, the only Senators in the field, will have the advantage here, and they’ll milk it for all it’s worth.

The Democratic presidential contenders will both stress to their bases the opportunity inherent in this situation to change the composition of the court away from its longtime conservative majority. Hillary Clinton will hammer home to the Democratic base the idea that she is more electable than Bernie Sanders and that it is crucial to nominate the candidate with the best chance to win the election, in order to ensure a liberal majority on the court. Sanders will cast this as an opportunity to bring about revolutionary change and may well float the idea of appointing Senator Elizabeth Warren (D-Massachusetts) to the court.

President Obama will likely hammer the Republican Senate at every opportunity between now and the election for refusing to act on his nominee or nominees and leaving a Supreme Court seat vacant for a year or more for political reasons. All candidates of both parties will stress the need for their party to control the Senate in 2017. With Senate control up for grabs this year, this will be a key point of emphasis.

This election just got ratcheted up to Defcon 1.