Politics, et Cetera

A publication from The Political Forum, LLC

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Tuesday, July 21, 2015

They Said It:

The first rule of life is get out of New Jersey.

–Fran Liebowitz


A fool and his money are soon elected.

–Will Rogers


I am half-way through Genesis and quite appalled by the disgraceful behaviour of all the characters involved, including God.

–J.R. Ackerley.



This week, we are going begin with something a little unusual – a long quote from somebody we think is largely irrelevant on a topic that is even more so, i.e. Al Franken prattling on about the Washington Times.  Here’s the bit, which comes from Franken’s 2003 book, Lies (and the Lying Liars Who Tell Them):

Anyway, I’m doing the White House Photographers Dinner, and I go into my little McCain riff. “Hey, I like John McCain.  And I really think he’s courageous.  I mean, his stance on campaign finance reform and tobacco.  Wow.  That takes guts.  But this whole ‘war hero’ thing—I don’t get it. I mean, as far as I’m concerned, he sat out the war.  I mean, anyone can get captured!  Am I wrong, but isn’t the idea to capture the other guy?”

Big laughs.  It’s called irony, and whatever TV, radio, and print correspondents may say, photographers love irony.

The next day, in the Washington Times, I read a column by John McCaslin.  And he gives me the “Boo of the Week.”

After several mocking references to Jews, Christians, and Christian doctrine, Mr. Franken scoffed at the war-hero credentials of John McCain, who was shot down over North Vietnam, tortured and held in mostly solitary confinement at the notorious hellhole called the Hanoi Hilton for more than five years.

“Anybody could get captured,” Mr. Franken said, and waited in vain for laughs.  But he kept trying:

“Essentially, he sat out the war.”  A few scattered boos.” Well, isn’t the idea to capture the other guys?”

I call McCaslin and get him on the phone.  “That bit killed!  Were you even in the same room?”  I ask indignantly.

“Uh, no,” he says.  Actually, he hadn’t been at the event.

“What?!  Then how could you write that?”

“I didn’t.”  It turned out McCaslin hadn’t even been aware that the “Boo of the Week” had been in his column.  “Wes Pruden probably added it.” . . .

So I sit on it.  Waiting for just the right time to lay open this scandalous breach of journalistic ethics.   And two years later, I get my opportunity.  I’m asked to be the keynote speaker at the American Society of Newspaper Editors.  Maybe, I think, I can get the Washington Times expelled from the association.

But I realize I was relying on just one source: McCaslin.  To be fair, I at least had to check with the editor for his version of the story.  What was his name again?

I call the Washington Times and ask for their managing editor.  I get a guy named Bill Giles.  Giles tells me that there is no way that McCaslin’s story is true.  He’s adamant.  An editor would never insert something into a columnist’s copy without consulting him.  It would be a total violation of every journalistic tenet.

Well, that threw me for a loop.  So I call McCaslin, and he says no, it wasn’t the managing editor who inserted the copy.  It was Wes Pruden, the executive editor.  My next call is to Pruden, who answers his own phone.

I tell him who I am and explain the situation.  And I ask him, “Do you ever insert copy into a column without consulting the columnist?”

A pause.  Then, “Yes, we do that.”

I thank Pruden and call back Giles.  “Yeah, I just talked to Wes Pruden.  And he confirmed McCaslin’s story.  You know that policy you said you had?  Your paper evidently violates it all the time.”

There was silence on the other end of the line.  Then, “Okay. Thanks.  That’s good to know.”

“One other thing,” I say.  “When do you plan to tender your resignation?”

Another beat of silence, then, “Thanks.  Thanks for calling.”

So I went to the dinner, told the group the same story I just told you. There was sort of a collective shrug that said: “Yeah, that’s The Washington Times.”

Most of you, we assume, don’t need us to tell you why all of this matters, especially this week.  Some number of years ago – at least 14 and perhaps many more – Al Franken said something allegedly “ironic” and definitely unkind about John McCain.  The next day, a newspaper reported his comments, and reported them accurately.  Franken – who has a history not only of ad hominem attacks, but of physically threatening those with whom he disagrees – pitched a fit about it and then held a grudge, for at least two years, until he saw a chance to get even, presumably by taking punitive political action against a legitimate newspaper.  And yet, as far as anyone in the “news business” is concerned, the only story here is the Washington Times and its inability to live up to the standards set by the big boys and girls.  “Yeah, that’s the Washington Times.”

There was no condemnation of Franken for his “riff” on McCain (outside of Wes Pruden’s, that is).  There was no insistence that Franken apologize.  There were no calls for Franken to disappear from the public eye.  Indeed, after Franken made the comments about McCain and after they were reported (again, accurately), he was asked to give the keynote address at the American Society of Newspaper Editors.  Moreover, five years after he bragged about the whole thing in his book, Franken actually ran for high political office (or at least the U.S. Senate. . .) and was praised for his candor, his honesty, and his high-larious sense of “irony” by many of the same people who today are screaming that Donald Trump must be swiftly and severely punished for what he said about John McCain.

Now, maybe we’re not as into “irony” as Al Franken is, but we like a good joke.  And so, apparently does Donald Trump, which might explain why he recycled Al Franken’s material – verbatim! – in his crack this past weekend about John McCain.  Franken says it, and nobody bats an eyelash.  That’s just Al!  Let’s make him a Senator!  Trump says it, however, and suddenly there’s no bigger story in American politics.  The media pounce quickly, not only reporting Trump’s comments as earnest and serious attacks on John McCain’s character, but even MISreporting the comments.  Trump’s fellow Republican primary candidates also move with haste, urging him to apologize, to do some self-reflection, and to drop out of the race (natch).  Even the Republican National Committee cannot sit by idly, believing that its “brand” is being tarnished by the Trump brand.  In another delicious bit of “irony,” the party worried about Trump’s impact on its image responds to him with a telling and perfectly fitting statement, declaring, “There is no place in our party or our country for comments that disparage those who have served honorably.”  Shut up, they said.

Before we go on, we want to note a couple of things.  First, as we said two weeks ago, we have no affection for Trump or for his alleged conservatism.  We won’t bore you by remaking the case against him as a serious candidate, but our thoughts on the matter have hardly changed.  Second, we believe that John McCain’s service in Vietnam is beyond reproach.  After all, the guy did five-plus years as a POW, most of which he could have avoided by accepting the Vietnamese offer to send him home early, as the son (and grandson) of an admiral.  We’re no fans of SENATOR John McCain, but that’s not to say that we don’t respect and appreciate LIEUTENANT COMMANDER John McCain, for what he did in Vietnam.

All of that said, it’s important to remember, we think, the context in which Trump attacked McCain, both the specific context and the broader context of the present American political meltdown.

John McCain, you see, has a long and nasty habit of disparaging those who dare disagree with him.  As a Senator and a presidential candidate, McCain has long been dedicated to the principle that the American people need to be protected from themselves and that he alone is qualified to offer this protection.  Moreover, the American people’s refusal to accept his beneficent protection and to thank him wildly for it is, in his mind, proof positive of their need for it.  From Tobacco companies to campaign donors to Tea Partiers, McCain has always been ready to save the American people from their real enemies.

John McCain has also been dedicated over the years to resorting to personal insults and name calling in pursuit of his ends.  Lately, of course, he’s taken up the tried and true totalitarian practice of calling those who disagree with him names that suggest mental instability.  He famously/infamously called his fellow Republican Senators Ted Cruz and Rand Paul and Congressman Justin Amish “wacko birds.”  And he started this particular spat with Donald Trump by suggesting that Trump’s candidacy had “fired up the crazies.”  In Senator McCain’s opinion, then, Republican voters of his home state, Arizona, are “crazy” if they’re upset about illegal immigration.  His party.  His state.  His VOTERS.  But now they’re crazy because they’re upset about conditions on the border.  How’s that for gratitude?

In any case, Trump’s attack on McCain has the entirety of the political class insisting that The Donald’s candidacy is now officially over and that he might as well just go away as quickly as possible, allowing everyone else to get on with the real business of running for president.  Dan Balz, the chief Washington correspondent for the Washington Post – and thus the unofficial herald of the inside-the-Beltway consensus – wrote yesterday that Trump is done and that almost everyone in Washington knows it.  He put it this way:

[T]here is more to becoming president than what Trump has displayed so far, and many Republicans said Sunday that they think his attack on McCain (R-Ariz.) marks a turning point for Trump the politician.

Few would offer their views for the record, owing to their positions working for other candidates or a desire not to put themselves into direct conflict with Trump.  One described Trump’s attack on McCain as “lethal.”  Another said he expects “a complete cratering” of Trump’s support.  Still another predicted that Trump would become “a niche candidate” and a sideshow to the main event. . . .

[E]very candidate who becomes a serious contender for the presidency eventually has to cross a threshold of acceptability with the voters.  That is measured not only in where candidates stand on issues or how authentic they seem, but whether voters conclude they have the temperament, character and judgment to sit in the Oval Office.

That day of reckoning was always coming for Trump if he remained in the thick of the nomination contest, but his remarks on Saturday may have accelerated it.  “The fact that he has no filter is what some voters find appealing, but it’s that lack of a filter that could doom his presidential campaign,” said GOP pollster Neil Newhouse, who is working for the super PAC affiliated with former Florida governor Jeb Bush but offered his comments only on behalf of himself.

You’ll forgive us for questioning the judgment of any political operative who thinks that “temperament” is a critical factor in choosing a president.  As you may recall, temperament was the issue that was supposed to set Barack Obama apart from any other politician of his generation.  Republicans who backed Obama in 2008 – Chris Buckley, Peggy Noonan, and Colin Powell, to name just three – insisted that the guy had a “superior” temperament that would make him the superior president.  And how has that worked out?  As it turns out, though, even without the appeals to temperament, most of the brilliant analysts cited by Balz seem to have both Trump and the phenomenon he represents precisely backward – which, of course, makes perfect sense.

Balz goes on to cite the thoughts of one more political operative, a guy named Steve Schmidt, who railed against Trump and insisted that this fight is one in which the stakes are the very soul of the GOP.  Schmidt said:

What he represents has to be taken seriously.  It has to be confronted seriously.  It’s not just a cancer on the Republican Party and the conservative movement.  It’s a cancer on our politics as a whole. . . . My personal view is that it ought to trigger a fight for the soul and heart of the Republican Party and the conservative movement.

Wow.  That sounds like serious stuff.  The only catch here is the fact that Steve Schmidt ran John McCain’s 2008 presidential campaign, which is to say that he has a dog in this particular fight.  Moreover, Schmidt has spent the preponderance of the last seven years – the years since he took a “sure thing” war hero and led him to ignominious defeat at the hands of a political nobody – obsessing about Sarah Palin and the Republican “asininity” he believes she represents.  All of which is to say that Schmidt may, indeed, be right about the fight for the soul of the party bit.  The problem is that he’s confused about which side of that fight he’s on.

Again, we know it’s cheap and unfair and petty to disparage a bona fide war hero, particularly if, like Trump, you sat out the war with student deferments.  That said, look at what Trump did with this single statement over the weekend:  he mocked John McCain, a Republican “maverick” whom many conservatives already detest; he took the fight to the mainstream media who neither held Al Franken to the same standard nor seem especially interested in John McCain’s repeated smearing of the Republican electorate; and he, once again, made the GOP establishment look like the lap-dogs of the ruling class rather than the leaders of a party comprised of more than one-third of the voters in the country.

Take a look at that again, if you will.  Last month, Trump took on illegal immigration, an issue that no one else in the GOP would dare to touch.  This weekend, he took on John McCain, the media, and the GOP Washington elites, a veritable Who’s Who of the objects of Republican voter/Tea party rage.  Can somebody explain to us again – using short words and speaking very slowly – how this is going to hurt his campaign?

What most of the players in this game seem not to understand, and what a few of those who do understand are trying desperately to ignore is the fact there really is a battle underway for the soul of the GOP.  Scratch that.  Truth be told, the battle is actually bigger than the GOP.  This is a battle for soul of the American political system.  And while Donald Trump may ultimately not be on the right side of this battle, given his statist policy predilections, he is nevertheless fighting the battle right now.  He is drawing attention to the fight.  And above all, he is goring all the proper oxen.

We’ll give Donald Trump this:  he’s not stupid.  He saw an opportunity and he took it.  Anyone who has been paying even the slightest attention to American politics over the last decade or so has to have known that something like this – a populist revolution, of sorts – was coming.  After four years of Bush, eight years of Clinton, and eight more years of Bush – all of which featured various Congressional henchmen exploiting the system for their own personal gain, from Dan Rostenkowski to Dennis Hastert; from Bob Ney to Jack Murtha – by 2008, the people of this country had had enough.  In a very real and tangible way, Barack Obama’s election in 2008 was an early sign of the turmoil to come.  On his way to the White House, Obama defeated two Washington fixtures, one a Senator and former First Lady, and the other a guy who’d been part of the military-political complex his entire life.  The people wanted “change,” and they hoped Obama would provide it.

He didn’t, of course.  And that merely served to stoke the populist fires even hotter.  Then came the Tea Party.  And Ron Paul.  And Rand Paul.  And Ted Cruz.  And now a reality TV star/part-time real estate guy is leading one party’s primary race, while a self-described socialist who was largely unknown outside of his home state until about twenty minutes ago is drawing huge crowds and threatening to make the inevitable nominee in the other party evitable once again.  The voters are mad.  At Washington.  And Donald Trump more than anyone symbolizes that anger.  Or as the inimitable Selena Zito put it in her column over the weekend:

There is a disturbance in American politics.  But no one in the political class seems to be pinpointing the correct source.

Donald Trump gets all of the credit for it from journalists, pundits and academics.  They could not be more wrong.  They are looking only at the surface, seeing the response to his harangues as an affirmation of the man.  If they looked beyond the cartoonish image of Trump, they would understand that the true disturbance is the frustration of Americans, not the bluster of one man.

The same goes for the surge by Sen. Bernie Sanders of Vermont against Hillary Clinton on the Democrats’ side. . . .

Americans are just tired of it all.  Tired of no one speaking honestly to them, tired of being told they cannot speak honestly . . . . This is the tip of the iceberg.  If you are “out here” — outside Washington, outside of the coastal elites — you are overwhelmed by the incompetency; if you are “inside” those, you don’t understand folks’ skepticism about everything related to government, including cutting a deal with Iran.

We’ll just add one thought to Zito’s.  Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders both do, indeed, represent the rebellion of the country class against the ruling class.  But several things are clear from the differences between the Republican and the Democratic primary contests.  The frustration and anger may be palpable on both sides of the ideological aisle, but it is not equal, not in its demands, not in its likelihood of success, and not in its political coherence.

Consider, for example, this past weekend.  When an apology was demanded of Trump – by the ruling class – Trump told ‘em all to go jump in a lake.  He didn’t owe McCain an apology, he said, and he wasn’t going to give one to him.

By contrast, also this past weekend, Martin O’Malley – whoever that is – was giving his presidential primary stump speech to the activists at the annual left-wing Netroots Nation convention.  When confronted by protestors chanting that “black lives matter,” O’Malley responded by saying, “Black lives matter.  White lives matter.  ALL lives matter.”  Now, not only was he roundly booed for that answer, he actually apologized for having said it.

All of this, we think, tells us something very important.  At this point in the upheaval, leftist populism is angry and ideological, but it is also politically incoherent and politically impotent.  In terms of policy, what does the “Black Lives Matter” crowd want?  As we’ve said before, they want nothing, really, except to rage.  Their actual policy demands are in part superficial and in part impossible.  The things that might actually make a difference, they can’t have.  And the things that they can have won’t make a difference.  And so they rage.  Note that it was the populist crowd that booed O’Malley and demanded an apology, while it was the establishment crowd that demanded an apology from Trump, while the populists continue to buoy him.

At the same time, there is no real, politically viable entity that can represent the leftist populists.  Bernie Sanders represents their rage, alright.  But Bernie Sanders is a sad populist on two counts.  First, he’s not likely ever to have much impact electorally.  And second, even if he did, he is, in substance, not much different from HillaryClintonBarackObama.  The entirety of the Democratic Party is, more or less, wedded to a creed that has been preached interminably for most of the past five decades.  The policy proposals from the campaigns are all the same – and they’re all old and pale, just like the candidates.  There’s no real populism on the Left.  Or at least there’s no real outlet for populism on the Left.  It’s just the same, old tired ideas packaged up slightly differently depending on the candidate.  The Left’s would-be populist leaders lack both the guts and the imagination to do or think anything different.

One the other side of the aisle, though, the populist anger is far more “mature,” by which we mean that it has grown, been nurtured, has developed and has become more sophisticated, not that it’s less childish (although it is that too).  We have long written in these pages about the importance of the Tea Party movement, both to the GOP and to the country as a whole.  Thanks to the now-six-year-old Tea Party, the populist anger on the Right has both a coherent plan and real political viability.  In her column, Selena Zito wrote that “Donald Trump is going nowhere in this election cycle; neither is Bernie Sanders.”  She’s absolutely right.  The only difference is that when Sanders finally clears out, there will be nothing left, no one to represent the populist desires of the Democratic base.  When Trump clears out, however, at least three candidates – all Senators and all fairly well known as antagonists of the establishment – will remain and will be well poised to harness the populist anger.

Let us put it bluntly:  whether he means to be or not, Donald Trump is a stalking horse for Marco Rubio, Ted Cruz, or Rand Paul.  One of these three will feed off of the energy Trump is producing and will, eventually, learn to control that energy and use to run a serious and forceful primary campaign.  That’s not to say that the candidate will necessarily win the nomination.  At this point, Jeb Bush still has all of the structural advantages.  It is to say, though, that the candidate will emerge as the personification of the populist rage against the political establishment.  And in campaign such as this, when the nation seems least at ease with its political leaders at any time since, probably 1968, that rage may well be enough to topple the establishment entirely.

It is clear, we think, that Ted Cruz, at least, understands this and will spend the next six weeks or more positioning himself to be the politically realistic alternative to Trump.  As for Rubio and Paul, we can’t say exactly what they have or have not yet grasped.  Both of them strike us as more electable, in a contest against Hillary Clinton, than Cruz, but we can’t know that for certain.

In the meantime, Donald Trump has demonstrated political instincts far surpassing those we – or anyone else – believed he had.  Watch his polls this week.  We won’t be surprised one little bit if his numbers don’t tank, the predictions of the experts notwithstanding.  We really won’t even be shocked if his numbers actually rise.  And if they do, it won’t be a case Trump being “immune from the laws of political gravity” as the Post’s Dan Balz put it.  It will, rather, be a case of Trump understanding the rage of the electorate better than the so-called political experts.  The guy knows how to work and how to read a crowd.  What interests us more, though, is which of the GOP’s young guns shares these talents.  We have our suspicions, but only time will tell.

Stay tuned.


Copyright 2015. The Political Forum. 8563 Senedo Road, Mt. Jackson, Virginia 22842, tel. 402-261-3175, fax 402-261-3175. All rights reserved. Information contained herein is based on data obtained from recognized services, issuer reports or communications, or other sources believed to be reliable. However, such information has not been verified by us, and we do not make any representations as to its accuracy or completeness, and we are not responsible for typographical errors. Any statements nonfactual in nature constitute only current opinions which are subject to change without notice.